Greenpoint, October, 2015

Friday, August 30, 2013

The Summer's Freedom Dwindling

From "The Ministry of Fear," North (1975):

On long vacations, then, I came to life
In the kissing seat of an Austin Sixteen
Parked at a gable, the engine running,
My fingers tight as ivy on her shoulders,
A light left burning for her in the kitchen.
And heading back for home, the summer's
Freedom dwindling night by night, the air
All moonlight and a scent of hay, policemen
Swung their crimson flashlamps, crowding round
The car like black cattle, snuffing and pointing
The muzzle of a sten-gun in my eye:
'What's your name, driver?'
                                           'Seamus . . .'

-Seamus Heaney, April 13, 1939 - August 30, 2013.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Trading Places

A few weeks ago, the comic Lewis Black did a very funny bit on the Daily Show, ridiculing a Texas sponsored television ad campaign to lure businesses from their current bases to Texas. One of the ads ran in New York. In Black's mock-up, New Yorkers from all walks of life give Texas the finger--literally and verbally.

Peter Spaans, From Texas to New York/Oil
The photographic collage above was created by Dutch artist Peter Spaans, part of his "Archival Works: Language Series." As Peter describes, the photo on the left was a road somewhere in Texas in 2007, part of the series, "On the Road Too: Slices from the USA." On the right, from the meatpacking district of Manhattan, 1987--long, long before the High Line. The connection, of course, is oil: "Texas is the main oil state, New York uses a lot of oil. They need each other completely. For trading, for the money." The funny thing is, as Peter acknowledges, "the buildings in Texas has nothing to do with oil. I believe they use them for storage of wheat or something like that."

Doesn't matter, we are a lot closer to Texas than we might like to think.

BTB will feature more of Peter Spaans New York pieces in the coming weeks. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Department of Transportation and Sculpture

The work continues on the Staten Island Expressway. At least it gives you time to appreciate the roadside attractions, like this unintentional homage to John Chamberlain.

Was that what got me thinking about a drive up to Beacon, NY, to see some of the originals in the beautiful Dia gallery space? (Traffic moving well on the Taconic.)

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Road is Hidden

We conclude our summer series on poets, cars, and driving, with a couple of my own recollections of driving with a poet, my friend, Juan Saez Burgos (1942-2006).

The first is from Rhode Island. Juan and Diana had moved into the apartment in Providence that my girlfriend and I were moving out of, and we moved into the one above and became friends. Driving to a TGI Fridays in Warwick, which the then not-quite-two-year-old Juan Camillo adored (and where he was adored). Juan driving, his son sitting on Susan's lap, playing with her earrings. "Earrings are keys," he said. This was recognized as one of his first sentences. Poetic, no?
Francisco Oller, Casa-Finca del Guaraguao (1833)
De una isla a otro... A few years later, visiting Juan and Diana in Puerto Rico after they had moved back, after many years in the States. A long day driving out along the beaches west of San Juan, and then up into the mountains. Narrow roads hair-pinning above coffee plantations. Little Juan sitting in my lap this time as his father drove. Suddenly, the boy became uncharacteristically quiet and still. His father noticed but it was too late. Juan threw up all over my shorts and much of the front seat. Juan Senior pulled over and jumped out of the car. Some local boys on bikes watched us with interest. "Agua? Agua? Donde agua?!" Juan shouted. They pointed to some tall grass. Milagro! A faucet was hidden there, and we washed off Juan, the car seat, and me as best we could. Little Juan felt much better and I had my bathing suit, still damp from the beach, to change into for our dinner at a little mountainside restaurant.

Here is the title poem from Juan's collected poems, La palabra y su magos: "The Word and Its Magicians":

The person is hidden from the road.
The road looks for him

but doesn't take him in.

The road is hidden from the person.
He looks for it

but doesn't take it in.

The person and the road are hidden.
They look for them

but don't take them in.

La palabra y sus magos

Se esconde la persona del camino.
El camino la busca,

no se asoma.

Se le esconde el camino a la persona.
La persona lo busca,

no se asoma.

Se esconden la persona y el camino.
Se buscan el camino y la persona,

no se asoman.

(Thanks to L. for the translation.)

Friday, August 23, 2013

As if the World Were a Taxi

Leroy Neiman, Taxi, Beverly Wiltshire (1980)
Love poems with cars, in cars, about cars...

