Poetry Project Newsletter
Issue No. 145
New York Hello! by Vincent Katz and Rudy Burckhardt
(Ommation Press, 1990)
Review by Susie Timmons
Comprised of poems by Vincent Katz and photos by Rudy Burckhardt, New York Hello! strikes me as a collaboration of a very subtle sort. While the poems and pix contained herein were not evidently produced simultaneously or in response to each other, they do correspond by virtue of their cosmopolitan coexistence in this book. New York Hello! not only attempts to greet the city, but is constructed in such a way as to replicate the method of the city's ongoing experiment with juxtaposition.
Lewis Mumford thought the city was a container of networks. You can choose to focus on the container or the networks. Vincent Katz moves back and forth between whatever these two things represent, sometimes awkwardly, sometimes with grace, as in these quatrains from the first part of the book's title work:
I kiss New York Hello! like a sexy wet kiss
its monument rising in flash.
I grapple with the dusty giant
beneath ailanthus and beech
because suddenly you're on a jet, and you
land in JFK and the hot air rushes up
to meet you, the black customs woman chats,
someone meets you, a guy makes a crack.
I want to touch everything in the
day-glo evening. The bodies, the pizza
the music, the garbage, the flash: Everyone's
Insane! New York Hello! I love you again
Vincent's commitment to motion is optimistic and true hearted. These poems approach the city from inside and out, bringing to light the fact that the whole world is a container of networks, too. From "Spring Frost:"
Such a warm light, as in Greece descended
but flying with snow, not sand, along
this April ice on window appended.
Or, from "Independence Day:"
... finally all the history
and things you read about, art, become real, part of you,
and it's nice to find them in others too: July 4th at the Brooks Fair
in Brooks, Maine, makes me think of Jefferson, who was a great writer...
or, from "Turning Inside London 1/1/87:"
... we could all grow
together, to a different lightness, wet leaves
on the sidewalk, a smashed can in the fresh
light on the building's forms,
in films, details, then you are alone
and it all pulls together into times
of other people,
they talked (to you), different lights
(in other countries' rooms)...
The obvious question of all time is: "How are cities different? Boston-NY, Chicago-NY, Athens-NY, London-NY, and Maine-NY are some of the resonant polarities explored; also love, then and now, summer-fall, day-night, parent-child, and departure-arrival. Networks of transportation are featured prominently: pavements, subways, and airports.
In her charming introduction, Eileen Myles makes the point that Vincent Katz has a very detached attitude toward his youth; this is true:
My father said, "Enjoy your 20's."
-(part VIII, "New York Hello!")
Nonetheless, evidence of youth is everywhere in these poems. A tremendous amount of energy is required to embrace New York as ardently as these poems do; as a citizen grows older, the demands of New York may become a drain rather than a source of inspiration, rendering the poet ever less inclined to name a poem: "New York is My Wife." Vincent Katz is not so jaded:
Yet, when one arrives in New York, everything
Into a fresh thrill: that skyline (from whatever
Makes the heart swoop in expectation and longing.
-(part IV, "New York Hello!"
While Vincent plunders syntax from antiquity, I do not believe these poems are classical in an overall formal sense, for even inside the most technically straightforward works occur wild zig-zags, sporadic bursts of progression from trivial to crucial.
On the whole, the poems in New York Hello! are overflowing with intriguing shifts, tawdry sexuality, tender surfaces, and poignant depths. New York Hello! is not a chronological collection. The poems date from 81-87, and it will be very interesting to see what is next from Katz.
For me, Rudy Burckhardt's photographs can be about the morality of looking. Precisely "what" is that impromptu, furtive quality? His subject matter is hardly scandalous, in this age of mutilation. The frame of his presence is always felt, his watchfulness in the oblivious crowd, and it goes two ways: you feel as if though you are being watched while looking at the photos! Sometimes scowling ferociously, mostly innocent of being photographed, the people in these pictures remind me of how physically near we get to one another in the press of the city, at times shockingly, intimately so. Even the two naked women featured are completely unskilled at projecting a glossy, pornographic sex object image, and so seem nervewrackingly intimate. Most of these pictures are of people in transit: a subway grate radiating significance, feet on pavement, desultory observation of shoe styles, pocketbook styles, and a dark woman poised like a black doorway before a heap of rubble. Rudy is a genius of sidewalk. His gritty pavements are rich in lost narrative, enveloped in the layered aura of the used city. Riding the train, or the sudden flash of excitement, derived from a beautifully exposed back or neck, all is fleeting transition, the startling moment when a crowd resolves into a person. These pictures are monuments to curiosity. The centerfold is a two page spread of a bank of crowded "down" escalators, in the subway would be my guess, all the people gazing off, looking, thinking, worrying. This is what we look like as we go along about our business, unaware of being observed, recorded.
The factor of Rudy and Vincent's friendship adds a special dimension to this book. The poems and pictures converse -- the New York thing again that different views may, or must, or happen to exist side by side, generating conflict and the galvanizing possibility of living a whole new life every day.