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Two Deep Breaths: Commute

by Caitlin Dwyer Young

You know what I miss? Random encounters with strangers. The side glances at the bus stop, the friendly, banal conversations on the way to and from work. In this second pandemic winter, we have perfected being apart. People sit separately, masks on, eyes down on devices. We’re isolated even in public, trying to get there and back with minimal interaction. But I miss the delight of connecting with other humans in strange, unexpected ways.

The poet and nonfiction writer Camille Dungy captures that delight in “Commute,” a paean to subway riding and the fleeting joy of being momentarily together. In the poem from her excellent collection “Trophic Cascade,” a street musician plays harmonica at the subway stop. I can hear the music in Dungy’s lines, which mimic the repeated lines and of blues:


…Baby, I’m tied to you


forever. I’m tied to you forever. I can’t quit you, baby.

I can’t even put you down. This tunnel looks like love


gone hurtling into darkness…


Suddenly the poem has shifted. We’re not in the blues song entirely anymore, but inside the physical scene of the subway station, where a couple taps their feet and appreciates the music. There are people waiting for a train, separated by distance, watching each other across space and sound waves.

It’s a brief, almost boring moment of interaction. Dungy doesn’t make it more than it is: a nice moment,


& then


their train.


What I love here is the transitory nature of the delight. It doesn’t last. Likely, the couple immediately forgets the musician as they board their train and head to work. But doesn’t that make it sweeter, and more raw, that it’s so brief? And the longing in those lines is poignant, as if we’re leaning across the empty space, hoping helplessly for touch: “I’m tied to you forever.” Except we’re not. We vanish down the subway tunnel, and are gone.

In this pandemic winter, what random human interactions are you wishing for? What boring commute experiences do you think on with fondness? What is the subway music you’re missing?


A reading tip: Think about a poem as music. Like music, it has a beat. Like music, it has certain repeated lines and structures that organize the ideas. When you read a poem out loud, does it sing? Does it swing? Often when I feel confused about a poem, I stop trying to understand what it means, and just hear it as music. Who cares what it means; how does it sound in the resonance chamber of your body?




He remembers the harp in his pocket and the tune

to a time-winding blues. Baby, I’m tied to you


forever. I’m tied to you forever. I can’t quit you, baby.

I can’t even put you down. This tunnel looks like love


gone hurtling into darkness. Across the track

a couple nods, appreciating something they can’t


put their fingers on. He tucks the harp back in his pocket,

thinks to smile at her. It’s all quiet for awhile but the wind


& then


their train.


Camille T. Dungy’s debut collection of personal essays is Guidebook to Relative Strangers (W. W. Norton, 2017), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. She is also the author of four collections of poetry, most recently Trophic Cascade (Wesleyan UP, 2017), winner of the Colorado Book Award. She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2019. Dungy is currently a Professor in the English Department at Colorado State University. She lives in Fort Collins, CO with her husband and child.