Whatever: A New York State of Mind

Australian poet and author Peter Nicholson writes 3QD‘s Poetry and Culture column (see other columns here). There is an introduction to his work at peternicholson.com.au and at the NLA.

Whatever is sufficient unto the human, with glories and miseries—freedom’s torch, the begging hand, aloneness; skyscrapers rearing with aesthetic delights not from a lesser god; acres of parkland where one can not just imagine (pace John Lennon), but have, Marvell’s ‘green thought in a green shade’.

Of course, New York is magnificent, and New Yorkers know it, though naturally there are some who can only whinge about their magnificence. Citizens of Sydney, used to newbie enthusiasm over the city’s physical attractions, and far from immune to aren’t-we-wonderful self-glorification, know the real thing when we see it. From the Time Warner Center atrium to the trickling fountains at the Frick collection; up at the Cloisters, sequestered from development; down to the colossal energies of Times Square; at tony Park Avenue; through the empty space where the World Trade Center once stood, now waiting, yearning, for its Freedom Tower—Manhattan, Gotham City, stands, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island boroughs surrounding, an epic of social integration (‘Give me your tired, your poor’), a dazzling, perplexing, overwhelming city. With very expensive real estate. And with taxi and bus drivers whose skill in getting through the city’s ceaseless traffic can only be compared to the technique of great ballet dancers. Some long-term residents bemoan the changing character of parts of the city, but for the visitor it’s a case of: there doesn’t go the neighbourhood. Surely New York was never greener, cleaner or more attractive than it is now.

It might very well be a cliche to stand at the top of the Empire State Building. One does not run into Cary Grant waiting for Deborah Kerr, testing the limits of their affair to remember. However, the visual consummation at this height is quite something. Everyone who goes to New York should try to get there. Most New Yorkers will tell you to go on a clear day—you might just see forever—but I think it’s better to go after a rainstorm, when the clouds have partially cleared and are scudding across the sky, which is when I went. The crowds have dispersed and you don’t have to wait too long to get through the security checks. Then, up at that imperial height, where even Central Park is reduced to some olive spinnaker, you can see the whole fantastic panoply of the city lit by shadow and sunlight, the wind a bracing tonic against the tiredness that is likely to overcome you if you’re not careful. Don’t try to conquer too much of New York on your peregrinations. You won’t.

If that experience doesn’t send you to your hotel room somewhat chastened, then I suggest a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art might. The collection there is so awesome in its range of paintings, sculpture, furniture, glassware, armour and ceramics, that one could not begin to do it justice in less than a year of visits. Here is a place so vast that you can make a wrong turn, expecting to be looking at Greek statuary, and end up in a complete Egyptian temple or, taking another staircase, suddenly be confronted by an entire Frank Lloyd Wright room. Well, one can only take in so much art at one time. It was amusing to see people, just like myself, wandering in a slightly hypnotised way through the galleries at the end of the day. We had experienced the phenomenon of nervous attrition by artistic masterpiece. That’s a danger not just at MMA. There are MoMA and the Guggenheim to see too, for starters. The David Smith retrospective was on at the Guggenheim when I was in New York, and it was exciting to be confronted by an oeuvre I knew little about. By the way, the tour guides in the museums are unfailingly instructive and knowledgeable. They teach you so much in the short amount of time they have, and most of their work is voluntary. 

