Reading the City Electric
“You shall possess the origin of all poems … you shall no longer take things at second or third hand.” Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is rain-bent, dog-eared and spread like a dirty scroll in my hands. I read the Ur-poem of American Democracy loudly and walk through the city.
Nearly two centuries separate us, but reading Whitman — wow — I can feel his chest shake with wonder at the faces in front of him. I can feel his hands tingle as they touch blades of grass. See him smiling as he swipes sweat from his neck.
Words rolled through his breath. Whitman’s exhale entered the mouths of the strangers he passed and they breathed it out again for him to taste their inner lives, whether perfumed or rank. He swallowed everyone. Slave or free. Poor or rich. Man or woman. He churned them together in his belly as he stalked the city, long-bearded and ragged in denim, sniffing at the crowd like a dog.
He was in drunken-love with all of life. Reading him is like getting hammered with a friend. He casts his words into a world embrace. “All the men are also my brothers,” he writes, “and the women my sisters.”
Nearly two centuries later, I look up from the book and see the endless river of people flowing over the sidewalks. Dammed at red lights. Gushing at green. New York City’s interlocking streets, squeezing and releasing 8 million souls though a pulsing concrete maze. Here is a slightly thugged out brotha, singing gustily a Spice Girl-song. Here’s an old woman, wearing a football helmet as she carefully traces her steps. Here are tourists, unfolding a map and gawking at tall buildings.
Here we combine our singular lives into the life of the city, many cities into the nation, many nations into a civilization.
Yesterday, I saw a horse break free from its carriage. It galloped crazy fast between cars. We cheered its escape while a fat coachman chased after it. Sometimes a metaphor just happens like that. Sometimes you have to laugh at man chasing after nature. Everyone was happy.
“These are the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands,” Whitman wrote, but I feels like he’s speaking to my ear. I want to ask him how can we love the stupid greed that drives the systems that destroy so many. I want to ask him if embracing everything and everyone leaves one floating in a limbo with no moral compass. “In all people I see myself,” he answers, “And the good or bad I say of myself I say of them.”
Too much. Too much. I fold the book and feel like an open mirror. Here reading is communion with spirits. Together we walk the streets. Whitman tells me that I and everyone else know more about ourselves and each other than we are willing to say — much less act upon.
Read this, he says. Read the sublime and subliminal. Read the body as a book and the book as a body. Touch. Draw from the deepest place the mysterious key. Unlock the silences between us and them.
And do what Whitman?
I look at New York in all its dirty, shitty, loud craziness. And he says, very simply, join them!
— Nicholas Powers
Exploring Black Girl Magic
For my favorite summer books, I picked something old, something new and something borrowed. All contain narratives of Black lives.
It has been 41 years since poet Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf made its Broadway premiere at the Booth Theatre in New York, but this choreopoem, a series of poetic monologues accompanied by dance movements and music, still speaks to the tribulations of contemporary Black women. Shange creates seven characters, each represented by a color. Their dialogues and poetic monologues tackle subjects like rape, abortion, domestic violence, coming of age, sensuality, poverty, oppression, isolation and self-realization. This work is a critical expression of Black feminist struggles and honors the lived experiences of Black women in the United States.
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, Roxane Gay’s recently released nonfiction work, is a must read. When I listened to the two-minute audio book sample, read by Gay herself, I immediately began to cry. “This is not a weight-loss memoir,” Gay writes. “This is not a book that will offer motivation.”
Hunger deals with Gay’s rape, her overeating and her struggles with identity. It also tells the quirky story of a woman from a Haitian family who is finding her way as a writer in Middle America. The text is deeply moving and painstakingly honest. It is also funny in the details. I had no idea Gay was a nerd girl who frequented IRC (Internet Relay Chat), an old-school online messaging platform, or that she became a phone sex worker to support herself after dropping out of pre-med at Yale. I follow Gay on Twitter and frequently read her tweets but this memoir created a deeper intimacy that I didn’t know I was yearning to experience with this author.
My poet friend Adriana Green hipped me to the Black girl magic coming from the desk of Brooklyn resident and Hugo Award winner N. K. Jemisin. Jemisin created The Broken Earth Trilogy — Black speculative fiction and fantasy at its best. The trilogy is made up of The Fifth Season (August 2015), The Obelisk Gate (August 2016) and The Stone Sky (coming in August). The series brings readers into a world called “The Stillness”; a land long familiar with catastrophe, where the power of the earth is wielded as a weapon and where there is no mercy. Jemisin creates diverse complex characters who will stretch your imagination and challenge your worldviews. She uses beautiful prose to build worlds that challenge ideas of racism, sexism, patriarchy and other systemic power structures. This is the sci-fi that will help you understand and escape the crazy world we are living in.
— Jamara Wakefield
Big Solutions for Intractable Problems
Utilitarian block towers in the style of Le Corbusier fell out of fashion after Jane Jacobs wrote her seminal book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacob’s quaint mid-century Greenwich Village, a low-rise neighborhood with vibrant sidewalk life and older, architecturally similar buildings forming a cohesive sense of place was the ideal. Greenwich Village’s townhouses nowadays are some of the priciest real estate in the city but those towers still deliver affordable housing to hundreds of thousands of people.