O what a physical effect it has on me
To dive forever into the light blue sea
Of your acquaintance! Ah, but dearest friends,
Like forms, are finished, as life has ends! Still,
It is beautiful, when October
Is over, and February is over,
To sit in the starch of my shirt, and to dream of your sweet
Ways! As if the world were a taxi, you enter it, then
Reply (to no one), "Let's go five or six blocks."
Isn't the blue stream that runs past you a translation from the Russian?
Aren't my eyes bigger than love?
Isn't this history, and aren't we a couple of ruins?
Is Carthage Pompeii? is the pillow the bed? is the sun
What glues our heads together? O midnight! O midnight!
Is love what we are,
Or has happiness come to me in a private car
That's so very small I'm amazed to see it there?

-Kenneth Koch, "In Love with You" (Part I)

Hear Koch read the whole poem here.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Early Harvest

Bay Street, Stapleton, Staten Island
As the clock on our summer series on poets and cars winds down, let's give a moment to those cars who have given up the ghost. Can there be any doubt that cars have souls? At least, cars made before 1986 or so. Here is Blaise Cendrar's "Harvest" from the poem cycle "North," which describes a trip (mostly by train) through Canada. It comes from Complete Postcards for the Americas: Poems of Road and Sea, published in the U.S. in 1976, but appeared in Cendrars' complete poems, Du Monde Entier au coeur du Monde, in 1957.

A six-cylinder car and two Fords in the middle of
     the fields
In every direction as far as the horizon the slightly
     slanting swaths crisscross into a wavering
     diamond-shaped checkerboard pattern
Not a tree
From the North comes down the rumble and rattle of the
     automotive thrasher and forage wagon
And from the South come twelve empty trains to
     pick up the wheat

(Translation: Monique Chefdor)

Monday, August 19, 2013

Out on Highway 77

Poems for Peace is an album put out by Broadsides Records in 1967 (and now available on iTunes, for god's sake). It documents a benefit reading for the New York Workshop in Nonviolence at St. Mark's in the Bouwerie on April 7, 1966, with readers including Paul Blackburn, David Antin, Ed Sanders, Walter Lowenfels. Which begs the questions, weren't there any women poets for peace in 1966?

The first cut on the record is a long piece by Allen Ginsberg titled, "Auto Poesy to Nebraska." It describes a trip Ginsberg had taken earlier in the year from Wichita, Kansas to Lincoln, Nebraska. That trip has been painstakingly documented on the Wichita Beats site with maps (including the one below), timetables, and more.
(Courtesy Wichita Beats)
Ginsberg coined the term "auto poesy," a pun on automobile, automatic writing, auto eroticism, and probably more. The poem became the first part of "Wichita Vortex Sutra," one of Ginsberg's most epic and "political" poems, calling out Johnson, Rusk, McNamara, and others for their "bad guess" that plunged the country deeper into the Vietnam conflict.

The poem begins:

Turn Right Next Corner
The Biggest Little Town in Kansas
The red sun setting streaked along the flat plains west,
                      gauzy veils of chimney mist
            around the christmas tree lights of a refinery--aluminum
                      white tanks squat beneath
            winking signal towers'
                      bright-lit bulbs and flares of orange
                                                              gas flame
            pillows of smoke
                 midst machinery--
             transparent towers in the dusk

In advance of the Cold Wave
        Snow is spreading eastward to
                                the Great Lakes
    News Broadcasts & old clarinets
                        car radio speeding across railroad tracks
               Lighted dome watertower on the flat plains

And here is Ginsberg's invocation crossing from Kansas into Nebrasksa:

Come Nebraska, sing & dance with me--
             Come lovers of Lincoln and Omaha
                                  hear my soft voice at last...

Images from the road follow. In my mind, the "Dairy neon" was a Dairy Queen, but it was probably an actual dairy farm or business. But where or what was the "King's Crown" on the road sign? Lost to memory:

Whoops !  passing truck head backward towed on the right lane ahead,
                 King's Crown a road sign,
                                                          a Dairy neon behind trees
                                             looks Africa village bonfire movies
                                                                   thru the jungle wall--
                              Space highway open, entering Lincoln's ear
                                      ground to a stop at the tracks Warning
                                                                         Pioneer Boulevard--  

A friend reminds me that Ginsberg also gave a speech to the U.S. Senate (!) in 1966 about LSD. I hope he wasn't doing much of the driving back on Highway 77.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

A Succession of Big Heavy Saloons

Medbh McGuckian has done a fine job charting the influence of the car in Seamus Heaney's poetry, or at least in the early to mid-period poems (a second edition is long overdue: Horsepower Pass By! Again!). Here, we take up the interviews with Heaney conducted by Dennis O'Driscoll, collected in Stepping Stones. Like the poems, they reveal the reach of the car and driving into many dimensions of the poet's life; a partial catalogue follows:

