MANHATTAN TRANSFER – GOING DOWNTOWN

At age 16 I fell in love with the Beats. It was a passion that, for a while, consumed me entirely. Its heat immolated in a single brief firestorm and its light eclipsed in a single flash all that, for me, had gone before – the First World War poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dylan Thomas, Walt Whitman, D.H. Lawrence, even my beloved Henry Miller (smuggled back in Obelisk Press paperback editions from family visits to Paris)… A chance purchase in a Leeds bookshop brought about the conflagration. It was a compilation in two sections of writings by the Beat Generation writers and their contemporaneous literary rebels across the water. Published in 1960, it profiled through excerpts from key works poets, novelists and essayists still in full flow, many with their best material yet to come. Called Protest: the Beat Generation and the Angry Young Men, the book was skilfully and sensitively edited by Gene Feldman and Max Gartenberg. For months it went everywhere with me, increasingly annotated within and dog-eared without. Even after I supplemented it with full-length works by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, William Burroughs (many of them in cherished American editions – New Departures, Grove Press, City Lights Pocket Poets – tracked down in the bookshops of the Charing Cross Road and Bloomsbury), it sat like an ikon in the centre of the accumulating line of holy relics along my boarding school dormitory bookshelf.

And, of course, my own verse was transformed. A one-time Great War poet recording my harrowing experiences on the Western Front 40-plus years on, I was now a feverish shadow flitting up and down Bleecker Street and Telegraph Avenue, scribbling frantically. Blocks of quarto and foolscap school file paper went under the black ink from my italic-nibbed fountain pen. Like samizdat documents each piece of judiciously lower case gibberish was shared between my fellow proto-bohemians and together we transformed the fire escapes and flat roof-spaces of the school’s rural Yorkshire Victorian bourgeois manor house into urban stoops and loft balconies… 

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The years passed and my literary constellations expanded. But this is no tale of juvenilia abandoned and recalled over time with rueful affection. Even now when I pick up Protest… its powerful charge is renewed and as I cast an eye over its Carl Solomon and its Colin Wilson, its Norman Mailer and its Thomas Hinde, the excitement is as visceral as ever it was, transcending mere nostalgia and drawing on a recognition of the need for the written word to inflame and excite.

Fourteen years ago, inspired by a brush with Protest… during a re-shelving of books, I began, more or less on impulse, to write a 1950s beat poem. Initially nothing more than a mixture of affectionate hommage and an exercise in style, it took on a motive power and forward momentum of its own. Emma and I had recently spent an intense 7 days in New York. Based in a small Upper West Side hotel and from it roaming the snow-drifted streets of Manhattan, the extraordinarily vivid sense memories of every bit of every excursion were as fresh as paint and they fed directly into my protagonist’s journey down town.

The piece got written in a couple of days and was then revised at a much more leisurely pace. I make no claims for it beyond hommage and extended stylistic riffing. But I have enormous affection for it because for me it acts as a brightly-lit corridor back to those first moments amongst the pages of Protest: the Beat Generation and the Angry Young Men…

A MANHATTAN TRANSFER – GOING DOWNTOWN

Starting from the raggy edge
of a night of demons –
Crazy Helga in a blue room
across the alley, her shadow
wild & ticky on the busted blind
as she wails in German
at her TV screen.
Jesus, what a sound:
something dark & spiny
thrashing in her soul
to cry like that.

You
as the spidernet
remnant of a dream,
a fume that discharges
in clear light.
Sorry, I’m sorry.

And then, as I wash my face
in windowmorning light,
the snow still falling,
thick like feathers, like
the white silence
under a wing.
W. 186th – ghostblanketed cars,
hydrants, phone booths,
all mugged and compliant
like freezeframe phantoms.

You
as a lostsoul princess glimpsed
on a busted boxtop
in a trashcan.
Sorry, I’m sorry.

So I step, a slo-mo dancer,
a Magellan of the heart,
a one-trick missionary
with a world to lose,
into the drifts and dunes
and head towards Amsterdam.
Julio’s got his cab
on blocks by the sidewalk.
He curses, half under snow
with a wrench & a torch
while old man Turpin
turns Danish pastry snowslabs
with a shovel & spits
green pockholes deep.

You
as a face from
a crashed snowcloud,
bloodless, tearless,
turning away.
Sorry, I’m sorry.

I sidestep the corner.
Streetcenter subway breath
in plumes, denying snow.
In the deli the Slimani brothers
rattle & blather round
the kebab spit.
Here is a grillbound, spice &
powders corner of Algeria.
On the wall the entire 1st team
of AC Ajaccio, 1983, flyblown
bouffant bushes dooming them
to formica & disco history.

You,
a rumor
in the vapour bloom
on chrome.
Sorry, I’m sorry.

On Amsterdam cabs in chains;
sunshine ghosts kicking up
the crystals. One bent warrior
with a stick raised like Aaron
wagging the serpent, steps
into white surf & disappears
& reappears as one dressed
in ashes for a wake. He moves
like he’s been cauterized in
a furnace of ice.

You
as a smoke theory
behind a high
brownstone window.
Sorry, I’m sorry.

