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 is the author of Line Study of a Motel Clerk (Baobab Press, 2017), a finalist for the Berru Poetry Award and the Ohioana Book Award.