Original: October, 1950. On the subway and elevated train from Manhattan to Flushing in New York.
The Empty Seat
I got the train at Forty Second Street
I saw you there and we exchanged a look
Beside you was the only empty seat
I sat there, all the while afraid to speak.
Your name, I saw, was written on your book
I glimpsed the blush of youth upon your cheek
But soon we reached your stop and you moved on.
Your seat is empty, Margaret McHugh.
The only chance I had to speak to you is gone.
An Áit Fholamh
Ag stad sa gcathair, ar mo theacht sa traein,
Is ar an gcéad súilfhéachaint eadrainn riamh,
San aon áit fholamh, shuigh mé taobh leat féin,
I bhfaitíos faoi ar fad, gan rud a rá.
Inléite ar do leabhar, d’ainm i scríobh
Is ar do ghrua, d’ógánacht i mbláth.
Ach ní i bhfad, do stad, is d’imigh tú
A d’fhág d’áit folamh, ’Mhairéad bhán Nic Aodha,
An deis sin ’am ar labhairt leat níor tapaíodh.
The version in Irish: 31 Dec. 2003 to 5 Jan. 2004, Northport, N.Y. (I’ve decided not to call the pieces in Irish ‘translations’ anymore. They are an attempt to produce an ‘equivalent’ to the original, as I’m sure has been noticed.)
Raymond J. Clark
Réamonn Ó Cléirigh
Comment: On the way home from school I had an hour and a half journey on the elevated train and subway, and another half hour ride on a bus after that. I would change trains at 42nd Street in mid-Manhattan.
This poem describes events in the order that they happened from beginning to end. In that way it is like a straight narrative or a report. But the train ride is like a hidden character in it. If it was at a party or a dance that I sat in an empty seat next to someone I didn't know, I would have spoken. I would have at least said hello. The fact that I didn't speak, and the whole question of 'being afraid' here, has to do with the train. There was a sort of subway-car etiquette that everybody followed in New York City at the time, and it's the same today. In a subway car, people don't speak to people beside them if they don't know them. They don't even look straight into the eyes of someone who is facing them, except very quickly. And when they are sitting, they don't keep turning this way and that. They look straight ahead. New Yorkers who are as friendly and talkative as anybody else in their own neighborhoods are silent and almost suspicious in a subway car. That's the setting, which I was so used to I didn't even think to mention it in the 'report'.
In a way I was being a bit bold and pushing the etiquette. I looked straight at her when I first came in the car. Later, I looked over at her book and saw her name. A little while after that, I turned my whole head and glimpsed the blush on her cheek. But I was afraid to go beyond that and speak. Time runs out. She's gone. I see the second empty seat. Then, in my mind, I begin to speak.. The poem is all spoken to her. It's only after she leaves that I finally utter her name, as if calling out to her. After she can no longer hear me, I tell her my feelings, which are now only too sad.
It's not a report, it's a little poem written on a train.