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Traveling North on the 42S
by Lionel E. Deimel



The sunbeam, from a crack beneath the door,

Drew a glistening line across the rubber floor

Of the rapid-transit car.


The bumpy shaft, skimming the ebon mat,

Swept past the place where the driver sat,

As the train obeyed the curving rails.


What a clever trick of the morning light—

To steer a streak to left and right

And form a shining compass on the floor!


I was settling in on the train to downtown when I saw a mesmerizing shaft of light on the floor of the transit car. It pivoted about its origin at a chink in the rubber skirt beneath a door. Although I had planned to finish a book I had been reading, I kept watching the light as it swept back and forth as the train negotiated the curving track. It immediately occurred to me that the ray served as a kind of compass. The sun, rising in the east, created a line on the floor from east to west. A perpendicular to this line would point north, the general direction in which the train was heading. I put away my book and pulled out my notebook to write a poem.

Poems sometimes seem to write themselves. Without giving it much thought, I wrote what turned out to be a couplet:

The sunbeam, through a crack at the base of the door,

Threw an arrow of light across the floor

I had no preconceptions about appropriate rhyme or meter, so I simply added the line

Of the light rail car.

This provided a simple pattern for stanzas—a rhyming couplet, followed by a shorter, non-rhyming line. I quickly wrote two more stanzas, relying on the “mat”/“sat” rhyme and the more felicitous “light”/“right” pair. Before my half-hour trip was over, I was substituting words and padding out lines to improve the meter. The title came late in the process. My first choice was “Sense of Direction.” I also rejected “Direction Finder” before choosing the present title, which gives the reader context without giving away the punch line.

— LED, 4/13/2005

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