Greenpoint, October, 2015

Friday, November 29, 2013

Serious Ladies of Staten Island - Part II

(Source: Fáilte Romhat)
Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa was well known for incendiary (or so he hoped) editorials in The United Irishman, which he and his (third) wife, Mary Jane Irwin, published in Brooklyn from 1882 until 1910, as well as in Dynamite Monthly, also published in Brooklyn. Here's an excerpt from a United Irishman editorial from June 1884: Dynamite! Dynamite! Dynamite! Let every Irishman and Irishwoman put a bit of it in their pocket and become a walking revolution.

Mary Jane Irwin O'Donovan Rossa was also a serious poet. She came to the New York in 1866, leaving her newly born son James with relatives and her newly wed husband in prison (his life sentence was commuted a few years later). She studied elocution under the renowned Professor Frobisher. She supported herself, as well as raised money for "the Fund" (for imprisoned patriots), by selling her poems and stories to the Irish press. (More at Fáilte Romhat.) 

Irish Lyrical Poems, by Mrs. O'Donovan (Rossa), was published by R.M. Haverty, Barclay Street, New York, in 1868. The copy in the NYPL crumbled in my hands. The dedication reads: To My Husband, Jeremiah O'Donovan (Rossa), Sentenced to Life-Long Penal Servitude For His Devotion To the Cause of Ireland, These Poems Are Most Affectionately Inscribed. Stamps in the back indicate it was taken out once in December, 1915, once in January, 1916, and once in December, 1916. There would have been interest after Jeremiah died in 1915, and perhaps, a year later, after the author herself died.

The poems are heartfelt, but not good. You can read all of them on Google Books. Reading many, it's clearer to me than ever why Joyce and Beckett had to leave Ireland. (Flann O'Brien stayed, but drank himself). Here's a stanza, from "Love and the Ledger," that I thought avoided the overwrought better than most.

I must think of you, think of you;
  Naught can I do beside
I try to write but you scatter my wits,
  And the ink on my pen is dried.
I must think of you, think of you--
  I must dream of your eyes;
I am sowing seeds of thorns,
  But who can love and be wise?

The O'Donovan-Rossas took their politics seriously--and their writing. Margaret O'Donovan Rossa Cole, seventh of Mary and Jeremiah's nine children (plus four from one of his previous marriages), published a family memoir, My Father and Mother Were Irish (1939), with many happy memories from Staten Island ("What fun we had ... as we played on the Kill van Kull!"). She also wrote Grandma Takes a Freighter: The Story of an Atlantic Crossing (1950), an account her trip she made as the only passenger on a freighter to Antwerp, and Cead Míle Fáilte (A Hundred Thousand Welcomes): A Visit to Ireland (1953). An earlier children's book is called Let's Help the Doctor (1937). Her son, William Rossa Cole, was a successful editor, especially of children's poetry collections. On his death, in 2000, Seamus Heaney wrote a poem in his honor.

194 Richmond Terrace (Nov. 2013)
There are few traces of Jeremiah's and Mary's life on Staten Island. Neither the "Staten Island Mansion," as an ironic New York Times article headline described it, on Van Pelt Avenue in Mariners Harbor, to which the family moved from Brooklyn in 1893, nor the more modest house on Richmond Terrace in St. George, to which they relocated in 1902, remains.

There is a memorial in St. Peter's Cemetery. One face is devoted to Jeremiah. After his death in 1915, his body was taken to Ireland, given a massive hero's send-off, and buried in Glasnevin. Another commemorates the couple's first son, James Maxwell, who died in 1893, of an illness "contracted in the heroic discharge of his duty" aboard the U.S.S. Seward. A third is dedicated to the "loving memory of Mary Jane O'Donovan Rossa. Born Clonakilty, January 28, 1846. Died New York City, August 16, 1918. R.I.P." According to her youngest daughter, Margaret, she enjoyed a "quiet family burial."

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Down in the Light

Brake lights on the barriers,
headlights in the mirror
Maggie Cheung sings "Down in the Light." 

Everybody's trying to get home
so they can leave home.
The sign says

Heavy Delays to Grand Central Pkwy.
First gear, second gear,
first gear again.

