Greenpoint, October, 2015

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Horseman, Pass By

Long post today, but many short lines. Today is the 30th anniversary of the poet (translator, editor, etc.) Paul Blackburn's death of cancer at the age of 45. Blackburn was the consummate poet of New York City's streets, bars (especially McSorleys), parks, and subways. An early book, Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit: A Bouquet for Flatbush (1960)celebrated the aesthetic, imaginative, and voyeuristic consolations of co-riderdom. He begins "Clickety-Clack" with:

I took
a Coney Island of the mind 
to the Coney Island of the flesh
and goes on to describe his impromptu public reading of Ferlinghetti's famous poem to the crowd in the train who
looked startled at first but settled down
to enjoy the bit
even if they did think I
was insane or something

Like many of his poems, this one is also a story of a seduction--successful or, as in this case, comically foiled. I discovered Blackburn when I was living in Brooklyn in the mid-1980s, making my own D-Train Brooklyn-Manhattan transit. His poems made it tolerable, at times even pleasurable. They could be funny--check out leering narration of "The Once Over"--or almost unbearably sad. Here is the beginning of a long poem from 1961/62 called "One Night Stand: An Approach to the Bridge," with a couple on a train on the Manhattan Bridge (where the D nearly always sat for long minutes):

Migod, a picture window
"The Once Over" for PB
both of us sitting there
on the too-narrow couch
variously unclothed
watching the sky lighten over the city

You compile a list of noes
it is incomplete
I add another
there is no anger
we keep it open
away, your all 
too-solid body melts, revives, stif-
fens, clears and dis-
solves, an i-
dentity emerges, disappears, it is
like watching a film, the takes dis-
solving into other takes,
splice suddenly to a closeup

Blackburn was a sidewalk and subway man,  not a highway man, but in a late poem, "October Journal: 1970," he provides an oncoming guest with an inventory of The contents of my liquor cabinet/10 days before/you arrive. Vodka's in the refrigerator along with/sangria and sweet vermouth de Torino. The California/wines are down and cooling. Be welcome. He also provides not one but two sets of driving directions from New York to Cortland, where he was teaching when he died. I followed one once about 20 years ago, and it worked--of course Blackburn was long gone by then. Nevertheless, he concludes the second set, and the poem, with Maybe you take train, huh?

You can hear Blackburn reading a number of his poems, including "Clickety-Clack," on the great PennSounds website.

Paul Blacburn's first book

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