BooksWeekend

Urban Poems of Yearning and Heartbreak

John Godfrey’s poems are like pointillistic patterns more than traditional narratives, suggesting an attitude over a story.

In 2016, John Godfrey published The City Keeps: New and Selected Poems 1966-2014 (Wave Books). This is good news for those who’ve been unable to find his work from the ’70s, published in pamphlets by Adventures in Poetry and Bouwerie Editions. But it’s even better for readers who aren’t yet familiar with Godfrey’s texture-driven verse and prose.

For the majority of his writing life, Godfrey has been one of the lesser-known poets to come out of the 1960s and ’70s zeitgeist of New York’s Lower East Side poetry scene. He never sought the limelight. Instead, he stuck to his work as a poet, and from the mid-1990s through his retirement in 2011, as a nurse clinician specializing in HIV/AIDS. He once told me, as a nurse he would be up at 5:00 AM to get an early train out to the edges of Brooklyn and wouldn’t return home until 10:00 PM. To maintain momentum with his writing, he would try to fill an index card when he got home each night, until he felt he had enough material to shape a poem.

Unlike Frank O’Hara and Ted Berrigan, whose poems are also inspired by the city, specifically New York, Godfrey seems more interested in capturing layers of atmosphere in his poems than in writing about himself and his life.

Like his predecessors, the visual arts have influenced Godfrey’s work. “Schnapps Sonata,” from Dabble, which was first published in 1982, offers this description of air and the mysterious actions of some unknown “they”:

When filled with, say, flakes
air softens the senses
In pointillistic smokiness
they are dismantling the stage
and removing the chairs
of history[.]

Pointillism, a 19th-century painting technique in which the artist applies small dots to the canvas to form the pattern of an image, trusts the viewer to perceive the image holistically. Godfrey composes much of his poetry similarly. His poems are more like patterns than traditional narratives, suggesting an attitude over a story.

Over the years, Godfrey honed his abilities as a flâneur, a term which Walter Benjamin once described as “an amateur detective and investigator of the city.” His poems, in their use of street lingo and gritty detail, often have the feel of pulp fiction in the vein of Raymond Chandler or Jim Thompson. In this regard, Godfrey’s work shares an affinity with his contemporary Michael Gizzi. “Savory Arrivals,” first published in 1988’s Midnight on Your Left, suggests a detective who’s got inside information, but is still wracked by doubt:

Who would know better than me:
there’s no such thing as good taste
Lassie lies beside Proust’s sofa
while in his next, Robert de Niro
is Guillaume Apollinaire
Can Bobby get inside our man?

Later in the same poem, he writes, “You could say I am walking/Walking is my true vocation.” In Godfrey’s world, good, old-fashioned, shoe-leather reporting makes good poems.

Where the Weather Suits My Clothes and Midnight on Your Left, published in 1984 and 1988, mark the beginnings of Godfrey’s mature work and show his remarkable agility with prose poetry. Some of the ’70s work, in contrast, sounds dated and, at times, sexist in its slangy depictions of women.

Godfrey didn’t publish another book until Push the Mule in 2001. During the gap of more than a decade, he was busy transitioning to his nursing career, but he was also writing the prose poems in this book. In pieces such as “The James Brother,” an elegy for the poet Jim Brodey, Godfrey seems more willing to display raw emotion than in previous works: “He was that fucking pure.” At other times, as in “Waited For,” the voice is self-deprecating:

I wake up and the sun and the day that goes with it scoop
me clean out. History to everyone I know is so terrible it
is in good standing. I love and fail with all my means. Hail
the saboteur at the steering wheel. May the people who sit
around interpreting disaster go blind. I treat scrutiny like
I would flies. A quarrel of scrutinies. There may not be a
higher being but I concede there is likely a wizard. The
closest there is to equilibrium is equinox.

In Godfrey’s work, yearning and heartbreak are never far, as if he’s channeling both the 17th-century metaphysics of Robert Herrick and the Romanticism of John Keats.

After the accomplishment of Push the Mule, it seemed possible that Godfrey would stick with prose. Instead, he’s published a handful of books through the early-mid aughts, proving that he never lost a handle on the line. The first stanza of “Gold Stars Wet Hearts,” from the book of the same name, published by Faux Press in 2014, shows that Godfrey knows when to break the line to create a distinct sense of tension:

The angels when you get there
cry at the beauty of it
The other side of the curtain
where it’s intact, a melodious land
Locusts leave no sky behind the clouds

Here, the author doesn’t even bother with punctuation — the line breaks do the work. Godfrey’s ability to toggle from prose in one book to verse in another as skillfully as he does is rare.

The City Keeps closes with selections from limited editions and previously unpublished poems. The last poem in the book, “Missing Planet,” fuses many of Godfrey’s motifs:

One more link and it rains golf balls
If some thoughts are padded rooms
in a hovel, let this one be a rose
on a bed of chilled noses

These lines are reluctant to cave into sentimentality; each line break uses humor to undermine the reader’s expectations, most strikingly in the second stanza:

I groan a bit to reach the wall safe
I really can’t tell you much on
the subject of paradise but there
are moments when I’m out
on the unicycle and the missing
planet on the crosswalk
is my Fata Morgana
There’s an irresolute comfort in
resting my head against
the butt of a lamppost

Godfrey’s commitment to the act of writing poetry, whether it’s filling index cards at the end of a long day or shifting from verse to prose and back, assuages my own feelings of doubt about writing. The City Keeps is a testament to persistence, and to keeping one’s own head on the work rather than chasing the phony scraps left lying around by the larger, amorphous poetry world.

The City Keeps: Selected  and New Poems 1966-2014 by John Godfrey (2016) is published by Wave Books and is available from Amazon and other booksellers.

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