Beverly Ellis reviews ‘He Took a Cab’ by Mather Schneider
Cabby or Charon?
The back-seat of a cab, anywhere in the world: it’s a fair bet that all of life has been played out there at one time or another. The taxi in question here is that driven by American poet and cab-driver Mather Schneider who, in this collection, focuses his attention on the experiences of a cabby, his relationships, colleagues, other road users and the many passengers who are ferried around Tucson, Arizona.
The collection is prefaced with this statement:
In the old jazz argot, when it was said of someone,
“He took a cab,” that meant he died.
And this very much sets the tone for the impressive collection of poems that follows. Vignettes of the driver’s different fares are piercing in their clarity and the impact they make lingers on, long after reading. Some people set out on pleasure trips, but unalloyed joy is rare in a chiaroscuro world where the shadow-side is always laying in wait, despite everyone’s best efforts. The slice-of-life Mather Schneider portrays is the imperfect, real world as most of us experience it and definitely not the ideal American Dream or an airbrushed fantasy of celebrity culture. Passengers in the taxi are often ferried to and from significant appointments, grave life events that have to be faced, like chemo sessions or detox, whilst others attempt to leave their troubles behind them, through a change of scene or leaving town. But rich or poor, their hubris is often only partially successful, occasionally doomed, although most retain a measure of optimism, sometimes in the face of overwhelming odds.
In many of the poems, there is a sense of the confessional, accounts of a sudden, short-lived intimacy such as may occur in the seats of confined spaces, like a hair salon or on the couch at the shrink’s office. The poet makes effective use of short lines to reflect the tentative drip-feed of information in conversations that take place between occupants of the back seat and the driver. Some passengers are liked or admired by the driver, whilst others treat him badly; whatever transpires, a strong sense of compassion for the struggling mass of humanity beams out from the pages of this collection. Yes, some folk are irritating or downright rude, some are dishonest and some are actually dangerous, but we’re all passengers in the taxi of broken dreams and most of us (including the driver) are just making our way through life’s minefield as best we can. These poems are testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the poet is brave enough to allow this to tip over and encompass some people who probably should have thrown the towel in long ago, but just don’t know when to quit. This is sometimes an uncomfortable read, but always fascinating; ultimately, the reader can’t help wondering not whether, but where they feature in this litany.
Other poems in the collection feature significant and frequently touching episodes from the driver’s own life; for example, ‘My Father is an Alien’ where the driver collects his father from an airport: ‘We hug like squeezing by someone/in an airplane aisle’ and ‘Eyes thirst for their own/among the bags that descend/no two exactly alike, all falling/into the same slow orbit.’ Mather Schneider has that essential gift of the memorable poet, of being able to approach the metaphysical via the seemingly mundane; the poems are all accessible and interesting, but soon lead the reader into deep waters in all sorts of ways.
Similarly, the glimpses of nature that can be seen from the window, in what is fundamentally an urban setting, often represent far more than themselves, like an eagle devouring a snake or a cougar materialising on the road beside an expensive golf-course. And, of course, in all environments, the Reaper is never very far away:
I had just dropped off a fat business man
with his heavy bag of golf clubs
like a body bag with a skeleton
rattling and knocking around.
(From ‘A Cabby, not a Caddy’)
The portraits of colleagues are very revealing (e.g. ‘Cruddy Buddies’), most sharing the suggestion that cab driving is not their career of choice, more a temporary necessity that may turn out to be permanent. Also, building across the collection of poems, is a sense of alienation, that perhaps the cabby is somehow existing outside the lives of others, as in ‘Destiny of a Cab Driver’ where the geometry of journeys exists unseen, a bit like ley-lines:
Until someone needs me
I have no reason to be.
I have no destination of my own.
I spend my life driving in circles
and never get any closer
to the center.
The perpetual pitfall is summed up in a poem called ‘The Crack’ (in the windshield), emblematic of the flaw or damage potentially inherent in – well, everything: like the worm in the apple, the silent and ever-watchful snake in the garden of Eden. But, as in life, there is balance in the universe of this collection and many poems point to moments when faith is restored for a time, e.g. in ‘Zen Cabby’ which begins: ‘All the lights turn green at your approach…’ This poem will stay with you just as much as the bleaker material, forever an instant gauge of your current karmic status whenever you approach an intersection! And there are some lighter moments: I won’t say what happens in ‘Secret Santa’ – don’t want to spoil the surprise – needless to say, it should’ve been fun for all concerned…
“Oh, but surely not me…” we all say, a bit like a Beckett monologue, steeling ourselves to look again at this collection with its accounts of diversions and waiting, stalled relationships, the lost dreams and lovers left behind… And, in case we ever doubted it: the Ferryman is not exempt, he suffers too. So perhaps the message is to remove the coins from our eyelids while we still can and make that pie-in-the-sky journey we always intended to go on, but somehow never got around to; it may not turn out as planned, but better to have tried…
Poetry is very hard to do well, particularly metaphysical poetry with a wry, philosophical humour and elements of magical realism that feel naturalistic, but Mather Schneider achieves all of this, whilst making it look deceptively simple. By examining the human condition and mortality, this vibrant and accessible collection works to restore the reader’s faith in life, with a capital ‘L’: essential reading.
He Took a Cab by Mather Schneider, pub. 2011 by NYQ Books, an imprint of The New York Quarterly Foundation Inc, price $14.95, ISBN 978-1-935520-21-4. Order your copy here.