People of the book once lived in New York. There was, in the words of Bernard Black, a whole revolting cycle of buying books and reading them and selling them and buying again; apartments with foyers, entryways, livingrooms, linenclosets, bedrooms, the kitchen even the bathroom sclerotized past the point of safe passage by books stacked in front of bookshelves filed three-deep. Every neighborhood had at least one serviceable used book store with at least one spider-plant-shaded shelf of poetry discards, and though there were coffee shop districts to visit to consume books out of range of techno in twenty kinds of uncomfortable chair, there also were diners on closer corners willing to rent out a booth for an hour for the price of a grilled cheese and coke.
Anne Pierson Wiese’s Floating City includes a sonnet mourning the loss of coffee shop culture, “The Hungarian Pastry Shop and Café” which enjambs from the title:
is the only place I know in the city
where you can still see people with pen
and paper. Legal pads, spiral bound,
plain or college-ruled loose leaf, well-thumbed sheaves
of paper at every crumb-strewn table.
It’s an elegy written after denial but before acceptance, so nevermind that she omits the social aspect — bumping into a friend who’d also read the lost masterpiece you’d just paid three dollars for, and with the signature on the flyleaf of, not the author, but another writer, a so-far secret great reader who’d hocked the book you held, for rent, or food, or speed, or (most likely) another book.
While we’re at it, nevermind the crackheads and smack addicts, the homeless, the broken things stretched out on blankets for sale at 1 a.m., the shootings and smoke and fire, and the horrible local pink paper’s columnists working as hard as traveling salesmen to transmute garbage into… garbage. Nevermind all that. New York was a monument to the book, and therefore to time, and its vast and trunkless pillars would stand forever, and the way to be a writer was to look at it, and wait for the best most exemplary moments to reveal themselves, and catch them.
Wiese won the 2006 Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets for Floating City, a collection of more or less exemplary moments of New York over the last thirty years. Her work approaches the omniscient abdicated quality of Edwin Denby’s sonnets: “Narrow streets where people wrestle rash and unseen / angels; inside, the coolness of a glen and the wait staff / in their pale blue collars offering ice water.”
It would not do, though, to lump her in with the so-called ecole that bears the city’s name. She favors small settings and plays for the sublime, eschewing razzle dazzle and grandiose quasi-philosophizing, preferring to objectify anonymous strangers and inanimate objects (including, I am sorry to report, dead animals). Historically this tendency has gone by the name objectivism; the individual writer in isolation follows attention around the landscape reporting on evidence. As a practice it has attracted both doctors and lawyers. Objective work is often dismissed as cold and clinical — alexithymic, even — but its defenders find strong feeling even in its miniatures of wheelbarrows and plums. Just as there’s no rule that says painters have to master the figure, there’s no prerequisite for poets to relay close moments between humans, and Wiese’s canny specificity often makes up the difference:
All over the city the signs peer
from beneath modern facades, fade in the sun and rain
high up on sides of buildings: BEST QUALITY TWINE. Ghosts
on brick, cockeyed atop demolition dumpsters, tin
worn delicate as paper, pale lettered—mint,
red, black: ELEVATOR APARTMENTS AVAILABLE:
INQUIRE ON PREMISES. If you stare at them words
are faces; everyone who ever spelled them out,
ever debated whether to buy twine or rent
an apartment fades up into view wearing shadowy
Homburgs, black veils, parcels in their arms, the winter
air freshening for snow.
(“In the Beginning”)
Here, straying into Ben Katchor’s territory, she pleasantly restores meaning to words thought killed by hamburgers and air fresheners. Pleasantness is intermittent in her work, however; disappointment and a general sense of being slightly off-center are her main themes. An unconvinced reader – and in its life as a freebie to all Academy members at the $55-and-up level, this book ought to have encountered more than its fair share – would be at a loss at the number of chagrined sonnets that fill out the book. Wiese gestures toward art heroes from Plath (one poem ends “more rock—more rock—more rock”) to Arbus, in “Early Bird,” a vignette culminating in the indelible image of an old man clinging to a fence:
I’m doing my exercise, too. I used
to keep three parakeets, see, and this is what
they did: climbed up the side of their cage and held
tight. See? It’s easy—you just hang on and breathe.
She ventures rhyme and gets away with it as often as not. I wish she’d gone for it more, actually. In “Leaving Brooklyn Heights” she finds sonic parallels to a roller skating anecdote:
[Two] surfaces made separate sounds beneath
my roller skates, one rough, one smooth
to ply the chalk along; thirty years later brief
in my mind’s ear, the streaming horses soothed
Easy! as stone obliterated mud—all griefs
lost and washed in the gleaming cataract of youth.
A little too often she signs off on a prosy slack quality that, along with her dutiful refusal to digress from her appointed subjects, holds her back. She tends to hedge, preferring simile to metaphor, treating the closing couplet as an unqualified return to the opening statement. When she gets away from her insistence on drabness (two poems treat the miscellaneous contents of pockets!), or rather, when she takes the ordinary as a launchpad for the ambition to be beautiful, she achieves something aspiring and unlike anything else her contemporaries perceive. In “How We Memorize,” easily one of the best poems I read in 2006 or 7, she depicts a young violinst on the subway, violin case “upright on the floor between her legs, / looking like the most expensive thing / about her”:
A music score, encased in plastic, is open
on her lap. She glances down, her eyes taking
in one passage at a time, then closing—shell
pink eyelids trembling as though gently disturbed
by the outermost edge of an incoming tide.
James Buchan remarked that in its all-too-legible history of development and abandonment, its fossil-architectural record, New York more than most living places reveals the high and low water marks of money. New York still has authors and publishers; there are still a few used booksellers who haven’t been knocked down by the rising overhead the swan-diving dollar made. If you are reading this having visited New York lately, go have a look at Paris and Venice when you get the chance; the goal is to create an ahistoric wonderland: eternal youth, permanent fashion. These places too are reminders that money finds reasons to do something else. In her closing sonnet, “The Distance,” Wiese declares her “conviction that poetry / was the highest object of humanity.” There’s something to that, and enough in Floating City to suggest that Wiese will be serving that object for some time to come. As for the city that produced her and its regard for poetry, the outlook is bleaker.