Mckay and the Ambiguity of Home

I was drawn to two poems of Mckay’s for this week: “Subway Wind” and “To One Coming North.” In both, there is a longing for home, for “native” lands. When thought of together, though, there is an ambivalence that comes with the desire for home.

“Subway Wind” uses the image of a subway tunnel and the wind that rushes through it, as a vehicle for thinking about the “captive” state of people who live in the city yet “moan… for fields and seas” of more natural places. Here these places are seaports and islands, the tropics. Mckay connects these foreign locales with freedom, wildlife, ease, and an openness; ideas that runs counter to the crammed “packed” and stultifying subways that are emblematic of life in the city. The poem turns on the word “moan” wherein the narrator begins desiring something other than the intestines of the city scape in which they are stuck. The moan, an image of painful desire, unleashes an imaginative journey that illustrates the desire to escape to “native” lands at the heart of the home (a desire that doesn’t materialize).  This poem is a pretty clean rejection of urban, technological centers of life in the north and an embrace of more natural tropical settings.

“To One Coming North,” on the other hand, is more ambiguous in its theorizing/desiring of home.  The central image here is that of snowfall—it is, like the wind in the previous poem, what signals the foreign, the alien, the unhealthy, for the narrator. The snow is pleasant at first but then the “wind-worried void… chilly, raw” sets in and the narrator “long[s] for home.” Unlike the subway winds which are omnipresent in the cycles of the city, the snow is seasonal: as it arrives it alienate the narrator and inspires a desire for “flowering lanes… and spaces dry.” Yet as it disappears and warm weather comes back around, the narrator sees the beauty in the “Northland” as it is “wreathed in golden smiles/ By the miraculous sun turned glad and warm.”

While I see ambiguous ideas of home with each narrator, one key difference is the inherent subway winds (not seasonal, a permanent fixture of the city) and the transient snow. In “Subway Wind” the natural environment (or the evidence of) is always alienating. In “To One Coming North” the idea of home comes and goes with the seasons. The next question is the psychological impact of each of these experiences. Both poems show conflicted narrators and feelings of unbelonging and discontentedness for the narrators, yet in distinctly different ways.