Splendid Isolation

The Sacred
Stephen Dunn

After the teacher asked if anyone had
    a sacred place
and the students fidgeted and shrank

in their chairs, them most serious of them all
    said it was his car,
being along, his tape deck playing

things he'd chosen, and others knew the truth
    had been spoken
and began speaking about their rooms,

their hiding places, but the car kept coming up
    the car in motion,
music filling it, and sometimes one other person

who understood the the bright altar of the dashboard
    and how far away
a car could take him from the need

to speak, or to answer, the key
    in having a key
and putting it in, and going.

In an essay in Poetry East (Spring 2013), Dunn describes how this poem was born during a guest talk he gave in a friend's "Myth and Religion" anthropology course.

The photos are by Danny Lyon. You can see both and more on this recent New York Times slideshow.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Serious Ladies of Staten Island - Part I

      "I am sure that the island has certain advantages too, which you know about, but perhaps prefer to surprise us with rather than disappoint us."
      "I know of none at this moment," said Miss Goering. "Why, are you coming with us?"

In 1938, returning to the States after a honeymoon in South America and summer in France, Paul and Jane Bowles rented a farmhouse on Woodrow Road on Staten Island. They lived there just short of two years. Paul completed the short story,"Tea in the Sahara," and Jane worked on the novel, Two Serious Ladies. The farmhouse provided the model the novel's "four-room frame house... surrounded by woods," to which Miss Goering abruptly removes herself, along with  her companion, Miss Gamelon, and their hanger-on, Arnold (the one looking forward to the island's advantages).

The farmhouse at 1116 Woodrow Road was torn down long ago, and the property divided into lots for suburban homes like the one above. When Jane and Paul Bowles lived there, the address was R.F.D.#2--Rural Free Delivery. One house from that time does remain, across the road from where the Bowles' farmhouse would have stood.

They had no car. Like Miss Goering, Jane would set off for the station to catch the "little train that meets the ferry." Miss Goering decides to walk along the highway rather than cut through the woods at night; they frightened her. There are few vestiges of the forests that covered much of that part of the island. A copse remains here and there, like this one alongside the playground in Carlton Park.

When she reached the station, Jane (and Miss Goerring) would catch the "little train" not for St. George and the ferry for Manhattan but for Tottenville and, from there, the much smaller ferry for Perth Amboy. Here's how Miss. Goering describes Tottenville and Perth Amboy beyond: " land in a little town that is quite lost and looks very tough, and you feel a bit frightened, I think, to find that the mainland opposite offers you no protection at all."

I didn't follow the Goering/Bowles path further than the train station in Prince's Bay. The ferry to Perth Amboy is long gone, of course. It would be fun, though, to try and find a bar there that Jane might have drank in, perhaps the model for the Pig Snout's Hook? According to Paul, quoted in Millicent Dillon's biography of Jane, she loved the bars of Perth Amboy: "She thought there was something sinister in them."

On my way back, I passed the Huguenot Park Library, the closest branch to the old Bowles place. As I expected, no copies of either of the their books on the shelves. Ghosts have other means.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Jane Doe No More?

Who is the mysterious Jane of the Saul Steinberg inscription to a 1954 (first edition) of The Passport, found in the stacks of the College of Staten Island, and reported in this space on November 16? Jane Mansfield was proposed, by your correspondent. No connection there. The writer, Jane Bowles, by friend-of-the-blog, One More Folded Sunset. Unlikely, despite a tantalizing Staten Island connection (more to come on that soon).

The Research Bureau has been wearing out the digital shoe leather, and now they're convinced they've got their Jane.
Jane Grant was a cofounder  of the New Yorker, in 1925, with then husband William Shawn. After they divorced 9 years later, Grant worked as reporter for The New York Times and wrote for many other publications. Saul Steinberg began contributing illustrations to the New Yorker in 1941. In 1954, Steinberg was publishing The Passport; according to the Steinberg biographer Deirdre Blair, he asked Jane Grant, among others to contribute a blurb for the jacket. She did. (The RB has not been able to locate the text yet.) And thus, the lovely inscription and illustration.

The volume is stamped in red ink, "Donated to the College of Staten Island" and elsewhere, in the same ink, "June 22, 2000." Grant died in 1972, so how did her inscribed copy of the album--if it was hers--wind up being donated to the college 28 years later? Let's give the boys from the Bureau some rest before we send them back at it.

