A Survivor at Paddington Station

by Marilyn Francis
The Write Idea
First Place, December 2013
Judged by Kelly Cherry

He was used to waiting,
and the transit lounge on Platform 1
wasn’t too bad.

The Polish girl behind the desk
was busy, busy, busy with enquiries.
But he could wait.

After all, he had his own chair to sit on.
He would wait until someone noticed him
in his too-big scarlet jacket

and black cap loose on his skull.
He had all the time and no time –
a piece of travelling debris. He slept.

Slept to attention, hands like a handful
of kindling resting on his knees, and a tide
of travellers washed around him.

This is a poem that possesses dignity. Without squirming or showing off, it delivers a clear, crisp portrait of a man waiting to ask a question of "t]he Polish girl behind the desk," who is dealing with a slew of questions from other people. He is content to wait, undemanding, perhaps somewhat meek. The man's jacket is too large for him and his black cap too small, which tells us he is probably down at the heels, poor, certainly unattended by tailors or department stories. He falls asleep, which tells us he is weary, has perhaps already been traveling for a long time, and not in a hurry. He is referred to as "debris," and now we know for sure that he is one of multitudes of travelers, no one to be singled out. As he sleeps, his hands lie on his knees like "kindling," as if they are trash branches, no longer serviceable for real work. Yet even sleeping, he seems ready to wake at any given moment. This small but crucial detail heightens our sense of his precarious life and his personal decency. Alas, no one notices him. In fact, "a tide / of travellers washed around him," this splendid image underscoring our understanding of him as "a piece of debris," discounted by others as litter, without worth. The poem is simple but does its work efficiently and leaves the sympathetic reader with something like heartache, a kind of sadness coupled with fondness. --Kelly Cherry