NYQ Books, 2011
Perfect bound, 108 pages, $14.95
I’ve been a secret admirer, with a not-so-secret desire to ride around in a taxi with him, ever since Mather Schneider first sent poems to RHINO when I was an editor there. By “not-so-secret,” I mean I have since confessed this to Mather, who had forgotten who the heck I was, and whom I have never met, and, even though I was in Tucson, Arizona once, waiting at the airport for a ride, I did not get to ride in his cab.
But, through poetry, I feel as if I have taken that ride, alongside every other passenger he’s ever picked up, and what a scary thrill it was, and it pushed my heart open wide for lots of people I have never met and never will. Some have died, and some I don’t want to meet. I definitely don’t want to meet those mean, impatient truck drivers, those rich, impatient tourists, or those nuns who share “Three Lanes of Hell” with Mather on the roadway, nuns who are arguing “in the Prelude // in my rearview mirror.”
One of them flails her arms
like a black windmill around a face
twisted with hatred
like a g-force.
The other white knuckles
and looks straight
into my eyes.
See what I mean? Scary. But while I don’t want to meet these people in real life, I know they exist and that I must be aware of them, and wary of them, and Schneider takes care of that for me. Know this exists, he says, relentlessly, poem after poem, having been face to face in the rear-view or side-view mirror, with some of the worst human behavior any of us has ever had to witness.
And then there’s the compassion, the beautiful, deep, loving feeling he conveys about the lost and forlorn, lonely, sick, and dying people he takes to their doctor’s appointments or chemotherapy treatments, to the airport or bus station, or wherever they need to go, which is all too often a heartbreaking place.
I don’t know who the woman is in “I’m Sorry I Never Fixed the Toaster,” but the title suggests a domestic intimacy. His mother? If so, he learned compassion early and probably in hard circumstances. A fellow cab driver or dispatcher in an office with a toaster? At any rate, I care for her and feel his grief and regret in these poignant lines:
You would turn and smile
the way people smile
when they use too many front teeth
to bite into their blackened toast.
Then you’d tell me good morning
the way a woman does
when her mouth is full of ashes.
Poignant, scary, and hilarious all at once. Makes me ache in all kinds of ways. Lots of these poems do that. Even when he’s looking at the scenery or the highway, Schneider sees all the ready horror and ironic humor in things. “Feast or Famine” begins:
The turkey vulture digs out a dead snake’s eyeball
and staggers on the yellow dotted line
down the spine of the highway.
What a great precise yet ragged image. The weird hilarity of the poem comes when a passenger is scared of snakes, “even dead ones.” The passenger, her daughter, and the driver all share in the moment’s woe, however irrational:
She can hardly breathe through her choked sobs
and we are all on the verge
all except for the vulture
who looks at us,
takes his prize and rises
into the clean blue air.
Who is calm and does what is needed? A turkey vulture, doing what he’s supposed to do: eat carrion, and avoid death by cab.
The lines I’ve quoted show you the sharpness of image in this book, the irregular line breaks that suggest quick turns and secret routes, and let you hear that voice of the cabdriver who’s seen it all and whose heart hasn’t hardened, even if he has to look tough on the outside.
An epigraph to the whole book explains the title (and the title poem, “He Took a Cab”): In the old jazz argot, when it was said of someone, “He took a cab,” that meant he died. And people do die in this book, and have to make hard decisions as well as hard right turns. It’s sad when a life turns on a fare:
You know the hope
in your life is the same
as your hesitation,
before you stand up
to chase a man
down a dark alley,
for fourteen dollars.
I know I needed to know this. It will help me figure out whether the hope in my life is the same as my hesitation. And I recommend that you find this out, too—quick, before you take a cab.
Kathleen Kirk is a writer whose work appears online and in print in Confrontation, Eclectica, Poetry East, Sweet, YB Poetry, and elsewhere. She is the author of the chapbooks Selected Roles, Broken Sonnets, and Living on the Earth, with Nocturnes forthcoming this winter from Hyacinth Girl Press. A past editor and reviewer for RHINO, Kirk is poetry editor for Escape Into Life. She blogs about poetry, reading, and life eight days a week at Wait! I Have a Blog?!