The poem “On the Subway” by Sharon Olds is a free-verse poem about a white woman and a young black man who find themselves alone with each other on the subway, facing each other from the opposite sides of the car. As they observe each other, the woman relates her thoughts about the situation, which reflect the fear and tension of living an urban life. The fact that the young man before her is black is of particular significance to her.
She reflects on the general predicament of blacks, and emphasizes the inequality between her and the young man. Most of the poem’s intended message, expressed from a socially-aware perspective, is explicitly stated; although Olds uses symbolism and figurative language, even a literal take on the poem will deliver much of her intended meaning. Virtually everyone who reads the poem will be familiar with the issues it takes up, so the poem does not inform, but reminds the reader of the woeful imbalance of power and privilege in society.
It is only through the poem’s title that the reader knows the setting and contextualizes the poem’s body; even before body of the poem is read, the title is able to set the tone to some degree: the subway is a dark and lonely place, where people are squeezed together but remain cold and uninterested in each other. The woman finds herself alone on the car with a young black man with the “casual cold look of a mugger,” as she puts it.
She also mentions that she wears “…dark fur, the / whole skin of an animal taken and / used…” (11-1), which prefigures her coming discussion of the propensity of her “kind,” which is the white race, for taking advantage and stealing the rights of others. This brings her to a consideration of the boy’s possible behavior towards her, making her contemplate the possibility that the boy would choose to take his vengeance on this member of his white oppressors.
The speaker’s thoughts revolve around the imbalance of power in the car, and she contrasts it with the imbalance of power in society in general. The narrative is communicated from a socially-aware perspective. She speaks of “…eating the steak / he does not eat…” (19-20) of “…how easy this / white skin makes my life…” (27-28), where “…without meaning or / trying to I must profit from his darkness” (22-23). She is here speaking of the prevalent racial inequality that is still very much a part of social reality.
The narrator is the more “privileged” side of this temporary dichotomy, although the distribution of privilege becomes obscure in the brief period of time that they share the small space on the car, isolated from the rest of civilization: “I didn’t know / if I am in his power” (14-15), “…or if he is in my power” (18). The two observe each other quietly, without interacting. In this tense situation, she observes how weak she is, and how the young man is physically superior to her.
She is “…wearing dark fur…” (11), and she points out that “he could take my coat so easily, my / briefcase, my life” (16-17). She observes “…how easy this / white skin makes my life, this / life he could take so easily… ” (27-29). She is aware that, without the protection of society, she could easily become the oppressed, and he the oppressor. By juxtaposing her concrete physical powerlessness compared to the boy with what she believes is the general powerlessness of blacks and the weakness of the black identity in the white-dominated world, she creates a striking pseudo-paradox.
The speaker contrasts her socially-constructed position of privilege with the boy’s obvious “privilege” of strength and almost absolute power over the speaker as long as they are in the car. Here the speaker highlights the irony found in the fact that, although she belongs to the more powerful “race,” she is temporarily powerless before this young member of the less powerful portion of society. There is perhaps something objectionable about the speaker’s attitude towards the young man.
She speaks of his “casual cold look of a mugger” (8), and of his shirt, which is “red, like the inside of the body / exposed” (10-11), suggesting an association with violence. She immediately associates the young man with urban crime, and gives him too little credit for being a person in his own right, but instead reduces him to a stereotype, to no more than a representative of the suffering and wickedness of his race. She does not blame him or his race, however, but instead blames “…the murderous beams of the / nation’s heart…” (24-25).
Nevertheless, her condescending “appreciation” of the boy’s predicament is probably as unwelcome as the oppression that she unintentionally “inflicts” upon him. Granted, the situation discourages any attempt of either passenger at getting insight into the other’s personality, so she cannot get any deeper appreciation of the young man. Olds uses a simple and familiar situation, which is riding on the subway, as a vehicle for her reflections on the perversities of society. It is an extremely familiar worldview that the poem’s narrator expresses, and thus there are no radical ideas.
The essence of this poem is nothing that has not been said before by countless others, but the poem stands out because of the juxtaposition of the two kinds of power that she reflects upon as they observe each other. However, to fully appreciate this poem, it must be realized that the speaker is not to be trusted entirely; she does a disservice to the black race by the method of her approach to the matter. She ignores that fact that the young man is a person and instead renders him into an abstract entity.
Thus, the poem provokes a two-fold criticism of the white race: their oppressiveness, and their tendency to stereotype the oppressed. The heavy realism and simplicity of the poem effectively delivers its message of condemnation for the perceived oppression of whites by blacks. This message also benefits from the poem’s free-verse form. There is also no explicit pattern and no pretensions in the delivery of the speaker’s thoughts, suggesting the narrative’s unadulterated honesty. Through the poem’s simplicity and directness, what Olds ultimately communicates is an attitude of abstract concern for a concrete individual.