There are poets who wander around a city — from purposeful to aimlessly — and write about their experience. Charles Baudelaire trudged down the new broad avenues of Paris, alone among the window shoppers. While working at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Frank O’Hara liked to walk around midtown on his lunch hour. David Schubert and Paul Blackburn descended the concrete stairs and rode the subway to Coney Island and other stops along the way.
More recently, John Godfrey eagerly goes “outside on/early summer dawn,” ready to traverse Manhattan’s East Village and Lower East Side. What distinguishes his work from that of his forebears is his refusal to tell stories. His poems and prose poems seldom seem to be generated by a single incident.
For many years Godfrey has watched his neighborhood stumble, crash and rise, from ethnic enclave and bohemia to burned-out buildings and shooting galleries to co-ops, condos and hip restaurants. His books and chapbooks have all been published by small presses. His first — 26 Poems (1971) and The Music of the Curbs (1976) — were done on a mimeograph machine at the Poetry Project, St. Mark’s Church In-the-Bowery, New York.
I was reminded of the latter title when, in his most recent collection, Tiny Gold Dress (Lunar Chandelier Press, 2012), I read the poem, “Off the Curb”, which begins:
Overwhelmed by adequacy
Lower lip salient
The hard head
the ooze of
The hardheaded poet buttressed against the ooze of plenitude — no heroics, no self-mythologizing; that is Godfrey in a nutshell.
* * *
This is how Charles Baudelaire — the original walker in the city — would have described his heir:
And so away he goes, hurrying, searching. But searching for what? Be very sure that this man, such as I have depicted him – this solitary, gifted with an active imagination, ceaselessly journeying across the great human desert – has an aim loftier than that of the flaneur, an aim more general, something other than the fugitive pleasure of circumstance. He is looking for that quality which you must allow me to call ‘modernity’; for I know of no better word to express the idea I have in mind. He makes it his business to extract from fashion whatever element it may contain of poetry within history, to distil the eternal from the transitory.
(From “The Painter of Modern Life,” translated by Jonathan Mayne)
Neither “the fugitive pleasure of circumstance” nor William Stafford’s well-known “I thought hard for us all” propels Godfrey’s poems forward. He doesn’t center his work around the “I,” doesn’t claim that his life is special, blessed or anything other than ordinary. Rather than constructing a narrative which culminates in a revelation, Godfrey remains open to the minute particularities and imaginative wanderings of everyday life—the multitude of wayward thoughts, musings and associations, the erogenous zone of thinking and looking.
“Tiny Gold Dress,” the book’s title poem, opens the volume with these lines:
Days so fleet you have to’ve
seen unruly ones
I do all the time
Godfrey accepts and celebrates rowdy urban living, ”loath to exercise/standard sense/Out of order suits [him]”. His poems teem with bits and pieces of city life, but they don’t necessarily add up and they are not anecdotal. There are myriad incidents rather than quick stories. His compressions of perception slow down the reader, open up spaces of reflection for poems about movement – the fragments of consciousness that come from one’s constantly changing attention, the necessity of staying alive to what the city throws at you.
* * *
Godfrey understands how people look at each other, as well as how they want to be seen:
Her eyes offer room to sleep.
Later in “Room to Sleep”, he writes:
I invent her radiance
Exaggeration is slight
Identify her straight side
Sun at her back
A world away
* * *
One of the things that I marvel at in Godfrey’s poems is the ease with which he moves between density and expansion, as in the following two lines in the poem “Overhang”:
Hubbub stars taxi man
Five year old girl of angelic ebony
A staccato cluster of sounds slows down as it opens up. Godfrey’s sudden animating shifts — like stepping off the curb — compel readers to constantly refocus their attention. They have to stay attuned to word after word, line after line, which echo what it’s like to walk in a city. There is little room for relaxing, for pulling back as if you are omniscient, and Godfrey knows this and stays true to it. This is what differentiates Godfrey from those who write a story or recast an encounter into an anecdote. It is the opposite of narrative, which, in many contemporary poems, can practically lull you to sleep with its incantatory slowness (a cheap substitute for sincerity). Do people — especially poets — really think as slowly as turtles creeping across the sand?
Nothing spectacular has to happen to catch the poet’s keen attention.
So many buzzers
* * *
Not only is Godfrey a poet of the streets, for many years he was a RN Clinician in HIV/AIDS, which brought him up close to people who remain largely invisible. In “Silhouette”, which is “for Heaven C. (1995-1995)”, the poet writes:
An infant aflame and
then off with if not
off to your name
“Ultimate Word” ends this way:
Grave won’t stay clean
Rusted foliage of pine
Incised markings stained
by weathers and resin
Beloved the ultimate word
In his cinematic poems — brimming with close-ups, collisions and dissolves — Godfrey writes tenderly of his beloved city and all his beloveds. From the outset he knew that he would “walk away with/a direction but no/visible means/of destination.”
Amidst the cacophony and chaos the poet quietly tells us: “I hear and am healed.” Perhaps we too should slow down and hear what he has to say.
John Godfrey’s Tiny Gold Dress is available from Lunar Chandelier Press and other online sellers.