When the gold curtain parts at the Met for five hours of great Wagner singing (Hampson, Heppner, Meier, Pape, Putilin in Parsifal) or you sit in The Belasco for Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing!, its socialism on the right side of the agit-prop dividing line, in the very theatre where the play had its premiere, you can experience a rare theatrical frisson. The grandfather in the Odets’ play throws himself off the roof of the apartment block in which the Berger family live—Ben Gazzara, the original Brick in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, in a fine performance. The hopes of a lifetime perish with a terrible fall from grace. It struck me that we were living through a similar period the play represents. Our dumb celebrity culture, cynicism and irony, our know-nothing knowingness, is different to pre-War New York, but in other ways we are similar. The grandfather’s ideals are under pressure from economic reality, just as we know the reality of torture, war and starvation. New York should confirm us in our ideals too, or at least make us think very hard about what is left of our ideals. Hart Crane invokes the feeling that precedes insight so well in the ecstatic ‘Proem To Brooklyn Bridge’ from The Bridge: ‘O Sleepless as the river under thee, / Vaulting the sea, the prairies’ dreaming sod, / Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend / And of the curveship lend a myth to God.’ I felt these emotions, these links between architecture and human aspiration, many, many times. The Rockefeller Center, for example, no doubt, for some, a worm of predatory capitalism symbolising all that is worst in the oppression of non-Western cultures, struck me as entirely beautiful, its art works, murals and sculpures, from the Manzù door reliefs to the Swarovski crystal installation (but how are they going to clean it?). For a poet the world may be something like a rose, for the scientist something like a machine to be explained. The future must see the uniting of the rose and the machine in culture, in politics, if we are to at long last fulfil the hopes of grandfathers who gave up and jumped off buildings, or poets who disappeared on ocean voyages.

Parts of the planet may well be rotten to the core, but other parts are marvellous. Sure, New York has problems, the major one being the clear social and economic inequalities between some neighbourhoods. On a mundane level, theatre etiquette could do with some sharpening up—the cannonade of coughing I heard through Act One of Tosca was something to behold. But then there are wonders unlike anything else: the rooftop garden vista at the Metropolitan Museum, the Morgan Library with its unique manuscript and art collections (Anne, Branwell, Charlotte and Emily Brontë manuscripts, Mahler’s 5th, an Edgar Allan Poe story et al), approaching the Statue of Liberty at dusk.

True, there are neurotics, jackasses and wannabes about, but you get those everywhere. Repose can be found in many a quiet enclave, whether that be in any of the numerous bookstores, Bryant Park or in the reading rooms of the adjacent New York Public Library (the library had a superb exhibition on—French Book Art of artists and poets in dialogue—when I visited). On the other hand, if people about you is what you want, The Village Voice can tell you about hundreds of events to go to. New York also means jazz, dogs and food—for cheaper eats try the cheeses in Zabar’s or the hamburgers at Nick’s on the Upper West Side. If you’re cashed up, there’s always Le Cirque. Street fairs are a favourite weekend pastime. Large sections of Broadway, or other thoroughfares, are closed off on Sundays and filled with stands from all over, conspiracy theory booths happily mixing with the corn fritters and pashminas.   

However, in the end, you must come to the one defining moment in recent New York history that centres all journeys in this city, and all one’s subjective emotions. Perhaps it is foolish to look for the spirit of this city in one moment or defining event, but I think you can find that New York spirit in a number: 343. That is the number of firefighters and paramedics who died on September 11 as they tried to control the catastrophe. Every death then was tragic, as are all deaths brought about through violence. But what honour was accrued to the city through their actions. People say the ancient myths were an invention to explain the unpredictable behaviour of the gods, but on September 11 there Hercules fought Antaeus. The golden Prometheus at the Rockefeller Center transformed itself at Ground Zero into stupendous courage and heroism. How proud the relatives and friends must be of those who went to their deaths that day trying to save the lives of others.

Next time you hear about New York’s brashness, financial shenanigans, corruption, its callous disregard for your intentions, look more closely. Beneath the harsh surface lies the greatness of the human spirit, in all of its faltering grandeur.   


            September 11, 2001

You will remember, under brilliant stars,
The shadows of the burning, falling towers,
The kindness and the malice we receive
Or give to others, fortune’s miseries.

What steadfastness eroded skin will keep
In its griefs, inexplicable;
Dark energy can gather for a killing
Though not all joy is taken by cruel dirt.

When it is done, quickly the darkness comes,
Blood and iron’s mistaken enterprise;
Immortal smiles on future summer nights
Shall hold to reason with grasped photographs.

Time may despatch your broken history
And bid the dead eternal recompense—
Their shades surround you in the morning light
Edging through this silence on the ground.

Written 2003

Line 9 references Macbeth Act 1 Scene 7

‘If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well / It were done quickly.’

Lillias White sings ‘Manhattan’ here. 2′ 46”