New York Poems

By Stan Persky | June 29, 2005

1. Tattoo

When Thomas goes to the bathroom at the crowded New York Japanese restaurant on 9th St., where we’re about to have dinner on my first evening in town, the guy at the next table (the tables are tightly packed, cheek to jowl), in his late 20s, less than a foot to the left and opposite me, who is holding hands with a Japanese-American woman (do I detect something punkish about her? a streak of colour in her hair, unusual eye makeup?), immediately says to me, in French-accented English, “Eet’s per-fect.” He’s referring, I realize, to the plain blue tattoo of an anchor on my left forearm, visible because I’m wearing a short-sleeved shirt on this clammy, foggy, about-to-rain late April evening.

What he sees as the perfection of my tattoo is not only its simplicity, almost hand-made amateurishness, but also, he enthusiastically points out, its ironic, hip, even if unintended, derisive commentary on the current, or recent, fashion of baroquely over-elaborate tattooing (and body-piercing) that briefly swept Western Civ. As he’s cataloguing the virtues of my tattoo, I envision, in a flash, the tattoo/piercing shops one can now find in almost every neighbourhood in any metropolis, in some apocalyptic future, all shut down, boarded up, the wave of fashion passed. I imagine the tattooing fad over, and the minor art of it, not unlike poetry, reduced again to slightly disreputable tattoo parlours, like the one in which I acquired my blue anchor on Market St. in San Francisco in 1962. But my Frenchman (if that’s what he is) is enchanted, seeing my perfect tattoo as something like the prototype of all tattoos, or a Critique of Pure Tattooing, and me as the primitive, ancient, but still living bearer of the tattoo archetype.

“I got it very long ago,” I say to them (she is pouring sake into shallow, translucent, miniature bowls), “so the irony was before its time,” whereas the time of the tattoo’s inscription is in a past retrospectively defined by sincerity, “true love,” and tattoos as marking rites of passage, rather than being seen, in a post-apocalyptic New York Japanese restaurant in 2005 (three-and-a-half years after the “9/11” destruction of the World Trade towers), as a postmodernist signifier avant la lettre!

I try to explain, using sailor talk, that it is an “unfouled” anchor as contrasted to a “fouled” one, i.e., one with a “line” (a rope) entangled in its prongs, but I see that the point of the distinction I’m making is incomprehensible to them though they’re according me the polite attention one gives to any antiquarian rattling on about his specialty. I manage, just barely, to refrain from boasting that I’ve written a book about this particular tattoo and what it means to me.

Then there’s a blink in timespace, Thomas returns from the toilet, food comes, the four of us share some mutual sympathetic clucking from our respective tables as well-intentioned fellow diners; and later, as we’re leaving, saying our farewells, I ask him where he’s from, thinking it might be Quebec (the immediate thought of any mainly Anglo-Canadian who hears English spoken in a faintly French register), and he says, “Switzerland.” “Switzerland,” I repeat, which Thomas, as he remarks afterwards, outside the restaurant, had already picked up on (since Switzerland is the first thought of any European who hears English spoken in French-German tones), and the Swiss guy adds, somewhat mournfully, “I’ve been in New York five years, but I’ll never looze ze ac-cent.” Yes, some things are almost indelible.


2. On a Grecian Hot Cup

There is for me, invariably, upon arrival in another place — in this case, New York — an always slight surprise to be in the company of all these people: in the streets, on buses, in restaurants, working, or homeless on the Bowery dragging plastic bags of their possessions past store after shabby store selling restaurant-bakery-pizza equipment. There’s the irrational recognition, as though I’d totally forgotten, that everybody has been living more or less complete lives (even if fragmented beyond repair), filled with concerns, interests, internets, right up to the very moment of my seeing them, now, here.

At 7 a.m., I awaken in clammy hotel sheets, dress, go downstairs for coffee, passing at bottom of stairs a large, at least one-and-a-half meters high, white plaster reproduction of the Statue of Liberty, guarded by a red, velveteen rope strung between gold stanchions, as if verifying the patriotism of this small off-Soho hotel — and though I’m determined not to make too much of it, I would be curious to know who decided on its acquisition and under what circumstances.

