Mar 182023
“Safe passage through countless intersections”: A Baker’s Dozen of Transportation Poems

Transportation, in my daily work, is a means to an end. It isn’t usually a thing done for its own sake—it’s how we get where we need to go. “Travel” might be a better word for those times when we move for the sake of moving, regardless of mode. When the open highway beckons, when your eyes follow the track of the jet overhead or the white sails floating across the water, when you feel the hum of the train’s wheels on the track and the power of its motor and imagine what its whistle sounds like to someone miles away hearing it pass—these are moments of poetry.

In my serendipitous collecting of bicycle poems, I also encountered transportation poems and started another Twitter thread of those. Transportation offers so many rich metaphors; how could I resist compiling a station, a ferry landing, a stop, a bus shelter, yes, even a parking lot full of transportation poems?

I offer them here for your virtual journeying. I’ve chosen just a few lines to highlight for each, and the full poem may surprise you with its primary subject matter when you follow the links. The list opens with the first one that caught my eye thanks to its very pointed words about the connection between poetry and a mode of transport.

“One Train May Hide Another” by Kenneth Koch
In a poem, one line may hide another line,
As at a crossing, one train may hide another train.

“between exits” by Maya Stein
You wonder when it will be done, the asphalt poured, the dunce-cap cones
pulled up and stacked on a flatbed truck, returned to that place of finished business.

“After Buddhism Class” by Jean Reinhold (scroll down on a page with several poems)
The road I drove on
to get here was made by men I’ll never meet,
and smoothed by miles and miles of cars
driven by people who don’t know my name.

“Rolls Royce Dreams” by Ginger Andrews
Using salal leaves for money,
my youngest sister and I
paid an older sister to taxi an abandoned car
in our backyard. Our sister
knew how to shift gears
turn smoothly with a hand signal,
and make perfect screeching stop sounds.

“The Sacred” by Stephen Dunn
…the car kept coming up,
            the car in motion,
music filling it, and sometimes one other person

who understood the bright altar of the dashboard
            and how far away
a car could take him

“hypotheses” by Maya Stein
Maybe it’s not the highway that will get there faster, but the detour.
Maybe the source of the problem is not the problem.

“Autobiography in Five Short Chapters” by Portia Nelson
I walk down the street.
   There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
   I fall in.
   I am lost….I am helpless.

“Working together” by David Whyte
I am thinking of the way
the intangible air

traveled at speed
round a shaped wing

holds our weight.

So may we, in this life

“The Summer-Camp Bus Pulls Away From the Curb” by Sharon Olds
The bus gets smaller and smaller, as one
folds a flag at the end of a ceremony,
onto itself, and onto itself, until
only a heavy wedge remains.

“The Average Driver Will Be in a Car Accident Once Every Eighteen Years” by Nomi Stone
Who means
the other harm? The self, so soft.

“This Moment” by Howard Olivier
Safe passage through countless intersections
this week;

“Putting in a Window” by John Brantingham
….The good driver
knows that he might plow into a mother
walking her three-year old, and so watches
for them carefully.

“Shoulders” by Naomi Shihab Nye
A man crosses the street in rain,
stepping gently, looking two times north and south,
because his son is asleep on his shoulder.

No car must splash him.
No car drive too near to his shadow.

Continue the journey

Did this introduce you to a new-to-you poet? A sub-genre of poetry you’ve been following for some time, or one you hadn’t ever really thought about? Have you written a poem you want to share that makes use of transportation imagery? Your poetry and links invited in the comments!

About the image

Olympia, WA has a poet laureate program. Sady Sparks, poet laureate 2019-2020, led the installation “Here We Are Magic” with Zyna Bakari, which placed stenciled lines of poetry around town using a special paint that appears when it gets wet. “Wet” is the default setting much of the year. I took the photo featured on this post on a January walk. It goes so perfectly with the subject matter, not only in its words but in the fact that a wonderful way to view this poetry is to go for a walk and be surprised by what you find along the way. Change your mode, change your perspective.

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