Saturday, July 24, 2010

A Walker in the City

I have not been feeling inspired to post here lately, but I wanted to mention Charles Reznikoff, whose compete poems I'm currently reading.  I had a discussion with a friend about the poem "I will go into the ghetto," posted in the link above (which is not its real title; Reznikoff did not title his poems, but numbered them), and my friend noted that the meaning of the poem changes dramatically depending on whether you set it in pre-war New York or pre-war Europe, and again if you transpose it to the present day.  To my mind, however, the poem is inexorably about New York, and, while it evokes images of the old pre-war immigrant Jewish ghettos in Canarsie or the Lower East Side, at the same time it suggests the seed of the artistic endeavor, the quest to find beauty where it is hidden and bring it forth.

One of the things I loved best when I was a very young woman dreaming of beauty was to get on the subway and ride it anywhere, then get out wherever the fancy struck me and walk and walk.  I ended up in all kinds of strange places, talking to strange people, peering into shops and alleyways, feeling especially heartened when I saw a green shoot pushing up through the cracked pavement, or geraniums rallying in a window box.  I passed laundromats, and breathed deeply the intoxicating aroma of damp, freshly-washed clothes drying in the machines; I went to lunch counters and ate what there was; I got back on the subway to head home, carrying with me Jamaican spice buns, quart jars of oregano, bottles of ghee, Chinese face powder and the gold and silver papers hung for luck at the lunar New Year, which I used for stationery.  Occasionally I found myself in places where I was met with veiled hostility, but I didn't really notice, so intent was I on my purpose of discovering and uncovering beauty wherever it resided, just below the surface of things.

the smell of the fields in this street
for only a day or two in spring
is enough for me.

Even now, one can walk into the New York ghetto and smell something wild, free, something fresh, seeming to come up from the earth and the sea.

Here is a poem by Reznikoff -- also, I believe, about New York, in the days when the country encroached upon the city -- in honor of the brutal heat today.

We children used to cross the orchard, the brown earth covered
with little green apples,
into the field beyond;
the grass came up over our knees,
there were so many flowers we did not care to pick any --
daisies and yellow daisies, goldenrod and buttercups.
It was so hot the field smelt of cake baking.

And here is a great multimedia piece about a walker in the city.


Rodak said...

OMG. Thank you for linking that multimedia piece. This is my City. I can feel and smell it and hear it. Can the artist really be waiting table in Brooklyn? That defies the imagination somehow.
I'll have to check out Reznikoff. I'll have to watch that clip several more times.
I haven't forgotten that you promised to post some NY pics yourself. This lets you off the hook only temporarily. I'd like to see it through your eyes, since you write about it so beautifully.

Pentimento said...

All artists are waiting tables in Brooklyn, Rodak; that's the way it is.

Last time I was in NYC I did take some pictures, but they were only of friends and family, so they wouldn't be very interesting. I have to go back in a few days for another family event, but I'll try to remember. I'm very forgetful about photos.

Rodak said...

I don't want to nag you. I never take pictures myself and can't cast a stone.
I'd forgotten about artists and their day jobs. I've been away too long. But, you're right, of course. Either waiting table, tending bar, or driving a cab.
When I first got to NYC, artists could make good money being word processors. The machines literally filled whole rooms in those days, and you had to receive specialized training to use them. The PC put an end to that sweet gig, pdq.

Pentimento said...

It's not so much cabdrivers now, but hopping tables, tending bar, and still word-processing and proofreading for investment banks and law firms, though a lot of the investment bank work is sent to India now.

Rodak said...

I did some proof-reading for law firms in my day. That was a trip.
The difference between word processing now and then is that back then it paid really well, if you knew how to do it. You could work a few hours per week and make your nut.

Pentimento said...

My first husband, M., knew a guy who was a fairly-well-known sculptor and Vietnam veteran who lived on a friend's land in Pennsylvania. He lived in the woods and bow-hunted for his food, and sometimes he taught wilderness-survival classes. He would take the bus to New York and work Friday-Sunday, word-processing on the overnight shift, and then go back to the woods.

Rodak said...

Yeah. In the early '70s, there were so few people who were trained in word processing that one could almost name one's hours. That was another reason that it was popular with artists, particularly performing artists, who valued that flexibility.

Clare Krishan said...

Neat how the mind's eye threads time and place into the warp and weft of human lived experience: the "cake baking" motif spoke to me, echoing a reflection that took root after hearing yesterday's daily reading(*) on parables of the mustard seed and the yeast. Perhaps because I was meditating on the Feast of Anne and Joachim Our Lady's parents, I saw for the first time that these parables complement each other in gender (while the PC texts render Mt 13:31 obscure "person" in Latin its quite clear):
Man as heavenly cultivator, striving forth to the horizon
Simile est regnum cælorum grano sinapis, quod accipiens HOMO seminavit in agro suo:
Woman as heavenly inculcator, raising things vertically
Simile est regnum cælorum fermento, quod acceptum MULIER abscondit in farinæ satis tribus, donec fermentatum est totum.

We're all a little of both, truth be told, but the ability to recognize the inherent inclination (the Kingdom of God is within you) towards one or the other belies the yearning for, and reveals the joy in encountering, the transcendental part of our human nature.

Thank you for posting even when you're not inclined. The enchantment of poetry is obviously one of your charisms, designed to be shared!
* I'm not a daily mass-goer, but I do attempt to listen in to the UK Jesuits pray-as-you-go podcast as often as I can (click on "26" for Monday's piece)
Their musical choices aren't always my cup of tea, but their lectors are always top notch, more sonorous than the choristers (I've an affinity for narrators reading out loud!)

Pentimento said...

Clare, your comments enrich this blog; thank you!