Taking the F Train by Linda Lerner
Reviewed by Charles Rammelkamp

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Taking the F Train
NYQ Books, 2021
$18.95, 144 pages
ISBN: 978-1-63045-079-3




At the conclusion of a poem inspired by the weird dislocation of the daylight savings time shift, “One Daylight Saving Hour,” Linda Lerner writes about a man from an hour in her past, “I try to get him / to forget about logic, just feel / where my words are headed.” This is a good instruction for reading all of Lerner’s intriguing poetry: pay attention to what she is writing; don’t try to force a sequence of reasoning or the plot of a story; appreciate her language.

Reflecting the non-linear nature of our existence and thought, Lerner’s poetry brings to mind the Korean American poet Sun Yung Shin’s observation in Unspeakable Splendor, “From the time of birth to the time of death, every word you utter is part of one long sentence.”  No less are we in eternal dialogue with the people with whom we are intimate, the living and the dead, with the same guard rails – or lack of them – in place. Lerner writes in the poem  “Left Unfinished,” in which she is visiting a dying man she has described in a previous poem (“Two Trips”) as “someone who isn’t my lover / and is more than a friend” about:

that seven-hour long sentence
you ran silently by me in the hospital…

The sentences are not always spoken and don’t need to be. As she writes about this same dying man in “When Death Is a Red Balloon”:

love, which never made it into word,
flowed through my touch with the meds from IVs
that kept you breathing

Similarly, as she writes in “How It Is,” a poem about the early days of the pandemic, when New York City was being ravaged by the coronavirus, after a delivery person leaves a bag outside her door and they wordlessly communicate before the masked man leaves:

A neighbor opens her door a crack
shaking her head. I motion
What choice do I have,
she shrugs and shuts her door.

The streets are quiet, a few people
walk hurriedly by, armed with fear.
Fights break out in people’s eyes
who get too close, back off
in time. Sometimes not.

We see the same thing at work in many other poems, like “Blame,” another poem that takes place in a hospital:

a woman I never met is banging
on invisible bars to be let out,
I hear it in her eyes, her daughter says
for me to hear it too,
a voice silenced by feeding tubes
and a ventilator

In “A Dead-End Path,” which takes place in a subway car, Lerner writes about one of the many arguments between people that occur throughout these poems,

she might have been hurling rocks from a cliff
words flew with such blunt force…

The poem ends with the summary description of the encounter:

a perfect weather storm raged between
words uttered and those that weren’t

“The Loudest Argument I Ever Heard” is another subway poem with a similar vibe. It starts:

began before they even entered an uptown F train
a man & woman, late 30’s early 40’s stood
by the door for a few minutes without moving –
I’ve never touched hot coal but think
I know what it would feel like from
the look in their eyes;
someone seated next to me got up and left
she took the seat; he kept leaning against the door
his hands loud, full of rage

Voices from the past clamor for attention as well. In “Thank You, You’re Welcome,” a poem about the impatience of New Yorkers that hurls her back to Thanksgiving, Lerner muses “my parents’ ghostly voices / fill with unsolved quarrels…”

The ellipses there are Lerner’s. Ellipses can be annoying, but Lerner uses them well to her advantage, throughout the collection, to suggest inevitability, absurdity, mystery, the ineffable. “The First Time of Anything” begins: “Calendars begin arriving months before / like subway preachers…” “A Bad Weather Time,” about losing her close friend, has ellipses aplenty. The poem ends on the lines:

a few promising flurries
feels  more like those Sorry
for your loss words I kept hearing
afterwards, fake weather, you’d say…
when the cold gets to be too much
I close my eyes and grab hold of your hand
as that last day and don’t let go
till I feel the weather changing…
that’s the past, you always said
whenever I….

Lerner writes movingly about her immigrant father as well, that voice from the past. In the title poem, she identifies the F train as her father’s line.

Every night he took it to the end of the line,
my mother silently beside him as it made
local stops at every grievance he had
starting with a country whose promises
teased him out of Russia into one failed
business after another….

In “Waiting for the D Train” she waits for a train in Brooklyn, the borough in which she was born, “a three room tenement / neighbors quarreling voices heard through the dumbwaiter.” Her companion is complaining about the ethnic makeup of the neighborhood, and the poet is hurled back nostalgically to her childhood:

a lot of Russians live in my building she tells me, and
I think of my Russian born father dreaming
of  an America he’d live in for decades without
ever really seeing that country as he bagged groceries
after businesses he started failed

“The Invasion” is another poem in which a character – “a middle-aged balding man” – rants with Trump-like indignation against immigrants – the Mexicans and Dominicans and Chinese.  And speaking of Trump, “The Lone Ranger Rides Again” is a humorous satiric poem about the disgraced former president, a hero in his own mind, “along with

a staff of shift shaping Tonto sidekicks
he’ll bring back the great promise of frontier life.

Lerner’s use of language is very inventive. Indeed, read her poems and feel where her sentences are headed. “The Day Before,” a poem about the threat of natural disasters, concludes: “this day, any day, could be / the day before Texas.” “A Morning in May” concludes “there are days that won’t let me turn them off.” In “Brooklyn Ruins,” a poem about renovations in Brooklyn that are breaking her heart, she writes, “thank you construction workers for / guiding me safely out of danger into another kind.”  These and other sentences shake the reader awake.  Danger is never far from the surface in Lerner’s poems, but she skips past them with the nimble grace of a ballerina. These poems, though often gloomy, are a delight to read.