‘Subway Stations of the Cross’ by Ins Choi

Book Reviews


Subway Stations coverReviewed by E Martin Nolan

This being a book review, I focused on the book. But Subway Stations of the Cross—from playwright/performer/poet/singer Ins Choi—was written to be seen and heard. In fact, it could be performed in a subway station, with the audience in the place of the riders Choi’s speaker addresses. Then, Subway Stations of the Cross would become a piece to not just see and hear, but to be inside of. The book suggests all this to me precisely because it is not a performance, and can thus be freely imagined as a performance—but it is still just a book.

Not just a book. It’s beautiful. It folds out like an accordion, so you can flip the pages, or you can open it up and spread them out like a long comic strip. The book is illustrated by Guno Park, and the accordion fold works especially well to capture Park’s sweeping sketches of subway scenes. So while the book cannot sing a song to me, it does at least provide a visually immersive experience.

The book is split in two: The first half depicts New York’s subway, the second half Toronto’s. Aside from the subway station landscape scenes, Park’s drawings are mostly portraits of riders, who—realistically—range from bored to seriously in need of a pick-me-up. Against the book’s back cover, you find an empty microphone stand. It’s an allusion to Subway Stations‘ other existence as a live show. But the image is in a book, so should be considered apart from the live performance. The mic is coupled with the end of “We’ve Been Played,” which suggests, for twenty repeated lines, “We are the consequences of captive senses” and concludes:

We’ve become
The total sum
Of a

“We” are the people who are “being erased of the capacity to hear/ To see/ By being raised in captivity.” “A mirage barrage” has us “grabbin'” until “We can’t let go/ We push we pull/ we constantly feed/ But we’re never full.” Given that the microphone’s image is juxtaposed with “We are the consequences of captive senses,” we must consider its potential role as captivator of our senses. The microphone cuts both ways. It provides the speaker in Choi’s work a tool to liberate his audience from their media captivity. It is also the vehicle by which that captivity is carried out. After all, “The commercial choirs/ Acquiring buyers” record “The beats and the jingles that tickles and tingles” on microphones.

The microphone image asks us to consider multiple performances: The literary/visual performance of the book, the mass media’s performance, the wanderer/prophet’s performance, and the performance, by Ins Choi, of the play. Then there’s the speaker’s version of Jesus.

This Jesus is clear: He, through Choi’s speaker, speaks for the people’s liberation of mind and soul against the mass media’s “flickering light.” As the mass-media creators would know, such an effort has as much to do with form as content. So while Choi’s speaker has a fairly clear agenda, the arguments he makes give priority to the ear-catching sound-formations that carry them. This, from “A Baby in the Manger,” attests to that:

waiting for freedom
waiting for the ransom
waiting for that trumpeting drum
that pa ra pa pum pum
for his will to be done
for his kingdom come

The poem is so obsessed with its own musicality that it eventually becomes a direct mimicking of music. The meaning in the lines, meanwhile, adjusts to the sound’s manoeuvres. But throughout Subway Stations, it adjusts adeptly, so the tendency toward music does not overshadow meaning. This helps the poems adjust from the stage—which is kind to sound-based poems—to the page—where such literature so often goes to die. On the page, these poems retain their performative quickness, earned via rapidly shifting rhyme and wordplay patterns. Choi achieves a delicate balance here: The cadences and rhymes are generously doled out, but the poems for the most part retain an admirable tightness. Meanwhile, while the sound patterns come quick and thick, there’s enough variation—often slight: “God is calling/ God is calling you/ God is calling for you”—to keep them skipping along briskly.

Not always though. I could have done without “80s sitcom song.” It seems tacked-on and irrelevant. Perhaps in performance it comes off differently (some reviewers of the play recall it as funny), but on the page it’s flat and prosaic. Here is a sample that concerns “the one where Alex P. Keaton turned eighteen”: “To impress the girls, he said he was a pilot/ going on a solo mission and his friend, who’d later play/ George McFly in Back to the Future, said he was going with him”. The poem’s first two verses are more engaging, but this third verse falls flat. There is not much momentum from the start: it begins, “Did you see the one where…”. But at “who’d later play,” the flatness of the line becomes extreme. After that, “1980s Sitcom Song” is hard to read.

Thankfully, that is the low point in the book (although “Birkenstock Jesus” also drags). As for Subway Station’s argument, you have to first consider the source. The book only gives us two portraits of a man with long, ragged hair and dress that was perhaps once fine but is now worn and torn. This is the speaker, we can only assume, and his stare is serious. Judging by his words, he’s a sharp mind. He’s a rebel, far from the mainstream, where prophets usually dwell. Old Testament prophets went to the desert, away from society, to discover hard, healing truths to bring back to the people. Walden Pond was Thoreau’s wilderness. Choi’s speaker says nothing of himself, but from the author’s note we know he was inspired by a homeless man Choi met in Toronto. Urban homelessness is thus equated with living in the wilderness. (The aptness of that equation has disturbing societal implications: It suggests we allow many who live in our cities to remain, essentially, in a wilderness, shut off from the rest of us).

Despite his prophetic credentials, Choi’s speaker is not all serious (he speaks of dancing and cartoons as well as God and repentance). But when he claims, “we’re being played,” or “Forgive/ Cuz it’s for you,” it’s convincing. This modern Christian prophet is reminiscent of the hero of Adam Sol’s Jeremiah, Ohio. Though Choi’s speaker is more Isaiah than Jeremiah, both figures are anachronistic in the apocalyptic sincerity of their tone, but very much in, and of, the modern material world. Subway Stations begins with Old Testament gusto—“Prepare ye the name of the lord”—but its end is mostly made up of Toronto Subway drawings. “A Field,” is buried in these images, and its subtly mysterious modern allegory provides a welcome reflective close.

That kind of balance sums up Choi’s achievement with Subway Stations of the Cross. He and Park have created a serious and ancient, yet fun and new, book. And House of Anansi made the most out of the book as an art object. It is well worth picking up.

Anansi | 112 pages | $25.00 | cloth | ISBN # 978-1770899087

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E. Martin Nolan

E. Martin Nolan writes poetry and non-fiction. He’s an associate editor at The Puritan, where he also publishes interviews and reviews. His essays and poems have appeared in The Barnstormer, The Toronto Review of Books, Lemonhound, Contemporary Verse 2, and Eminem and Rap, Poetry, Race (McFarland Books), among others. He teaches at the University of Toronto. You might know him as Ted.