The Jane Jacobs versus Robert Moses story has been rehashed before, but if you want a brisk read with a beautiful and informative design and images pick up Affordable Housing in New York, edited by Nicholas Dagen Bloom and Matthew Gordon Lasner. Full of short bios of long forgotten 20th-century housing activists and developers like Abraham Kazan, the book traces the political, architectural and social influences on New York’s affordable housing stock.
Kazan, an anarcho-socialist, and Moses, a reactionary, were an odd couple, but Moses leaned on Kazan’s development firm to build the now iconic Penn South coops (1962), Bronx’s Coop City (1968) and Brooklyn’s Starrett City (currently marketed as Spring Creek Towers). Kazan’s critics derided his buildings as exclusively Jewish (union members were by and large his target market) but today most are racially integrated and vibrant residences. There are few books, let alone one this visually stimulating, that treat social housing in such a deliberate and thought provoking manner.
Like Affordable Housing in New York, Bryan Bell and Katie Wakeford’s Expanding Architecture: Design as Activism harkens to a period of socially engaged architecture and is also aesthetically pleasing. This book presents cutting-edge structures from modular homes, new suburb design and urban green buildings and argues for socially inclusive housing connected to community needs and assets.
One clear and increasingly present danger to our architecture, socially engaged or not, is global climate change, which portends rising sea levels, more intense hurricanes and storms and an increase in extremely hot days. It is such an immense problem that it is tempting to throw your hands up and say we are all doomed. Take heart, climate activist Jeremy Brecher thinks that if humanity caused the problem then it can mitigate the worst damage. His Against Doom, A Climate Insurgency Manual is a hopeful plan of action to prevent a catastrophic climate bust. Brecher explores various pathways to challenge big fossil fuels’ grip on politics and the economy. In the wake of President Trump’s intent to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accords, it is incumbent on cities and states to enact their own plans. The key is building public pressure to enforce those plans in order to meet targeted emissions reductions.
There is hope and action everywhere. The valiant Keystone XL and Dakota pipeline resistance showed the emergence of diverse coalitions ready to take militant action to prevent deepening fossil fuel reliance. We are racing against the clock, so read Against Doom and take action now.
— Bennett Baumer
A Few Dusty Gems
My vacations always include an extended perusal of a good used bookshop. Thankfully we live in New York City, where a vacation can be as simple as a sojourn to a new neighborhood. The Big Reuse in Gowanus is a city unto itself, a sprawling town whose streets are delineated by piles of old-timey chachkies, grandfather clocks, vintage doors and barnwood. In one corner you’ll find a virtual Strand in the miniature.
My eyes lit up when I spotted a copy of James Agee’s A Death in the Family on those dusty shelves.
I’ve been on the lookout for a copy since Omar El Akkad recommended the book when I interviewed him for The Indy’s special “Against Dystopia” issue this spring. Akkad said that what he admires about Agee is his attention to detail. That was putting it mildly. It’s as if Agee was on a mission to describe the world his characters inhabit in its entirety. We’re talking about extended passages on the sounds sprinklers make as the sun sets on Knoxville, Tennessee, circa 1915.
It’s a spiritual quest, as if leaving no detail excluded from the external world will somehow fasten the soul against loss and reveal new dimensions of the self, a kind of transcendence by absorption. The endless pursuit for total illumination speaks, perhaps, to the original impulse behind communication; to bridge the gap between the self and the other. The gap is inherently impermeable no matter how hard Agee tries, but at times he comes within a hair’s width of fulfilling his vocation.
It is refreshing to read a writer so dedicated to language as a mode for truth, especially these days when tweets laden with cheap adjectives from the president’s account have the whole world spinning.
One writer who could do a lot with a sparse amount of space was the late Jack Collom. Collom was a teacher of mine at Naropa University and when I learned of his passing on July 2, I started combing through his writings again. Jack’s poems are communions with nature; “the blue that rumbles under the sun bounding the pearl that we walk on,” as he puts it in his poem “Ecology.”
Whereas Agee uses the word to describe the world, Jack plays in the world through the word. It all comes together vividly just the same.
For a city poet, check out Robert Fullerton. He’s not in print to my knowledge but a new short film, Mining for Poems and Odes, features him reciting his work and describing life on the Glasgow docks he worked as a young man in the 70s. Das Capital and The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropist were required reading.
I’d never heard of the latter but again the gods of chance that govern used bookstores worked in my favor and guided me to it on a recent visit to Myopic Books in Chicago. It’s plain to see why those hardboiled dockworkers shoved the book in young Fullerton’s hands. The novel pans servile members of the working class just as much as their greedy exploiters.
There you have it, some pages to turn whether you’re at the beach or waiting for the A train to Far Rockaway to arrive. In case you’re wondering why it hasn’t showen up, Clifton Hood’s 722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York provides colorful background on the origins of our dysfunctional subway system (See page 4).
— Peter Rugh