Reading Charles North’s most recent book, Everything and Other Poems (the Song Cave, 2020), I am reminded of the TARDIS in the long-running British Television series Doctor Who. The combination spaceship and time machine replicates a British Police Box, a windowless blue telephone booth used by the police to call for assistance. But, as everyone who has watched the show knows, once you step inside the telephone booth, you enter an infinite space full of rooms, passageways, and storage areas — a New Yorker’s real-estate dream.
North’s slim book, which has a detail from Pieter Breugel the Elder’s painting “The Battle Between Carnival and Lent” (1559) on the cover, similarly opens up into more than it seems. This starts with the first piece, “Pain Quotient,” a series of four numbered prose paragraphs that begins, “How to explain tragedy to a deer.”
The piece brings together a wide variety of reflections, including things he has seen, read, or been told (“Someone David knew, an actress, referred to the café Pain Quotidien as Pain Quotient, apparently with a straight face”). Each paragraph seems to be a collage, as its sentences address very different experiences. But, unlike much collage writing, the breaks between the sentences are porous and the seams separating one perception from another are not obvious.
This means that the reader can drift along, lost in the precise pleasures of North’s writing, the acuity of his thinking, and the range of resources he effortlessly draws upon (“Everyone knows that Janus Weathercock and Cornelius Van Vinckboons are too good not to be true, but very few know of their connection to the poet John Clare”). If that sentence doesn’t make you want to scurry to Wikipedia, you’d better get the oximeter out and check your pulse.
For all of North’s drifting, the writing is rooted in the everyday experience of someone who has lived in New York City for most of his life. “Crepuscule with Paula” opens with, “Does realism get your vote?” To which the poet immediately answers, “It gets mine.” And yet, his realism is unlike anyone else’s, and his writing — for all its inspirations and influences — is all his own. With Everything and Other Poems, he becomes one of the great poets associated with the New York School, going back to John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Barbara Guest, and James Schuyler, and including Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett, Alice Notley, David Shapiro, Joe Brainard, and Bernadette Mayer.
North possesses an urbane, cultured sensibility; he loves Brahms and baseball, and the unlikely surprises one encounters in daily life. He is one of the rare citizens of the world in that he remains open to it. He goes where the writing takes him, which results in a book of poems, prose, and unclassifiable works, in which the formal and improvisational seamlessly merge together.
In “French Licks,” which is dedicated to Ron Padgett, North cites snippets from the works of French poets and writers such as Valery Larbaud, Henri Michaux, Charles Baudelaire, and Max Jacob. It is both an homage to Padgett, whose translations of many of these and other French writers are exemplary, and a letter to him that ends with a line from Michaux: “I don’t know what else to say. Am I ever going to see you?” What makes “French Licks” more than citation is that in the “Acknowledgments” page you learn that North did all the translations, which suggests that he read all the works in their original language.
There is a sensuous luxuriousness in North’s writing that is comparable to memorable passages found in Ashbery, Schuyler, and the great, underrated English poet F. T. Prince, about whose work North has written beautifully. For over 40 years, North has occasionally written about art for Art in America. His engagement with art also connects him with the first generation of New York School. He has reviewed artists as different as Aristodemis Kaldis and Richard Tuttle. His clear passion for modern and contemporary art has led him beyond being a purely literary poet — one for whom Cubism, Abstract Expressionism, and Conceptual Art hold no interest. From the artists associated with these movements he learned that writing did not have to be narrative, tell a story, or reiterate a meaningful anecdote. It did not have to limit itself to description but instead could aspire to music and abstraction.
North’s embrace of art surely deepened his understanding of process, and what was meant when critics asserted that the paintings of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock are a record of their coming into being. See, for instance, this sentence from “Elevenses”: “Pale green celery leaves and the smaller, whitish hearts that signify narcissism in the unmediated sense–but I only recently learned that narcotic has the same root, which might explain to some degree those mornings when fog, for want of a better term, is unrelieved.”
How North gets from the beginning of the sentence to the end is one of the many substantial pleasures Everything and Other Poems has to offer. It is not the destination of the poem that matters, the final revelation or feel-good message, but all the different ways the poet gets us there.
With their evocation of changing light and time passing, the last two stanzas of the four-stanza poem “After Pasternak” could have only been written by a poet who looked at and thought about contemporary realist painters such as Fairfield Porter, Jane Freilicher, and Lois Dodd:
Take the roofs open to everything
including snow and rain.
Even the lintels get weary
for all their shoulderings and narrow
if steadfast view of what’s to come, edged
with gingko trees and a few nameless shrubs.
A shaft of sunlight cutting through!
The city climbs in backwards through the kitchen window.
From writing a seemingly memory-based poem from the point of view of a desk and everything on it (paperclip, gooseneck lamp, scotch tape, and scissors), to walking around New York, to reading all kinds of books, to thinking about art and listening to music, North is not afraid to wear his aesthetic heart on his sleeve. He can be wryly witty, particularly in his observation of a society thronging with social climbers, wannabes, and top and bottom dogs, while slyly nodding to Elizabeth Bishop’s famous villanelle “One Art” (1976) when he replaces her line, “The art of losing isn’t hard to master” with “The art of schmoozing isn’t hard to master.”
North is a poet who is serious, but doesn’t take himself so seriously that he pictures himself as a martyr. He is remarkably even tempered, while full of passion and tenderness. He doesn’t think being a poet makes him special.
You never know what might pop up in a North poem. He is a master of lists (for example, he finds new elements in listing these names: “Exxon, Saturnalia, Rutoleum, Leafmold, Facture […]).” But that is only one of many reasons why you might read his work. You may want to be surprised and challenged. You may want to read a line and wonder where he is going to go next. Under the heading “APRIL 10. Opening day,” we read: “The giraffe vendor stopped by and will come back later.” I have been to a lot of ballgames but I have yet to encounter a “giraffe vendor.”
In a world marked by routines and the repetition of the familiar, from the boring and comforting to the predictable and disturbing, North’s care of attention to the solid and fleeting, and to the daily and the daydream, reminds us that nothing is routine — what we see, hear, and read today only appears to be the same as yesterday. This is the news we look for in poetry.