Heaney's father hitchhiking (before he learned to drive) in order to work as a cattle dealer; the car accident that killed three-and-a-half-year-old brother Christopher while 14-year-old Seamus was away at school (see "Mid-Term Break"); buying his first car (a VW Beetle) to "drive round the country so I could inspect students on teaching practice"; the céilís (country dances), at which you'd have to "ask somebody to shift a car that was blocking somebody else's in the car park"; stopping by the roadside with a dying Robert Lowell to relieve themselves ("Pit Stop Near Castletown"); being driven along Storrow Drive in Boston, "looking at the Harvard houses on the other side of the water"; taking the car on the Holyhead ferry to Wales to drive through "Housman territory."

Kilkenny Motor Club Show 2012 (St. James Park)
Two more extended excerpts follow. The first, a lovely description of the family cars - a familiar theme to anyone with a large family dependent on keeping second-hand cars running. The second, an account of running out of gas, a mundane occurrence but for the momentousness of the day.

We never had a car when we lived at Mossbawn [Heaney's first family house]. All that had to wait until we moved to The Wood farm in the 1950s. At that stage my father learned to drive and we had a succession of big heavy saloons* - big because the family was big, but also because we needed a big boot for ferrying bales of hay and bags of meal and newborn calves. At different times there was an Austin 16 and a Vauxhall Victor and a Humber Hawk, all second-hand. And of course all of them ended up hard to start and needing to be pushed, so that was one way the Heaney family used to come together, shoulder to shoulder, gathering momentum, waiting for the engine to fire. (p. 4)

KMC First Commons Rally (2012)
The Deanes' car running out of petrol on Glenshane Pass the night of the Bloody Sunday funerals in Derry. They were driving back from Derry late: Seamus [Deane] and Marion to their in-laws in Maghera, me to Belfast when I came upon them parked on the mountain road. We left Marion and the kids in the Deane car and Seamus and I drove back to Dungiven to rouse the owner of a petrol pump. In truth, we banged on the door of his pub where there was a crowd of after-hours, post-funeral drinkers on the premises... (p. 187)

The attention to the car and to driving in the poems and interviews is not surprising when one appreciates that, for Heaney, driving is part of composing: "One of the best times for me, for incubating and counting out the beats of a poem, is on long drives. Marie knows because she sees my fingers on the steering wheel beating out the thing. Many, many poems were conceived of and started out in that shut-eyed manner - well not literally shut eyed!" (p. 446)

(*"Saloon" is the UK equivalent of the U.S. "sedan." Photos, none of them SH, courtesy of the Kilkenny Motor Club. I know, I know, but Londonderry doesn't seem to have a club.)

Friday, August 16, 2013

Don't Ask, Just Keep Crawling

"Papa, where are we crawling?"
"Don't ask. Just jeep crawling."
BTB is saddened to learn of the death of Polish writer Sławomir Mrożek. Mrożek wrote plays and novels, short stories, and cartoons that appeared for many years in the weekly Przekrój. In 1963, he and his wife defected, living in Italy, France, and then for many years on a ranch in Mexico. His works were obliquely and sometimes pointedly satirical of the prevailing regimes in Poland--and of humankind generally. He returned to Krakow in 1996 before moving to France in 2008. He died August 15, in Nice.

"The Elevator," one of his short stories, appeared on BTB here. And a favorite cartoon was included in "River in the Sky," the BTB's proposal for flooding the BQE for Chinese dragon-boat racing (still a good idea).

Another favorite Mrożek cartoon: 
"And now, ladies and gentleman, in our continuing series, 'A Fair Chance for All'..."

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Motorisation of the Spirit

Ours is not the first study of poets and cars (autopoetics?). It follows humbly in the tire tracks of Medbh McGuckian's Horsepower, Pass By! A Study of the Car in the Poetry of Seamus Heaney (Cranagh Press, 1999). McGuckian, herself a fine poet, tracks the signal importance of the car in Heaney's poetry, "a gradual mobilisation of the spirit, even in the Shakespearian sense, over thirty years, tribal or collective as well as individual that Seamus's work charts."

Heaney's mobilisation begins rather gloomily with "Tractors," published in The Belfast Telegraph in 1962 (a poem, according to McGuckian, that now embarrasses Heaney in its "Animal Farm heaviness"):

Grey as slugs
Blue or red as lug-worms, 
The tractors lumber in the fields,
Their hopelessness hurts thought.

