Poet­ry

Today in the Taxi

  • Review
By – August 1, 2022

In his remarks on a 2022 pan­el about Jew­ish work­ing-class poet­ics, Sean Singer described the impor­tance of spread­ing pow­er hor­i­zon­tal­ly instead of ver­ti­cal­ly. This idea informed my read­ing of Today in the Taxi, which takes us on his dai­ly treks across New York City as he picks up pas­sen­gers, expe­ri­ences snip­pets of their lives, and drops them off. In lieu of nar­ra­tive clo­sure, these poems often end on teach­ings from Jew­ish thinkers includ­ing Hil­lel, Franz Kaf­ka, Jer­im­i­ah, Kab­bal­ists, a female Lord, and Char­lotte Solomon. Each poem begins with a vari­a­tion of the phrase today in the taxi,” chal­leng­ing the con­cept of a cen­tral title poem.” Fur­ther, each poem is writ­ten in prose and less than a page in length — no ride is giv­en more space than anoth­er. The repet­i­tive form reflects both the mun­dane nature of dri­ving a cab and an aes­thet­ic equal­i­ty. Every poem chal­lenges the hier­ar­chi­cal econ­o­my from which it springs.

This is a pro­found­ly Jew­ish book, and not only because it is con­stant­ly quot­ing Jews. In her 2011 essay Midrashic Sen­si­bil­i­ties: Sec­u­lar Judaism and Rad­i­cal Poet­ics,” Rachel Blau DuP­lessis writes that her midrashic sensibility…resists epiphany, which, as a nar­ra­tive struc­ture, is to some degree asso­ci­at­ed with Chris­tian­i­ty.” Most of Singer’s poems are struc­tured so that the pas­sen­ger leaves the car just at the cli­max of their sto­ry. We are jolt­ed into the real­iza­tion that for these pas­sen­gers, the taxi is just a vehi­cle to a des­ti­na­tion, not the des­ti­na­tion itself. So the rid­ers leave, tak­ing the nar­ra­tive momen­tum of the poems with them. Right at the apex of each poem, there is a sharp drop to the empti­ness of the cab. Nar­ra­tive cli­max is replaced by the inte­ri­or­i­ty of the typ­i­cal­ly-invis­i­ble dri­ver. These moments, in all of their under­state­ment and dis­cur­sive­ness, are a mas­ter­piece of con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish literature.

Of these moments, the most pro­found per­haps come in Glossed Over” and Dirt.” In the for­mer, a pas­sen­ger for­gets a bag in the taxi. The dri­ver back­tracks a long way over streets he just trav­eled to return the bag, and the pas­sen­ger pro­vides nei­ther tip nor thanks. The dri­ver curs­es human­i­ty before remem­ber­ing — in a Charles Reznikoff-like turn — that many in this city have faced much worse inequal­i­ty: Then I remem­bered the poor fel­lows on Cather­ine Slip who would skin eels and have to dance in order to get one to eat.” He then trans­forms his wast­ed labor by reclaim­ing agency over the sit­u­a­tion: I read that eels can swim back­wards by revers­ing the direc­tion of the wave.” It is a moment that frees the worker’s val­ue from his progress: he is not dri­ving back but rather revers­ing the direc­tion” of the pow­er dynam­ics around him. In Dirt,” the rela­tion­ship between val­ue and progress is again dis­man­tled. The dri­ver says, When Jere­mi­ah asked for a solu­tion to stop­ping the Golem who was destroy­ing Prague, he was told…Do not med­i­tate in the sense of build­ing up, but the oth­er way around” (25). This is com­men­tary on the collection’s aes­thet­ics as much as its themes. Today in the Taxi is rad­i­cal­ly Jew­ish in that it does not build up” to rev­e­la­tion but the oth­er way around” — Singer’s poems reject tra­di­tion­al pow­er struc­tures and instead return back to the work­er and his streets.

Alli­son Pitinii Davis, PhD, is the author of Line Study of a Motel Clerk (Baobab Press, 2017), a final­ist for the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award’s Berru Award for Poet­ry, and Pop­py Seeds (Kent State Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2013), win­ner of the Wick Poet­ry Chap­book Prize. She holds fel­low­ships from Stan­ford University’s Wal­lace Steg­n­er pro­gram, the Fine Arts Work Cen­ter in Province­town, and the Sev­er­ing­haus Beck Fund for Study at Vil­nius Yid­dish Insti­tute. Her poet­ry appeared in Best Amer­i­can Poet­ry 2016, POETS​.org, The New Repub­lic, and elsewhere.

Discussion Questions