Check into EJ’s for waffles
& coffee & watch the steam
reorganize the air into thick
silver aboriginal mountains.
I slide across vinyl amongst
the prose & numbers shaken out
of the NY Times – the clatter & flash
of barcode headlines, the snap
& flutter of papers lifting
like sudden wings,
from front page clamor
to sports page sidewalk
whisper: Giambi misses
a 3rd straight game.
“Felt fuzzy”, he says.
Jesus, what a putz!
And Sheffield’s sprain’s no problem.
He’s good for Sunday’s game
against the A’s. The boys
kick it around – who are the king hitters?
who are the dancing queens?
“Who the fuck gives a fuck?”
yells Nance stamping snow
off her old lady boots.
“Gimme a black coffee
so I can stand my spoon up in it.”

You
in the window
waterscape,
drawn south
on a hundred streams.
Which should I follow?
Sorry, I’m sorry.

Through Morningside the snow’s
a gray dreamscape. Bloodholes
switch to emerald – the churn & spin
of cop cars crying out loud across
Cathedral Parkway. I’m highstepping
from bootburrow to icefield,
clogging deep & sliding hard.
I drop dark beneath
the streets – the visceral heat
of the subway neon
and the echo of the
footstep cough & scuff,
the hoot & slam wind.
A rocking conspiracy of
furtive travellers, wall-eyed
or wrapped in paper
winding sheets.

You
as a hiphop chant
in the wheels between
Parkway & Columbus.
Say my name,
say my name
like you’re winding up
a spell.
Sorry, I’m sorry.

At Columbus Circle
the lights go dim,
the brakes bind and
for a moment
we are all of
one breath in
the tarry dark.
Then, singing his pain
like a cantor, a guy
in a Mets sweatshirt
& a baseball cap with
a busted peak jumps up.
“We’re fucked, people!” he yells.
His voice is like stones
in a can. “We’re fucked!
This the last train
to San Fernando
& we’re going down!”

You
on the upline platform
at Delancey & Essex
in a brakeman’s cap
from Dave’s Army & Navy.
Blew me a kiss
& turned into a winter fume.
Sorry, I’m sorry.

Washington Square’s
a cloud chamber, the heart
of cumulus. My footprints
turn secret & die behind me.
The edge of everything touches
my face & whispers in
multiple falling voices.
Bleecker carries me
on a twilight current,
turning, turning, the thick
river, past the cameo flash
of Mr Piombino hip-deep
in front of the trattoria,
dug into his own canyon
down to the sidewalk,
his spade disputing logic
with the falling snow that beds
thick in around his feet.
Two cop cars, chained wheels
flailing, and three kids in mufflers
dancing like full moon maniacs
through their slush & mud parabola.
The ghost of Sid Vicious shivers
on the corner of Bleecker & Grove
in charcoal & tarnish. Nothing
but slogans & a thin soul
against a night of hustling bars
looking for the trick who will whisper
where his mother went one
spectral Christmas Eve.
Hell – once just his father’s name
would have been enough
to light a candle
in the dark.

And now Bleecker crosses Broadway
where the snowplows rule.
Surgeons laying the white
flesh bare. And I catch
up my breath & I check
the beat of my Magellan heart,
cruising now into a
safe harbour. The still pool
of the East Village,
the Stuyvesant rendezvous
whose lights bleed pastel thin
through still falling snow.
Dido’s bar & grill whose door
now unplugs & in a draft of steam
it’s your tune comes stumbling
onto the sidewalk
in a spindrift of crystals
and memory like you knew
each step I took, each high step
sliding down Manhattan’s lattices
on hope & a dream unconsumed
to seek you out, painted
onto the inside of the glass
in your logger’s coat, in
your cossack hat like
you knew & sliced the moment
fine as ice & called me home
with your spilled tune,
its colors running in the current,
and you rising sideways &
your head turning in a mist
saying my name,
saying my name
like you’re winding up a spell.

 

About Dick Jones

I'm a post-retirement Drama teacher, currently working part-time. I have a grown-up son and daughter, three grandchildren and three young children from my second marriage. I write - principally poetry but prose too, both fitfully published. My poetry collection Ancient Lights is published by Phoenicia Publishing (www.phoeniciapublishing.com) and my translation of Blaise Cendrars' 'Trans-Siberian Prosody and Little Jeanne from France' (illustrated by my friend, the artist, writer and long-time blogger Natalie d'Arbeloff) is published by Old Stile Press (www.oldstilepress.com). I play bass guitar & bouzouki in the song-based acoustic/electric trio Moorby Jones, playing entirely original material (https://www.facebook.com/moorbyjones?ref=aymt_homepage_panel + http://www.moorbyjones.net/). I have a dormant blog with posts going back to 2004 at Dick Jones' Patteran Pages - http://patteran.typepad.com - and I'm a radio ham. My callsign is G0 EUV.
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2 Responses to MANHATTAN TRANSFER – GOING DOWNTOWN

  1. sackerson says:

    I heard Ferlinghetti on Radio 4, some years ago, when he was visiting the UK. He said words to the effect that we need Beat poets now. I guess he’d still say it.

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