A more recent, more "joyriding," poem has Heaney characterizing (car-acterizing?) fellow Nobelist, Joseph Brodsky's, language use in distinctly motorized terms:

Nose in air, foot to the floor,
Revving English like a car
Hijacked when you robbed its bank
Russian was your reserve tank.

("Elegy for Joseph Brodsky,"1996)

For a poet of Heaney's generation and rural upbringing (b. 1939, County Londonderry), the car brought freedom of movement, access to new worlds - and to romance. Being Northern Ireland, however, the specters of politics, violence, and death are ever present. From the Station Island (1984) sequence:

My brain dried like spread turf, my stomach
Shrank to a cinder and tightened and cracked
...I saw country
I knew from Glenshane down to Toome
And heard a car I could make out years away
With me in the back like a white-faced groom, 
A hit-man on the brink, emptied and deadly.

The doubling of groom and hit-man, both typically backseat passengers, is a brilliant realization of the "conjunction between the loss of self in erotic tension and the fearful change of identity in violent death." Another of McGukian's examples comes from "The Betrothal of Cavehill" (1975):

The morning I drove out to bed me down
Among my love's hideouts, her pods and brooms,
They fired above my car the ritual gun...

Rituals of courting the living, rituals of burying the dead. The car is always witness.

'31 on 37th

Unexpected pleasures around the corner. Parked on 37th Avenue in Jackson Heights this weekend, a pristine 1931 Model A Ford. I thought it had to be a kit but the more I looked the more authentic it appeared. Admiring the car, an older woman who grew up on 82nd Street recalled a Rolls Royce that sometimes appeared in the neighborhood. "We kids would chase after it screaming out, 'The Car!' 'The  Car!'"

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Great Lost Bob Creeley Bluegrass Record

Back in the mid-1990s, my work took me all over New York State. One bright winter day, driving through Altamont, I had the radio tuned to the University of Albany station. A folk show. The signal flickered in and out as the DJ came on mike to "back-announce" the set he'd played. "That was kah-kah Bob-kah-Creeley-kah-kah Bluegrass Band...." Had I heard correctly? There was no way to call the station. Internet playlists didn't exist yet. And I returned to Providence wondering if Robert Creeley had made a bluegrass record.
Five Rivers Environmental Center, Albany County
(Courtesy: New York State DEP)
Was this is before or after I found the "I Saw Delight (Homage to Hank Williams)" bumpersticker? Can't remember. In any case, I've never found any evidence that Creeley made a bluegrass record. Except that, tantalizingly, according to Tom Clark's Robert Creeley and the Genius of the American Common Place, as a child he did want to play banjo and eventually studied mandolin and violin.

When you look at some of the poems, though, especially those titled "Song," you begin to think, damned if he didn't take apart a country song and put it back together as a Robert Creeley poem. Take this one, for instance, from For Love. It's not hard to put the image of a window opening and a door closing comes (back) into a country song, nor the refrain: "See the sun but won't look back."


How simply
     for another
pace the virtues,
     peace and goodwill.

Sing pleasure,
     the window's opening,
unseen back of it
    the door closes.

How peace, how happiness,
    locked as insistence,
force weather, see sun,
    and won't look back.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Sticker Shock #3 (Delight)

I first saw this bumpersticker almost 20 years ago in the Hay Library at Brown University, in Providence, R.I. In those days I would spend some lunch hours looking up broadsides and limited editions of books by Paul Blackburn, Robert Creeley, and other poets. When I saw a Creeley item titled "I Saw Delight," and labeled as a bumpersticker!, I had to see it. And now you can too:
Robert Creeley, "I Saw Delight" (An Alternative Press Bumper Sticker)
In the design by Ann Mikolowski, the outline of the lightbulb is created by the text "Homage to Hank Williams" repeated three times. I didn't see another until this summer when I found two (one signed by RC) in the Alternative Press archives in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library. I wasn't able to photograph either of those; I do have permission from Catherine Halley of the Poetry Foundation to use a photo from her visit to Ken Mikolowski in Ann Arbor. For a PF audio story about the Alternative Press, which includes a phone interview with Ken, go here.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Sticker Shock #2 (God)

An Alternative Press Bumppersicker by Diane di Prima
A second bumpersticker from the Alternative Press archives, this one by Diane di Prima. Ken Mikolowski, co-founder with his wife Ann, tells me the bumperstickers were meant to be "functional poetry," but doubts this one was "put on any pickup trucks in Alabama."

di Prima is probably best known for her unflinching Memoirs of a Beatnik. Here's an excerpt from her earlier book of prose, Dinners and Nightmares (1961), that begins with a moment of Bohemian life in the East Village in the early 60s:

What Morning Is

First you wake up and it is daylight but wrong with some hood honking a
horn in the street and again till you think you'll go out of your mind and
you're not quite awake so you think rocks yes a rock at his head smash his
face the bastard and then awake with eyes open and Freddie at the
window standing all floppy in silly pajamas saying some people are rude
and you think rude's not the word smash his face, and you say Good
Morning Baby and then you sit up.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Sticker Shock #1 (Money)

We've covered a lot of ground in this series, appropriately enough. One form that might seem too constricting, even for poetry, is the bumper sticker. But why should it be? After all, the name itself is a poem. Scans perfectly.
An Alternative Press Bumpersticker by Edward Dorn
One group that didn't miss the poetic potential in the lowly bumper sticker is the Alternative Press of Michigan. TAP was the long-running (1969-99, more or less) project of Ken and Ann Mikolowski to unite poets and printers and artists. Ken and Ann collaborated with Edward Dorn, Allen Ginsberg, Diane Di Prima, Robert Creeley, Ted Berrigan, Ann Waldman, Tom Clark, and many, many others. IThey produced postcards, bookmarks, broadsheets, and bumper stickers. A typical issue of Alternative Press was a manilla envelope filled with such goodies. The subscription rate was $10 (eventually $15) a year. The Poetry Foundation has done a great job of documenting the AP; for a good overview go here.

The sticker poem above is from Edward Dorn's series Abhorrences, a poet's commentary on the Reagan's America. Another TAP sticker by Ed Sanders reads "DEFUND THE RIGHT," surrounded by stars and bars. Still relevant, alas.

Many of these pieces are now in rare book collections, like the Berg Collection of the NYPL (more about that later), or private collections, but Ken assures me many were displayed on the real bumpers that gave the form its name. I'd love to find one on the back of a VW microbus.

In the next few posts, I'll share a few more TAP stickers (and stories about the BTB correspondent who loves them.)

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

August Imaginations

Robert Adams, Longmont, Colorado (1979)
Back from the road. Back to work on our summer series, "Driver's Ed... For Poets," an exploration of the many-sided relationships of poets with cars and driving. I first encountered the Wallace Stevens poem, "Reality is an Activity of the Most August Imagination," on Tom Clark's blog. Tom paired the poem with fantastic photographs of the Nasr al Mulk mosque at Shiraz, Iran. I strongly recommend you head over there for the experience. As I said in my comments on Tom's post, Stevens offers us an extraordinary rendering of the experience of driving at night in summer. My own pairing, with a Robert Adams photograph from Summer Nights, is a more conventional one, but I think this poem lends itself to many re-imaginations.

Last Friday, in the big light of last Friday night,

We drove home from Cornwall to Hartford, late.

It was not a night blown at a glassworks in Vienna

Or Venice, motionless, gathering time and dust.

There was a crush of strength in a grinding going round,

Under the front of the westward evening star,

The vigor of glory, a glittering in the veins,

As things emerged and moved and were dissolved,

Either in distance, change or nothingness,

The visible transformations of summer night,

An argentine abstraction approaching form

And suddenly denying itself away.

There was an insolid billowing of the solid.

Night’s moonlight lake was neither water nor air

(Another pairing: Thurber's couple headed home in "A Couple of Hamburgers." Thurber and his wife lived for many years in West Cornwall, Conn., next door to Wallace Stevens' starting place.)

Sunday, August 4, 2013


By Bill Griffith ("Zippy:)
News that Ben Stiller has directed, and starred in, a new film adaptation of James Thurber's "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," put me in mind of another Thurber story: "A Couple of Hamburgers," from Let Your Mind Alone! (full text on Here's the beginning:

falling out of iron-colored clouds. They had been driving 
since morning and they still had a hundred and thirty miles 
to go. It was about three o'clock in the afternoon. "I'm getting 
hungry," she said. He took his eyes off the wet, winding road 
for a fraction of a second and said, "We'll stop at a dog- 
wagon." She shifted her position irritably. "I wish you 
wouldn't call them dog-wagons," she said. He pressed the 
klaxon button and went around a slow car. "That's what 
they are," he said. "Dog-wagons." She waited a few seconds. 
"Decent people call them diners? she told him, and added, 
"Even if you call them diners, I don't like them." He speeded 
up a hill. "They have better stuff than most restaurants," he 
said. "Anyway, I want to get home before dark and it takes 
too long in a restaurant. We can stay our stomachs with a 
couple hamburgers."
There have been a couple of dog wagons on this New England trip. The stand out so far is Ricky's in Bridgton, Maine.