Pandaemonium

ODE TO NEW YORK

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On the anniversary of 9/11, and while I am in the city, here is a collection of some of my favourite poems about New York. It is, as ever, an eclectic choice. There are many others that I might have included (Allen Ginsberg, Walt Whitman, Claude McKay, Elizabeth Bishop, to name but a few) if I had the space, but I decided to restrict myself to seven. There are many that I have forgotten, many more that I simply don’t know.

The photos are mine, taken on my first visit to New York in 1998.

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Ellis Island
JR Solonche

I don’t know which is sadder,
the empty steamer trunks, carpet bags,
and wicker baskets with leather straps,
or what was once their contents,
the belongings donated by the families
to be exhibited like this, hair brushes,
combs, lacey handkerchiefs, bibles, jewelry,
beer mugs, bowls, straight razors,
razor strops, hat pins, hats, shoes, vests,
a violin, a certificate of piano studies,
identity papers, shawls. I leave, imagining
the visitors today are wearing these clothes,
carrying these carpet bags and steamer trunks
and wicker baskets with leather straps.
I leave, imagining myself on the stern of a ship
nosing into Ellis Island, looking back at
the green lady, looking back, back at the sea.

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Sleepless City (Brooklyn Bridge Nocturne)
Federico García Lorca

Out in the sky, no one sleeps. No one, no one.
No one sleeps.
The creatures of the moon sniff and prowl about their cabins.
The living iguanas will come and bite the men who do not dream,
and the brokenhearted fugitive will meet on street corners
an unbelievable alligator resting beneath the tender protest of the stars.

Out in the sky, no one sleeps. No one, no one.
No one sleeps.
In a graveyard far off there is a corpse
who has moaned for three years
because of an arid landscape in his knee;
and that boy they buried this morning cried so much
it was necessary to call out the dogs to keep him quiet.

Life is not a dream. Careful! Careful! Careful!
We fall down the stairs in order to eat the moist earth
or we climb to the snow’s edge with the voices of dead dahlias.
But there is no oblivion; no dream:
only flesh exists. Kisses tie our mouths
in a tangle of new veins,
and those who hurt will hurt without rest
and those who are afraid of death will carry it on their shoulders.

One day
horses will live in the saloons
and the enraged ants
will throw themselves on the yellow skies that take refuge in the eyes of cows.

Another day
we will watch the dried butterflies rise from the dead
and still walking through a landscape of gray sponges and silent ships
we will watch our ring flash while roses spill from our tongues.

Careful! Be careful! Be careful!
Those still marked by claws and thunderstorms,
and that boy who cries because he has never heard of the invention of bridges,
or that corpse who possesses now only his head and a shoe,
we must carry them to the wall where the iguanas and the snakes are waiting,
where the bear’s teeth are waiting,
where the mummified hand of the boy is waiting,
and the fur of the camel stands on end with a violent blue chill.

Out in the sky, no one sleeps. No one, no one.
No one sleeps.
But if someone does close his eyes,
whip him, my children, whip him!
Let there be a landscape of open eyes
and bitter wounds on fire.
Out in the sky, no one sleeps. No one, no one.
I have said it before.
No one is sleeping.
But if someone grows too much moss on his temples during the night,
open the stage trapdoors so he can see in the moonlight
the fake goblets, the poison, and the skull of the theaters.

(From Poet in New York City, Penguin)

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The Weary Blues
Langston Hughes

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
      I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
      He did a lazy sway. . . .
      He did a lazy sway. . . .
To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
      O Blues!
Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
      Sweet Blues!
Coming from a black man’s soul.
      O Blues!
In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan—
      “Ain’t got nobody in all this world,
      Ain’t got nobody but ma self.
      I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’
      And put ma troubles on the shelf.”
Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some more—
      “I got the Weary Blues
      And I can’t be satisfied.
      Got the Weary Blues
      And can’t be satisfied—
      I ain’t happy no mo’
      And I wish that I had died.”
And far into the night he crooned that tune.
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.
(From The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. Copyright © the Estate of Langston Hughes.)
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East-Side: New York
Maxwell Bodenheim

An old Jew munches an apple,
With conquering immersion
All the thwarted longings of his life
Urge on his determined teeth.
His face is hard and pear-shaped;
His eyes are muddy capitulations;
But his mouth is incongruous.
Softly, slightly distended,
Like that of a whistling girl,
It is ingenuously haunting
And makes the rest of him a soiled, grey background.
Hopes that lie within their grave
Of submissive sternness,
Have spilled their troubled ghosts upon this mouth,
And a tortured belief
Has dwindled into tenderness upon it …
He trudges off behind his push-cart
And the Ghetto walks away with him.