One could say, It’s just a tourist-thing, that plaster Statue of Liberty, to reassure tourist-guests in the hotel that this, the sign of New York, of America, confirms that we are in New York, America, just as one could say about everybody and their lives up to this point, Well, of course they’ve been living their lives, complete with interests, affairs, heartbreaks, right up to the instant you encounter them, how could it be otherwise? That is, it’s temptingly easy to dismiss odd perceptions, even one’s own, and to simply gloss over the moments when you recognize the strangeness of life itself, or that in some ways it’s really weird to have a replica of the Statue of Liberty in a hotel corridor. One could say, I suppose, well, this and that, whatever, but I don’t, I don’t say whatever, and I’m even leaving aside the wall-mirror at the bottom of the staircase in which is etched the old skyline of New York. I’m leaving it aside since it raises the constant question of the missing and/or present towers, etc. Which is to say, that whether anything is noticeable or not, interesting or boring, so much depends on what you bring to seeing it. Especially so in these first hours of seeing, where potentially useful leads, i.e., digressions leading to unexpected discovery, are inversely proportional to the degree of knowledge (in this instance, almost total ignorance), so that anything might be interesting, and is the very reason for travel as against the over-familiar inattentions of home.

So, I’m looking for a cup of coffee (while all this is in/on my mind). I pass the guy behind the glassed-in desk clerk space (the place is run by stolid men in their 30s and 40s from, where? Iran? India?), exchange morning greetings, go out, walk around the block, air clammy chill, might rain or not, just to map out coffee shops, bakeries, newstands, tobacconists in the immediate vicinity (a grocery across Bowery, on Spring St., seems the likeliest possibility), though in the end return to hotel coffee shop to get a couple of cups of coffee to take up to my room. The desk man comes out of his enclosure, goes down the two steps into empty coffee shop (a coffee shop in which I’ll never see a customer during the several days I’m living in the hotel), pours coffee into paper hot cups, and when I ask him where he’s from, tells me, Egypt. “Are all of you from Egypt?” I ask, referring to the three or four men I’ve seen running the place. “Yes, all,” he says, but he’s taciturn, not very forthcoming, though when I ask, “When did you come to New York?”, he says, “About 10 years ago, 1995.” And when I ask, “Are you from Cairo?”, he says, “No, not from Cairo, a smaller place,” which he doesn’t name, assuming, probably correctly, that its name would mean nothing to me. “But was life difficult there, in Egypt?” I persist; “No, not difficult,” he replies, dashing my anticipation of a refugee’s gruelling tale, and finally, when I say, “So, Mubarek was president then,” referring to the past and present holder of the presidency of Egypt, he sighs, “Always Mubarek,” and that subtle political sigh is as far as he’s prepared to go before the conversation peters out.

Then I’m at the elevator doors, paper hot cups of coffee awkwardly in hand, pressing elevator button, staircase, skyline-etched mirror, and Statue of Liberty installation behind me (I decide, arbitrarily, that the replica has been inherited from previous hotel owners. . .) and at last I’m in my hotel suite drinking morning coffee, reading, as it happens, the mid-20th century British philosopher A.J. Ayer on the subject of perception and the existence of an external world, his little book resting on surface of the not very solidly balanced octagonal glass table in the kitchen area, next to a window looking out into the 6-storey airshaft of the hotel, which is adjoined to the shell of an old building next door that has been gutted and is under reconstruction. The paper hot cups on the table have a crude facsimile of an antique Greek design on them, but I’m busy tracking a pigeon that has settled on a nearby 5th floor vertiginously narrow window ledge just outside my window (not vertiginous to the pigeon, of course), and it’s only on second or third glance as I’m about to look at the age-browned page of Ayer I’m fitfully reading that I actually notice the cup, and only then that I stop scanning, roving, sampling, and lock into focus, once and for all, the paper hot cup.

Within the mock antiquity design of the cup there’s a picture of a Greek maiden in a loose, light shift pouring bath water from an amphora onto the back of a naked crouching person, sex somewhat indeterminate, but it’s got to be another young woman, right? (because women servants didn’t bathe male youths, did they? only men servants — oh, something more to look up), the point or punctum of the drawing, copied from ancient Greek vase painting, is a single short curved line that delineates the buttocks of the crouching bather — so, it conveys a sense, a meaning, even a desire, but what’s it doing here?, in the hotel coffee shop (and now on my table)?, how does ancient Greece fit into the décor or personnel of the hotel with its Statue of Liberty motif, etched-glass New York skyline (pre-“9/11”), Egyptian men, etc.? Who gave the stolid guys running the hotel the particular deal on paper hot cups depicting ancient Greeks at their bath?