One thing links Grant, illustrators, and your correspondent (long before his own SI daze). In the mid-1980s, when part of my job at a NYC publishing house was to hunt down "scrap" (reference material) for our freelance illustrators to use for a series of gardening books, I discovered the catalogs from White Flower Farm, in Litchfield, CT. I knew nothing about flowers then, and still don't, but I do remember those beautiful catalogs. White Flower Farm was founded by Grant and her second husband William Harris.

For much more about Grant, see the online exhibit by the University of Oregon, source of the photo above.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

That New Train Smell

New trains on the 7 line. Automated announcements. Goodbye: "Times Square, the Crossroads of the World" and "7 Train to the Junction" (trains terminate at Junction Boulevard).

Monday, November 18, 2013

Bump the BQE

An experiment. Click on the photo below to maximize size (if your computer has this feature). Hold your head still and pivot your eyes back and forth between the two bump signs.

Feel like you're on the BQE?

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Farewell, Martha Quest

From time to time, people in crowds feel impelled to express feelings of one sort or another by marching in company along roads to some goal, carrying devices and banners: the Crusaders (to stretch time a little) of course, had no other means of locomotion but their own feet, or horses. But feelings about the use of nuclear energy for destruction were not expressed by rushing across continents in express trains, or circling the globe in jets, or even by driving an automobile across countries, but by putting one foot after another across earth. Strange that. Suppose none of these people had read about those earlier Marches, the Crusades? Or about the pilgrimages to holy places, on foot, across landscapes? Would they, we, still be putting one foot before the other across earth to say: Down With … or Ban the … or More Money for … Well, yes, it seems more than likely. To move from one point to another on one’s feet, as a means of expressing communal feeling about something or other seems basic.

From The Four-Gated City, Doris Lessing, 1970.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

To Jane with Love

It wasn't until I brought the book in from the car, a day or two after I'd checked it out from the college library that I noticed blue ink bleeding through the verso to the title page. When I flipped it over, I found this illustrated inscription on the half title:
The Passport, Saul Steinberg, 1954 (1st ed.)
Saul Steinberg and likely Jane, too, are no longer with us. How did this lovely little tribute come to sit on the shelves of a college library on Staten Island, where it has probably not been opened for decades? Who was Jane? (The only famous Jane from the 50's I can think of is Jane Russell.) Are the musicians a clue? And what Ariadne's thread of Romanian exile reading and musing brought me to it in the first place? Who cares? But nice, no?

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Freedom Tower

1 World Trade Center has been named the highest building in the United States. Here is Saul Steinberg's prescient design from The Passport (1954). Spire and all.

File under: Genius.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Trinitron vs. Munimeter

Sunnyside Hall of Echo
Point for Munimeter: No receipt displayed during operative hours.
Point for Trinitron: Observes regulation: "Head In Parking Only."

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Mets and Vets

The Wounded Warriors Project Float in the Veterans Day Parade, Fifth Ave. and 32 St.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Beach Boys of the 60s (1560s)

I wanted to check out The Forty Part Motet, the sound installation at The Cloisters, the Met's medieval annex on the Hudson (possibly the whitest museum north of the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, VA). The artist, Janet Cardiff, recorded separately each vocal part of Thomas Tallis' forty-part motet Spem in alium numquam habui (c. 1556-1573). 40 speakers are set up in the Fuentiduña Chapel, one for each voice. You can stand in the middle of the chapel and hear it all together, or listen to one voice at a time on individual speakers. Pretty cool. 
Image courtesy Metropolitan Museum
When I got in the car, by chance, the CD in the player was Brian Wilson Presents Smile, the long, long awaited reconstruction of the great lost (or doomed) Brian Wilson-Van Dyke Parks collaboration. The themes may be different from Tallis to Wilson & Parks--God and hope to chickens, vegetables, and surfing--but the purity, the precision, the reverence of voices coming together and standing apart are the same.

So, I'd like to propose the Cloisters host a similar sound exhibit featuring one of the great Beach Boys records, "Good Vibrations," a track originally intended for Smile (and included on the Brian Wilson Presents Smile). A different speaker for each vocal track. It's not likely to broaden the diversity of the museum goers but more exaltation for sure. Listen for yourself:

Saturday, November 9, 2013

School Bus Ruch

Bus II (1975)
Akademia Ruchu (Academy of Movement), the pioneering Polish performance art collective, is in town for the Performa festival. I saw a few minutes of its Market of Toys, being performed in Times Square as part of the festival. It was a bit hard to pick out the AR gestures--pairs of volunteers holding long colored tape like police barriers--from the regular mayhem of the place.