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To New York
Léopold Sédar Senghor

New York! At first I was bewildered by your beauty
Those huge, long-legged, golden girls.
So shy, at first, before your blue metallic eyes and icy smile,
So shy. And full of despair at the end of skyscraper streets
Raising my owl eyes at the eclipse of the sun.
Your light is sulphurous against the pale towers
Whose heads strike lightning into the sky,
Skyscrapers defying storms with their steel shoulders
And weathered skin of stone.
But two weeks on the naked sidewalks of Manhattan—
At the end of the third week the fever
Overtakes you with a jaguar’s leap
Two weeks without well water or pasture all birds of the air
Fall suddenly dead under the high, sooty terraces.
No laugh from a growing child, his hand in my cool hand.

No mother’s breast, but nylon legs. Legs and breasts

Without smell or sweat. No tender word, and no lips,
Only artificial hearts paid for in cold cash
And not one book offering wisdom.
The painter’s palette yields only coral crystals.
Sleepless nights, O nights of Manhattan!
Stirring with delusions while car horns blare the empty hours
And murky streams carry away hygenic loving
Like rivers overflowing with the corpses of babies.

II
Now is the time of signs and reckoning, New York!
Now is the time of manna and hyssop.
You have only to listen to God’s trombones, to your heart
Beating to the rhythm of blood, your blood.
I saw Harlem teeming with sounds and ritual colors
And outrageous smells—
At teatime in the home of the drugstore-deliveryman
I saw the festival of Night begin at the retreat of day.
And I proclaim Night more truthful than the day.
It is the pure hour when God brings forth
Life immemorial in the streets,
All the amphibious elements shinning like suns.
Harlem, Harlem! Now I’ve seen Harlem, Harlem!
A green breeze of corn rising from the pavements
Plowed by the Dan dancers’ bare feet,
Hips rippling like silk and spearhead breasts,
Ballets of water lilies and fabulous masks
And mangoes of love rolling from the low houses
To the feet of police horses.
And along sidewalks I saw streams of white rum
And streams of black milk in the blue haze of cigars.
And at night I saw cotton flowers snow down
From the sky and the angels’ wings and sorcerers’ plumes.
Listen, New York! O listen to your bass male voice,
Your vibrant oboe voice, the muted anguish of your tears
Falling in great clots of blood,
Listen to the distant beating of your nocturnal heart,
The tom-tom’s rhythm and blood, tom-tom blood and tom-tom.

III
New York! I say New York, let black blood flow into your blood.
Let it wash the rust from your steel joints, like an oil of life
Let it give your bridges the curve of hips and supple vines.
Now the ancient age returns, unity is restored,
The reconciliation of the Lion and Bull and Tree
Idea links to action, the ear to the heart, sign to meaning.
See your rivers stirring with musk alligators
And sea cows with mirage eyes. No need to invent the Sirens.
Just open your eyes to the April rainbow
And your eyes, especially your ears, to God
Who in one burst of saxophone laughter
Created heaven and earth in six days,
And on the seventh slept a deep Negro sleep.

(From The Collected Poetry, University of Virginia Press, 1998; )

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The ghetto [an extract]
Lola Ridge

I
Cool, inaccessible air
Is floating in velvety blackness shot with steel-blue lights,
But no breath stirs the heat
Leaning its ponderous bulk upon the Ghetto
And most on Hester street…

The heat…
Nosing in the body’s overflow,
Like a beast pressing its great steaming belly close,
Covering all avenues of air…

The heat in Hester street,
Heaped like a dray
With the garbage of the world.

Bodies dangle from the fire escapes
Or sprawl over the stoops…
Upturned faces glimmer pallidly –
Herring-yellow faces, spotted as with a mold,
And moist faces of girls
Like dank white lilies,
And infants’ faces with open parched mouths that suck at the air
as at empty teats.

Young women pass in groups,
Converging to the forums and meeting halls,
Surging indomitable, slow
Through the gross underbrush of heat.
Their heads are uncovered to the stars,
And they call to the young men and to one another
With a free camaraderie.
Only their eyes are ancient and alone…

The street crawls undulant,
Like a river addled
With its hot tide of flesh
That ever thickens.
Heavy surges of flesh
Break over the pavements,
Clavering like a surf –
Flesh of this abiding
Brood of those ancient mothers who saw the dawn break over Egypt…
And turned their cakes upon the dry hot stones
And went on
Till the gold of the Egyptians fell down off their arms…
Fasting and athirst…
And yet on…

Did they vision – with those eyes darkly clear,
That looked the sun in the face and were not blinded –
Across the centuries
The march of their enduring flesh?
Did they hear –
Under the molten silence
Of the desert like a stopped wheel –
(And the scorpions tick-ticking on the sand…
The infinite procession of those feet?

