Friday, April 3, 2009

Photographs of Old New York

In honor of National Poetry Month, and in anticipation of the April 7 Tenement Talk with poet Stephen Wolf, we're posting some of our favorite poems from his New York-centric collection I Speak of the City.

By Alfred Corn (1943 - )

They stare back into an increate future,
Dead stars, burning still. Air how choked with soot
One breathed then, the smudged grays and blacks impressed
In circles around East European eyes,
Top hats, a brougham, the laundry that hung
Like crowds of ghosts over common courtyards.
Dignity still knew how to thrust its hand
Into a waistcoat, bread plaited into shapes
How to dress a window, light under the El
Fall as negative to cast-iron shadows.
Assemble Liberty plate by plate - so
This giant dismembered arm still emerges
From folds of bronze and floats over the heads
Of bearded workmen riveted in place
By an explosion of magnetism they've learned
To endure. Then, Union. Rally. March. Strike.

And still the wretched refugees swarming
Out from Ellis Island, the glittering door,
To prosper or perish. Or both...The men
Don't see the women; or see how deftly hems
Can be lifted at curbs - well, any eye would
Be caught by that tilt of hat, profile, bearing.
Others strive to have mattered, too, stolid
Forms that blush and crouch over sewing machines,
Haunt the libraries, speak on platforms.
Did they? And did this woman, who clearly still
Speaks no English, her head scarf, say, Russian?
A son stands at her side, crop-haired, in clumpy
Shoes. She stares straight forward, reserved, aware,
Embattled. The deep-set eyes say something
About the emptiness of most wishes; and
About her hopes. She knows the odds are poor.
Or, the odds are zero, counted from here.
That past survives its population
And is unkind. Triumph no more than failure
In the longest run ever fails to fail.
Is that the argument against shuffling,
Dealing, and reshuffling these photographs?
They are not mementos of death alone,
But of life lived variously, avatars
Energy, insight, cruelty took - and love.
Variousness: the great kaleidoscope
Of time, its snowflake pictures, form after
Form, collapsing into the future, hours,
Days, seasons, generations that rise up
And fall like leaves, each one a hand inscribed
With fragile calligraphy of selfhood;
The human fate given a human face.

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