In its prime, in the mid-1970s, AR's work was truly disruptive, socially and conceptually. In the piece above, Bus II, performers sat motionless for an hour in a bus abandoned roadside in a tiny village in the Bieszczady mountains. (In Bus I, the troupe gave a similar performance inside a Warsaw gallery but without the bus.) You can view videos of these and other AR performances on the Filmoteka. Included there is my favorite, AK piece, Happy Day (1976). 
Happy Day (1976)
In this very brief intervention in daily life, a busy corner of Krakowskie Przedmieście, something like the Broadway of Warsaw, is suddenly overrun with people in white and brightly colored clothing, including a bride running with her bouquet. They don't do anything that would be out of the norm on a New York City Street. But in Warsaw in 1976 it makes a bold (or bright) statement about the drab quality of life. (It hadn't changed all that much by the time I worked on the same street, just a few blocks to the south, 15 years later. It would, though, rapidly, with the onslaught of Western commercial culture.)

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Good Highways Make Good Neighbors

I took my car in for an oil change the other morning. (Aside: Did you know that Kelly Ripa and Michael Strahan have a talk show?) The dealership is on 31st Avenue just a few blocks from where the BQE forks, one tine heading northwest towards the Triboro Bridge, the other northeast towards the Grand Central Parkway West. The avenue is fairly busy with warehouses and auto-related businesses, but a few steps north on 68th Street brings surprising quiet (at least at midmorning). Single-family houses looking across to four-lane highway.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

I Cover the Waterfront

"Mr. Markowitz, Tear Down This Wall?"
The view from the BQE West as it skirts the nascent Brooklyn Bridge Park. The prospect from the BQE East (lower-tier) is even less inviting (see below). What is that wall of dirt blocking the view of the waterfront? According to the the, this will become the "Pier 3 & 4 Upland." Merriam-Webster (online) helpfully defines upland as "high land especially at some distance from the sea: plateau" or "ground elevated above the lowlands along rivers or between hills." Fair enough, but what's the purpose of creating an artificial plateau between the BQE and the waterfront? An expensive sound barrier for strollers along the waterfront? A hiking path the puts you eye to eye with drivers stuck in traffic? Time will tell. Let's just hope the BQE doesn't collapse from disrepair (upon this upland fair).

Monday, November 4, 2013

What's More American Than That?

The 59th Street Bridge photographed by Danny Lyon, in 1974, for the Environmental Protection Agency's Project Documerica, now housed in the National Archives. Lyon once responded to an interviewer's question about artistic influences:

Influences? Once in Paris a filmmaker said I was 'the most American person he ever met.' Perhaps because I have very bad manners and a heavy New York City (Queens) accent. As the child of two immigrants born in Brooklyn and growing up in Queens I felt "as American as the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway."

Another Lyon photograph from the National Archives. "Automobile in second ward, El Paso's Chicano neighborhood, South El Paso, Texas" (1972). For more from the National Archives go here.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Down Payment

BQE approaching Queens Blvd. (Oct. 2013)
Just another $500 million and you could pay for the replacement for the Kosciuszko Bridge.

Saturday, November 2, 2013


Kell Ave., Staten Island (Oct. 2013)
Call Sam

Friday, November 1, 2013

Police Blotter: Halloween Edition

October 31, 2013; approximately 1930 hours. Subject returned from work driving late-model sports coupe (dark blue). Found neighborhood streets blocked off by police barricades for annual children's Halloween Parade. Streets clogged with residents in vehicles looking for a parking spot. Subject cursed. Subject drove to shopping center in East Elmhurst, parked, entered Middle Eastern restaurant. Claimed he planned to "wait it out." Subject attempted to obtain information about when parade would terminate on the Internet and by calling 311 ("like us on Facebook"). 311 operator connected subject to local precinct, the One-One-Five. Got voicemail for the community affairs officer.

At approximately 2035 hours, officer entered restaurant to order chicken sandwich to go. Subject approached officer, stating: "Excuse me, Officer, but do you know when the parade on 37th Ave. ends? The streets are all blocked off and I can't park my car." Officer responded: "I know, it's a nightmare up there. They should be just about done taking down the barriers now." Subject thanked officer and wished him a good night. No further incidents to report.