II
I room at Sodos’ – in the little green room that was Bennie’s –
With Sadie
And her old father and her mother,
Who is not so old and wears her own hair.

Old Sodos no longer makes saddles.
He has forgotten how.
He has forgotten most things – even Bennie who stays away
and sends wine on holidays –
And he does not like Sadie’s mother
Who hides God’s candles,
Nor Sadie
Whose young pagan breath puts out the light –
That should burn always,
Like Aaron’s before the Lord.

Time spins like a crazy dial in his brain,
And night by night
I see the love-gesture of his arm
In its green-greasy coat-sleeve
Circling the Book,
And the candles gleaming starkly
On the blotched-paper whiteness of his face,
Like a miswritten psalm…
Night by night
I hear his lifted praise,
Like a broken whinnying
Before the Lord’s shut gate.

Sadie dresses in black.
She has black-wet hair full of cold lights
And a fine-drawn face, too white.
All day the power machines
Drone in her ears…
All day the fine dust flies
Till throats are parched and itch
And the heat – like a kept corpse –
Fouls to the last corner.

Then – when needles move more slowly on the cloth
And sweaty fingers slacken
And hair falls in damp wisps over the eyes –
Sped by some power within,
Sadie quivers like a rod…
A thin black piston flying,
One with her machine.

She – who stabs the piece-work with her bitter eye
And bids the girls: ‘Slow down –
You’ll have him cutting us again!’
She – fiery static atom,
Held in place by the fierce pressure all about –
Speeds up the driven wheels
And biting steel – that twice
Has nipped her to the bone.

Nights, she reads
Those books that have most unset thought,
New-poured and malleable,
To which her thought
Leaps fusing at white heat,
Or spits her fire out in some dim manger of a hall,
Or at a protest meeting on the Square,
Her lit eyes kindling the mob…
Or dances madly at a festival.
Each dawn finds her a little whiter,
Though up and keyed to the long day,
Alert, yet weary… like a bird
That all night long has beat about a light.

The Gentile lover, that she charms and shrews,
Is one more pebble in the pack
For Sadie’s mother,
Who greets him with her narrowed eyes
That hold some welcome back.
‘What’s to be done?’ she’ll say,
‘When Sadie wants she takes…
Better than Bennie with his Christian woman…
A man is not so like,
If they should fight,
To call her Jew…’

Yet when she lies in bed
And the soft babble of their talk comes to her
And the silences…
I know she never sleeps
Till the keen draught blowing up the empty hall
Edges through her transom
And she hears his foot on the first stairs.

Sarah and Anna live on the floor above.
Sarah is swarthy and ill-dressed.
Life for her has no ritual.
She would break an ideal like an egg for the winged thing at the core.
Her mind is hard and brilliant and cutting like an acetylene torch.
If any impurities drift there, they must be burnt up as in a clear flame.
It is droll that she should work in a pants factory.
– Yet where else… tousled and collar awry at her olive throat.
Besides her hands are unkempt.
With English… and everything… there is so little time.
She reads without bias –
Doubting clamorously –
Psychology, plays, science, philosophies –
Those giant flowers that have bloomed and withered, scattering their seed…
– And out of this young forcing soil what growth may come –
what amazing blossomings.

Anna is different.
One is always aware of Anna, and the young men turn their heads
to look at her.
She has the appeal of a folk-song
And her cheap clothes are always in rhythm.
When the strike was on she gave half her pay.
She would give anything – save the praise that is hers
And the love of her lyric body.

But Sarah’s desire covets nothing apart.
She would share all things…
Even her lover.

I hear the halting footsteps of a lass
In Negro Harlem when the night lets fall
Its veil. I see the shapes of girls who pass
To bend and barter at desire’s call.
Ah, little dark girls who in slippered feet
Go prowling through the night from street to street!

Through the long night until the silver break
Of day the little gray feet know no rest;
Through the lone night until the last snowflake
Has dropped from heaven upon the earth’s white breast,
The dusky, half-clad girls of tired feet
Are trudging, thinly shod, from street to street.

Ah, stern harsh world, that in the wretched way
Of poverty, dishonor and disgrace,
Has pushed the timid little feet of clay,
The sacred brown feet of my fallen race!
Ah, heart of me, the weary, weary feet
In Harlem wandering from street to street.

(From The Ghetto, and Other Poems, Huebsch)

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Heard
Ellen Reiss

Life comes delicately,
And in an afternoon of winter,
Lungs, a throat, small lips
Never heard before
Utter sound.

In the cries of the babies of New York
Are the noises
That float and tumble from a universe of sound.
In an hour, in a day,
In a neighborhood of New York,
I hear an orchestra of Beethoven,
And your beginning lungs.

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