Sunday, November 06, 2005

Angels and the Bars of Manhattan

What I miss most about the city are the angels
and the bars of Manhattan: faithful Cannon’s and the Night Cafe;
the Corner Bistro and the infamous White Horse;
McKenna’s maniacal hockey fans; the waitresses at Live Bait;
lounges and taverns, taps and pubs;
joints, dives, spots, clubs; all the Blarney
Stones and Roses full of Irish boozers eating brisket
stacked on kaiser rolls with frothing mugs of Ballantine.
How many nights we marked the stations of that cross,
axial or transverse, uptown or down to the East Village
where there’s two in every block we’d stop to check,
hoisting McSorleys, shooting tequila and eight-ball
with hipsters and bikers and crazy Ukrainians,
all the black-clad chicks lined up like vodka bottles on Avenue B,
because we liked to drink and talk and argue,
and then at four or five when the whiskey soured
we’d walk the streets for breakfast at some diner,
Daisy’s, the Olympia, La Perla del Sur,
deciphering the avenues’ hazy lexicon over coffee and eggs,
snow beginning to fall, steam on the windows blurring the film
until the trussed-up sidewalk Christmas trees
resembled something out of Mandelstam,
Russian soldiers bundled in their greatcoats,
honor guard for the republic of salt. Those were the days
of revolutionary zeal. Haughty as dictators, we railed
against the formal elite, certain as Moses or Roger Williams
of our errand into the wilderness. Truly,
there was something almost noble
in the depth of our self-satisfaction, young poets in New York,
how cool. Possessors of absolute knowledge,
we willingly shared it in unmetered verse,

scavenging inspiration from Whitman and history and Husker Du,

from the very bums and benches of Broadway,
precisely the way that the homeless
who lived in the Parks Department garage at 79th Street
jacked in to the fixtures to run their appliances
off the city’s live current. Volt pirates;
electrical vampires. But what I can’t fully fathom
is the nature of the muse that drew us to begin with,
bound us over to those tenements of rage
as surely as the fractured words scrawled across the stoops
and shuttered windows. Whatever compelled us
to suspend the body of our dreams from poetry’s slender reed
when any electric guitar would do? Who did we think was

Who, as we cried out, as we shook, rattled, and rolled.
would ever hear us among the blue multitudes of Christmas

strung as celestial hierarchies from the ceiling? Who
among the analphabetical ranks and orders
of warped records and secondhand books on our shelves,
the quarterlies and Silver Surfer comics,velvet Elvises,
candles burned in homage to Las Siete Potencias Africanas
as we sat basking in the half-blue glimmer,
tossing the torn foam basketball nigh the invisible hoop,
listening in our pitiless way to two kinds of music,
loud and louder, anarchy and roar, rock and roll
buckling the fundament with pure, delirious noise.
It welled up in us, huge as snowflakes, as manifold,
the way ice devours the reservoir in Central Park.
Like angels or the Silver Surfer we thought we could
kick free of the stars to steer by dead reckoning.
But whose stars are they? And whose angels
if not Rilke’s, or Milton’s, even Abraham Lincoln’s,
“the better angels of our nature” he hoped would emerge,
air-swimmers descending in apple-green light.
We worshipped the anonymous neon apostles of the city,
cuchifrito cherubs, polystyrene seraphim,
thrones and dominions of linoleum and asphalt:
abandoned barges on the Hudson mud flats;
Bowery jukes oozing sepia and plum-colored light;
headless dolls and eviscerated teddy bears
chained to the grills of a thousand garbage trucks; the elms
that bear the wailing skins of plastic bags in their arms all winter,
throttled and grotesque, so that we sometimes wondered
walking Riverside Drive in February or March
why not just put up cement trees with plastic leaves
and get it over with? There was no limit to our capacity for awe
at the city’s miraculous icons and instances,
the frenzied cacophony, the democratic whirlwind.
Drunk on thunder, we believed in vision
and the convocation of heavenly presences summoned
to the chorus. Are they with us still? Are they
listening? Spirit of the tiny lights, ghost beneath the words,
numinous and blue, inhaler of bourbon fumes and errant shots,
are you there? I don’t know. Somehow I doubt we’ll ever know
which song was ours and which the siren
call of the city. More and more, it seems our errand
is to face the music, bring the noise, scour the rocks
to salvage grace notes and fragmented harmonies,
diving for pearls in the beautiful ruins,
walking all night through the pigeon-haunted streets
as fresh snow softly fills the imprint of our steps.
O.K., I’m repeating myself, forgive me, I’m sure brevity
is a virtue. It’s just this melody keeps begging to be hummed:
McCarthy’s, on 14th Street, where the regulars drink
beer on the rocks and the TV shows Police Woman
twenty-four hours a day; the quiet, almost tender way
they let the local derelicts in to sleep it off
in the back booths of the Blue & Gold after closing;
and that sign behind the bar at the Marlin, you know
the one, hand-lettered, scribbled with slogans of love and abuse,
shop-worn but still bearing its indomitable message
to the thirsty, smoke-fingered, mood-enhanced masses—
“Ice Cold Six Packs To Go.” Now that’s a poem.

-- Campbell McGrath


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