MONTREAL NOW: In a Station of the Metro

Pie Neuf Metro. Photo Rachel Levine Metro Sign. Pie Neuf Metro. Photo Rachel Levine

Back in 1910 when the first anthology of Imagist poetry was published, Ezra Pound’s poem of this name appeared, heralding in the Modernist Movement in poetry.  Pound was living in Paris at the time, feeling his exile and alienation, so he wrote a poem about his experience on the Metro that resulted in a poem of two pages, eventually compressed into these two magnificent lines:

            The apparition of these faces in the crowd:

Petals on a wet, black bough.


A tiny poem, but so rich in meaning. First, the juxtaposition of “apparition” (ghost) — an image of lifelessness — with “petals,” the sign of Spring’s arrival.  Then, the Metro of the poem’s title, symbolic of passage, but where does the Metro travel but underground?  Hades, perhaps, if you are a fan of Greek myths, so we are ferried by Charon across the river toward some hell, and the faces in the crowd, faces bereft of life and joy until a petal appears perhaps, an image of a mother  looking lovingly at a child, two lovers oblivious to others in the crowded car locked in their own eternal world, and someone watching this all, eventually transformed.  But enough.  It is not for me to explicate, but to tell.

It is March 21, 2019, the first day of Spring, and I have boarded the crowded Metro at Guy to head home after a day of teaching.  Concordia students have piled on, backpacks pressing for space, their gazes locked onto their cellphones, oblivious to this not undistinguished older man in his Borsellino and Loden coat who is looking around him, trying to mask his terror.  All this because I suffer from claustrophobia, and a crowded Metro is my personal hell.  Surely, some major disaster will unfold, for I am once again tempting fate by travelling during rush hour.  As if in answer to my angst, the driver decides to accelerate like a true Montrealer, then slams on the brakes, sending us crashing into each other as the car comes to a jarring halt at the Atwater station.  People get off, but more pile on, this time a whole contingent of Dawson students going home at the end of the day.  Four of them press against me as the car takes off at breakneck speed for the next stop.  They are screaming at each other loudly and laughing in a mixture of French, English, and what I guess is Tagalog.  One of them, a boy of about 18, is eating from a huge bag of Cheetos.  His lips are covered in orange powder, and half-masticated Cheeto strands hang from his teeth as he bares them in laughter.  I think of Donald Trump, for some reason.  He smells of body odor and processed cheese, and my stomach quickly flips over, so that I swallow back the bile, panicking to exit. 

Finally, we arrive at Lionel Groulx, but it is only a temporary reprieve since I now have to change, and the crowd has swelled considerably.  I briefly consider taking the nearest exit and walking it, though I am more than 5 kilometers from home, or of grabbing a cab. Still, I persist and board the car that glides in smoothly, disgorging its content and accepting us into its gaping maw.  It is one of the new Metro cars and actually has air conditioning.  It also has handles made out of slippery chrome, so that when you hold on and the driver (inevitably) slams on the bakes or accelerates, you slide some meters from one part of the car to another.  Standing a few meters from me is the classic “nutter”.  You know him or her.  Someone who is unstable, is carrying on a profound conversation with an “invisible friend,” and who casts covert glances all around.  Don’t establish eye contact, you tell yourself, praying that he gets off at the next stop, but he doesn’t.  He edges closer, fixing me with beady eyes like some Ancient Mariner.  I am ready to beat my breast in terror.  He looks me full in the face and begins to giggle, the lines of dirt crinkling into bemusement.  I wonder if he is some Angel of Death, an emissary come to tell me this will be my last Metro ride.  I search helplessly for a weapon but find only a ball point pen and a Moleskine notebook in my jacket pocket.  The hazards of the profession.  But he does nothing, finally, and I feel a tiny surge of guilt and think of Pound’s poem, surely the only one in the crowded car to do so.

I think back on another time when I was visiting Washington, D.C. and took their subway from the Mall to the Zoo.  It was a lovely spring day, and the cherry blossoms were just starting to bloom.  The cars were uncrowded, and a warm spring lethargy had overtaken me, making me mellow and gracious.  There were only 10 to 15 of us in the car as it rolled into the next station.  And then, making her way into the car came a Presence.  She was a large black woman, draped in costume jewelry and dressed in a colorful shift with a red kerchief tied around her head.  I thought of the lines from the blues legend, Taj Mahal, that go, “She’s a heavy hipted (sic) Mama with the great big legs/When she moves, she shakes like a soft-boiled egg.” Suddenly, she began to sing in full-throated joy, a song that sounded vaguely French, telling me that she was either of African or Haitian decent. As she sang, she held up a large gold cross and showed it all around, invading the private space of the people in the car.  When she came to me, she fixed me in her fervor and gaze, and I stepped back a bit, but not before smiling helplessly and murmuring: “Vous chantez magnifiquement, Madame.”  She looked at me, startled, and answered me in patois, only half of which I understood.  By this time, she was down on her bended knees, holding up the cross, and holding onto my hand in a vice-like grip.  The car came to a stop, and everyone hastily exited, taking perhaps a last look at us as they scrambled to board another car.

So, now it was just us two left, and she pulled me down so that I was kneeling beside her. She started speaking to me in her rapid dialect, most of which eluded me, and then held up her cross for me to kiss.  When I did not do so, she began another hymn (for I suspect it was that), her rich voice filling the car even over the roar of the motor and the wind.  She smiled at me, urging me to join in for what I assumed was the refrain.  I got as far as singing, “Seigneur Jésu…” until I finally extricated myself from her grip.

My stop finally came around, and I told her gently I had to get off, that I was off to see the baby pandas.  I told her that she had a beautiful voice, that she was beautiful, that we had had a “moment.”  Still on her knees, she smiled up at me and passed her cross in my direction three times in a blessing and supplication, saying:

“Le bon Dieu soit avec vous.”

“Et avec votre esprit,” I answered automatically.

Then, I exited the car and walked out into the loveliness of the day among the trees with their winter-slick branches, now covered again in the petals of early Spring.