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SubStance 30.3 (2001) 64-70

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Subway Poems

Jacques Jouet
Translated by Ian Monk

What is a Subway Poem?

From time to time, I write subway poems. This poem being an example.
Do you want to know what a subway poem consists of? Let's suppose you do. Here, then, is what a subway poem consists of.
A subway poem is a poem composed during a journey in the subway.
There are as many lines in a subway poem as there are stations in your journey, minus one.
The first line is composed mentally between the first two stations of your journey (counting the station you got on at).
It is then written down when the train stops at the second station.
The second line is composed mentally between the second and the third stations of your journey.
It is then written down when the train stops at the third station. And so on.
You must not write anything down when the train is moving.
You must not compose when the train has stopped.
The poem's last line is written down on the platform of the last station.
If your journey necessitates one or more changes of line, the poem will then have two or more stanzas.
An unscheduled stop between two stations is always an awkward moment in the writing of a subway poem. 1



The opening line will immediately reveal an opening conviction:
if subway poems are good at speaking knowledgeably about experience, or about poetry,
then the external tick-tock, against which discourse buckles down,
is quite exactly mimicked by the time it takes to go between two stations. [End Page 64]
This regular alternation of darkness and light from the window
chimes neatly with the stripes of a zebra when rearing up on its hind legs,
black, white, the filling of lines and the spaces between lines,
vibration, silence, waiting for the oral performance that I'm imagining on Tuesday 28 November
next. I'm writing with a sort of exaltation,
more than any other I've experienced when writing subway poems,
caused by the risk of having to read out the poem aloud in public
and conscious of the advantages of distancing and correction which here, largely speaking, are impossible and undesirable
and which will find their precise counterbalance in the energy generated by the restriction of this situation.
I always have in mind the fact that the number of lines in the poem has been predetermined by the place where I've decided to go:
the concluding line wasn't forecast, but turns out well, being written down on the platform of LA MUETTE 2 station.


Yesterday's poem took up the time of a necessary and unavoidable journey.
The only reason for today's journey is the necessity of the poem.
Yesterday's blatant coincidence with "dumbness"
should be raised pointedly in order to go on speaking about poetry
which could be as silent as the tomb proverbially is,
given that poetry, among all the other uses of language,
is the only one able to natter on about nothing
while remaining unafraid that anyone will grasp just how nothing now tastes like something.

What a fine almost civic justification,
emptying language absolutely and filling it absolutely,
thus making a straw tongue to allow the void to take over and then break the camel's back,
gaping and singing,
alternatively or at once,
if you can imagine a heavy dinner leaving your guts empty.
The apologies pronounced by a homeless newspaper vendor
easily outpace the narrowness of my thought.
By shrinking my head a little into my shoulders, I let that repetitive downpour of reality pass by.
But the next line has problems shaking itself dry.
It's probably soaking things up instead. [End Page 65]
If, in poetry, language looks rhythm in the eye,
the steps of the staircase cut out according to rules,
the apologies of the newspaper vendor or the headlines of the evening press
exist, but are in practical terms overwhelmed by the diapason of the poem,
a shared reason for going...


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