Cliff Fyman’s Taxi Night
(Long News Books, 2021)
In the late spring of 2021, as life in the United States was sputtering back to life after the pandemic, Cliff Fyman’s Taxi Night was a vivid reminder of the way the talk had been going full throttle before everything came to a crashing halt. By “the talk,” I mean the vivid and largely unconscious and actual way people speak to one another either in person and especially over the phone. Fyman, a white male Jew and former student of the Kerouac School at Naropa University in its first decade, was behind the wheel of a yellow cab in New York City, working the graveyard shift, picking up fares, and in the tradition of cab poetry, began documenting what he was hearing from the driver’s seat. What he created was as candid an audio soundscape transcribed to the written word as this reviewer has seen for some time.
Taxi Night is a vernacular showcase of the language of the streets of America’s most dynamic city and it reads like fresh air. Its spokespeople enter the cab in the shortest hours when the great thoroughfares are at their most quiet and empty. The voices we hear are by definition disembodied and this is in part the work’s logic and mystery. A kind of surveillance of the void which in reality is never knowable. A kind of light years away speech time capsule for whom we have only the most limited sense that intelligent life exists. Conveyed over four parts, Fyman composed and arranged these overheard, or found, conversations and had the wherewithal to sequence them to his own inner musical sense and shape them according to his own painter’s eye. In this regard, the book takes on the feeling of an abstract painting, and yet, there is nothing abstract about the relationships each conversation suggests as he layers one upon another. There can be no voice without the body, and there is no voice where there is no body able to assert its power.
The stark and sudden presentation of these vignettes, with Fyman the journeyman transporting his passengers through the empty avenues of nighttime NYC rivers of darkness, reminded me of the haunting photographs of Robert Frank, especially his classic collection, The Americans. The visual rawness of Frank’s images felt comparable to Cliff Fyman’s speech documents that make his long poem what it is. Like Frank’s best work, Taxi Night doesn’t put up the long unraveling American Dream as a formula to which it abides. Instead, the book offers a kind of graininess, a cinematic and off-kilter immediacy outside most forms of prepared or journalistic speech. Stripped of any conformity or audio-perfect pretense or braindead and easy optimism, there is no veneer to Fyman’s audio portraiture.
As we return to our lives amidst society, there is a certain critical anti-mythos that I believe one comes away with from the loss and damage the pandemic brought to us all, to all the nation-states of the world. Taxi Night gives us a view of who we are now—fallen, unscrubbed, angry, disapproving, lonely, working the streets for a way to survive one more day. There is the “strange secrecy” to Fyman’s work, something that Kerouac mentioned about Robert Frank’s photography. A sense of an audio clip aesthetic, a sound that feels and is heard as authentic, a sense of speech that is as compelling as if it contains a new approach to listening. An approach that we all need now more than ever.