The backseat of Cliff Fyman’s New York City cab is the stage where his passengers voice their stories in an almost surreal atmosphere, talking about their most intimate feelings, fears and truths. They play their roles in a drama that is at the edge of the human condition and evolves in a city that is bustling but can also be frightening. In the afterword, Fyman explains that he collected what people were saying while speaking to each other or on their cell phones during taxi rides. The collection is the result of this ‘listening voyeurism’ and of Fyman’s profound interest in humanity. His shift went from 5 pm until 5 am, giving him both a day and a night perspective.
The poems are skilfully crafted and reflect the everyday speech of New York City but also address bigger issues such as violence, sexual and mental abuse, loss, politics and existential questions. The characters often seem to be on the verge of extinction while they are resisting the demanding pressures of life – life in a big and complex metropolis. Their speeches are fragmented pieces of a bigger story that is sometimes tragic but also hilarious. In this ongoing stream of human stories that map the city, broken relationships, anger, frustration and the search for love surface dramatically. Nothing seems to last longer than a phone call during a cab drive and everything dissolves in utterances, a venting that does not seem to solve problems or communicate effectively but rather explores the self and attempts to form meaning.
Fyman also explains in the afterword how he ordered the poems, contrasting the different intensity of his pieces by ‘placing a more serious poem next’ to a lighter one. This technique increases the value of each poem, just like in a painting when ‘you make a cool color even cooler by making the color next to it warmer’.
Allusions to sex are frequent as well as infinite variations of the F-word in people’s speech They capture the authenticity of ordinary speech and all its power of one-word lines and striking puns.
However, Fyman’s poetry offers much more. There are allusions to a wider literary world that ranges from Dante’s Purgatorio to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Similarly to in Fyman’s work, as he remarks, in Chaucer’s work each person steps up to tell their story and then ‘steps back into line’. In Dante’s work, the complex world of the Purgatory, in which dark and light alternate, connects well to the fallen human condition depicted in this collection. Nevertheless, having compassion is crucial to understanding and sympathising with these people and their world, which is at the same time our world, and redemption but also consideration and empathy are needed to make sense of its meaning.
Links to outstanding American poets are also present, such as William Carlos Williams, Jack Kerouac and Tracie Morris, and to Fyman’s mentors Barbara Henning and Bill Kushner, who encouraged him to write down the conversations and edit them. When Fyman read his poems in his poetry circle in Brooklyn, the feedback from the audience was so positive that Fyman completely immersed himself in his work for four years, organising the manuscript in four parts. This edition is accurate in all its small details, for example each piece is divided by little stars, and a tiny star and a crescent moon replace the dot on the ‘i’ of the title. The picture on the cover is an artwork by the author; it features a cell phone that has abstract geometrical shapes on its screen that, appropriately, alternate warm and cool colours. The warm colours are in the centre and the blue and purple ones are on the periphery. This forms the shape of an abstract heart of sorts that symbolises Fyman’s attitude towards his inspirational encounters very well.
Sometimes the passengers address Fyman and the conversation becomes more tense because the driver is supposed to give the right answer. But answers remain open in this shifting dynamic reality.
The hilarious recollection of an accident on the Manhattan bridge where Fyman’s cab broke down in the middle of the street emphasises again the surreal atmosphere of this world ‘where so many people are alone’ but also manage to survive in one way or another. Fyman called the police, but they did not take any action and did not seem to realise what was happening. Eventually his car was hit by another car whose driver ran off, probably because he was afraid of the police, or perhaps the car had been stolen.
The final poem is a manifesto that points out and concludes the themes of this captivating collection:
Resistance, honesty and community are the key words that invite the readers to take a stand and fight together for a more equal society and a better world in an encompassing perspective that implies multiplicity and relentless resistance to violence and injustices.
Carla Scarano D’Antonio lives in Surrey with her family. She obtained her Degree of Master of Arts in Creative Writing with Merit at Lancaster University in October 2012. Her pamphlet Negotiating Caponata was recently published by Dempsey & Windle (2020); she has also self-published a poetry pamphlet, A Winding Road (2011). She has published her work in various anthologies and magazines, and she has recently completed a PhD on Margaret Atwood’s work at the University of Reading. In 2016, she and Keith Lander won first prize in the Dryden Translation Competition with translations of Eugenio Montale’s poems. She writes in English as a second language.