‘Poem for Passengers’ by Matthew Zapruder deals with themes of traveling, dreams, and introspectionism. There is something cohesive about traveling, bringing together strangers in moments that are peculiar, but always memorable. The concept of a journey continues forever, the poem going ‘on and on’ seemingly forever.
Matthew Zapruder’s ‘Poem for Passengers’ details the story of ‘strangers’ that board a train and are whisked off to their next destination. The poem explores the physical things they see and how they occupy their time while on the train. It turns to an introspective dream state, discussing how strangers are linked through their dreams and can relate to each other as everyone has a problem going on. The final part of the poem turns to these ‘problems’, presenting the strangers looking inward, always trying to ‘solve’ something that is bothering them. When the passengers depart, Zapruder suggests that a part of the journey lives on within them forever, never really leaving behind the memory of traveling.
You can read the full poem here.
‘Poem for Passengers’ is 21 lines long, without a rhyme scheme or being broken into stanzas. The poem finished without a full stop, suggesting that the poem continues after the words have ended, mirroring the idea that the journey the ‘Passengers’ are taking never really stops. The structure is a comment on traveling, and the microcosm that it provides for life in general.
The most obvious, and perhaps most important, technique that Matthew Zapruder employs when writing ‘Poem for Passengers’ is that there is absolutely no punctuation, not in the form of caesura of end stop. This means that all the lines within the poem are enjambed, with the meter continuously flowing as one line blurs into the next. This structural technique is primarily employed to reflect the movement of the train – the idea that the journey never really stops, the train always keeps going being paramount in the poem. Additionally, the idea that everyone is blurring into one reflects the early idea within the poem that the passengers cannot really concentrate on external images and nature, instead of being preoccupied with the problems they’re facing in their heads.
Analysis of Poem for Passengers
Like all strangers who temporarily
find themselves moving in the same direction
The poem begins by focusing on ‘strangers’, the characters of the poem being reduced to unknown people. By using this anonymous presence, Zapruder allows for the reader to apply their own ideas and characters to the story, linking the theme of traveling to many people through the lack of specificity.
Zapruder then moves on to describe the moment the ‘strangers’ share as ‘temporary’. The transience of the moment is perhaps what makes it so special, the random coming together of people at a completely random time being something incredibly interesting and strange to focus on. Although the moment they share is indeed, only ‘temporary’, the memory of this moment will live on after they disembark from the train, indeed, the final line tells us that ‘the dream goes on and on’.
The idea of the strangers ‘moving in the same direction’ can be understood as polysemous. On one hand, it could just simply mean that they are facing the same direction and therefore as the train moves they are moving together in one direction. Yet, it could also align with the idea introduced later in ‘Poem for Passengers’ which states that people must come ‘together’ to solve problems. Zapruder could be suggesting that even in total ‘strangers’, characteristics and traits that match up with your own can be found, the idea of ‘direction’ being a mechanism to present the strangers’ personalities working well together. The idea that even a stranger can be a great source of kindness and stability is an incredibly comforting thought.
we look out the window
trying to catch the dying signal
The strangers are combined into a plural pronoun, ‘we’, looking out ‘the window’ together. The actual activities that ‘we’ participate in while on the journey are unimportant, indeed ‘we’ look ‘whiteout really seeing’, and using a phone is similarly redundant due to the ‘dying signal’. It is not about what one does to fill their time on a journey, it is instead the fact that they are together, sharing in this moment with another person.
then the famous lonesome whistle
so many singers have sung about
through broken windows they stare
asking us to decide
The iconic sounds of a train rolling out the station are invoked within ‘Poem for Passengers’, adding an aural quality to the verse, ‘the famous lonesome whistle… we pick up speed. It is interesting that the sound is described as ‘lonesome’, the choice of words invoking a note of tragedy which encapsulates the poem in a certain nostalgia. This is continued by reference to a country in recession, the ‘abandoned factories’ indicating a sense of deindustrialization.
The community established within the strange enclosed train is again described as something cohesive, ‘our bodies’, ‘we pick up speed’. It seems that subconsciously the strangers have become one, experiencing the journey together.
but we fall asleep next to each other
riding into the tunnel
over a bridge in the snow
emerging suddenly into the light
At this point in ‘Poem for Passengers’, the strangers begin to fall asleep, again in a communal cohesion of ‘we fall asleep’. Within this dreamscape, the passengers imagine they are ‘carrying something’, knowing that it is ‘only together we can carry it’. Zapruder again suggests that things are only achieved when people work together, the strangers using their shared strength to move the ‘empty casket’.
The idea that they do this ‘without knowing’ is perhaps slightly tragic. Due to social custom, it would be fairly strange to talk to someone at length in a situation like this. Yet, the beauty of Zapruder’s idea is that if only this custom didn’t exist, people would discover just how similar they are. It is a tragedy that they do not, they never find out that they live the ‘same dream’ and could help each other if they only moved outside their social comfort zone.
we wake and open our laptops
or a book about murder
or a glossy magazine
and disembark into whatever weather
for a long time there is a compartment
within us filled with analog silence
Zapruder again returns to trivial activities that the strangers participate in upon awaking. The apparent normality of looking at a ‘laptop’ or reading ‘a book’ is disappointing after the introspective dream state. It seems that Zapruder is pointing out the true banality of sitting in silence, choosing an activity that wastes time instead of engaging with other passengers.
The book that Zapruder describes, ‘about murder’, could be a reference to Agatha Christie’s ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, which reflects the context of a train journey and engages with this subject matter.
Although they are ‘awake’, Zapruder suggests that a part of them always remains locked away within their own brains, moving through problems and attempting to ‘solve’ them as they do so. This idea that a person can be physically in one space, but mentally elsewhere is a reality which many people can relate to, their personal ‘problems so great they cannot be named’.
The lack of speech between the strangers is focused into an ‘analogue silence’, one that continues after they have left the train. It is perhaps tragic, although there could have been fantastic personal connections made, all the strangers leave the train with is ‘silence’, locked away in their minds battling personal problems.
inside us the dream goes on and on
The final line of ‘Poem for Passengers’ is magical, focusing again on the introspective nature of humanity whilst simultaneously commenting on the never-ending journey they are undertaking. The ‘dream’ that the strangers lived through together continues ‘inside us’, the connection established still existing within the mind. Finally, Zapruder turns to the idea of the journey, continuing ‘on and on’ forever – a comment on traveling, and how moments will exist forever as memories to be looked back upon.