For a while in the 90s, a graffiti artist called Revs was basically writing a memoir on the walls of the New York City subway tunnels—painting wide swaths of white or yellow, each one sort of page, with a paragraph of text like a diary entry. There are hundreds of them underground, along every subway line, and we zip past them so quickly they mostly go unnoticed. Since I’m fascinated by underground worlds, both literal and figurative, and also by the impulse to write on walls, I’ve always been intrigued by his work, and so eventually this poem happened.
Instructions for Modern Graffiti
Dropping bombs has lost
its thrill. The city’s cleaned up and
carried you out, wiped down
its blemished memory. Done
climbing walls, you’ll travel
underground. Wear an orange vest
so you don’t get caught.
You won’t be spared
these visions. Rats scatter. Trash fire.
Heartspray, stain the halls.
In the morning, your life
skips by, too fast
to know. You will be erased
before long: fresh paint,
an empty plate. Your eyes stung
by the natural light.
Whether or not
you exist, you did
exist. When questioned, you’ll stick
to the story: alive without permission,
rusting away in the sun.
Camille Rankine is the author of Slow Dance with Trip Wire, selected by Cornelius Eady for the Poetry Society of America's 2010 New York Chapbook Fellowship. The recipient of a 2010 "Discovery"/Boston Review Poetry Prize, her poetry has appeared in numerous journals, including Atlas Review, American Poet, The Baffler, Boston Review, Denver Quarterly, Octopus Magazine, Phantom Limb, Paper Darts and Tin House. She is Assistant Director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Manhattanville College, Editorial Director of The Manhattanville Review, and lives in New York City.