In addition to the picture, the cup has a cobalt-blue marbleized background, a drawing of doric columns at the cup’s seams framing the bathing scene, and linked-labyrinthine decorative bands running around the cup at top and bottom — all signifiers of antiquity while the message on the far side of the cup, a motto inscribed in a sort of plaque, says, unsurprisingly, if slightly disappointingly, “It’s our pleasure to serve you,” so the picture is an illustration, then, of service, of being served a cup of coffee.

And one could say, Well, that’s that, the hot cups are simply what the restaurant-goods supplier offered, something a bit classier than merely plain white paper hot cups, the Egyptians running the hotel made no particular judgment, or they liked the curved buttocks, in any case purchased several dozen gross of cups on offer, and so on. And Keats likewise could have said, It’s just a Grecian urn, and thus we would be spared all the rest, “unravish’d bride of quietness / . . . foster-child of silence and slow time,” right on down to “When old age shall this generation waste / Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe / Than ours. . .” And the debatable claim allegedly conveyed by the images of the urn that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” would remain undebated. Yet now, old age having generations wasted, in midst of woe other than theirs, it is not only the reawakened scenes of the urn or hot cup, but the context in which they emerge, the context that imperils truth and beauty, and permits poetry in the ruins of New York.


3. Prose Poem

For a few minutes, maybe a half-hour or so, while sitting at the table in my hotel room, writing, I experience a gathering, intensifying patch of euphoria, or as my old pal Larry Fagin, whom I’ll soon be visiting, says, That moment when it all snaps into place. It’s a familiar, but rare state of compositional joy I’ve sporadically experienced over the years, in other cities, at other writing tables.

It happens very early in my brief trip to New York, less than 24 hours after arrival, I’ve barely had a glimpse of the city that I last saw decades ago (before the destroyed towers had been built), no more than an evening’s walkabout in the tangle of streets around the intersection of Houston and Bowery, guided by my friend Thomas, whom, ostensibly, I’ve come from Berlin to meet. The rough idea is that we’ll spend a few days together in New York, he’s at the end of a longer American journey, he’ll show me around since he knows the city, accompany me to the art museums, that sort of thing, and then we’ll both fly back together to Europa.

So, I’ve seen a few streets, and noted the welter of advertisements-cum-ideological-messages on hoardings along the Bowery, e.g., “Life getting too complicated? Uncomplicate,” says the ad for Levi’s 501 blue jeans pitched to sophisticated young urbanites, the company self-proclaiming itself the sign of redemptive simplicity in a confusing, changing world. We’ve had dinner in a Japanese restaurant on 9th St. where a Swiss guy at the next table admired the tattoo on my forearm. I’m getting a sense of direction, of this island slanted on a northeast-southwest axis, and I’m learning to cross the streets of New York (different from crossing the streets of Berlin), in the middle of which Thomas occasionally pauses, as a several ton vehicle bears down on us (“Don’t worry, they stop,” he assures me; yeah, but what if they don’t?), to take advantage of the vista to point out to me a distant famous building — the Chrysler, the Empire State Building, or the missing World Trade Center towers.

And more ads for concerts, politics, products, a TV movie, already shown a few days ago according to the date on the dozens of pasted-up announcements, “Ring of Fire,” about the former boxer Emile Griffith. On the poster, there’s a painting of a handsome brown man, almost nude, slumped over on a stool, representing Griffith, presumably only moments after he’d killed Benny (Kid) Peret in the ring in 1962, in a bout I’d seen “live” on TV, and what made it more than just another boxing death was that Peret, before the fight, at the weigh-in had called Griffith a maricon, a faggot, all this decades ago, a brief version of which story I tell Thomas, who, as a Berliner, is bereft of this particular American cultural reference, as we’re walking along Bowery, turn right into Spring St., the story updated in the New York Times just the other day, in an interview with the now nearly-70 year old Griffith, who continues to coyly bob and weave around the question of his sexual tastes, as if the Times thinks it really matters that we know what they are. And 40 years later, is America (not New York) any less hysterical about homo?

I’ve slept, woken, gotten coffee, and am making notes about a paper hot cup with a facsimile drawing from an antique Greek vase when my mind recognizes itself to be levitating, lifted in delirium. I pause only to note in the same notebook in which I’m writing about the Greek cup, about the Swiss guy and our conversation about tattoos, this quick phrase: “New York poems (prose poems, I think).”

And with that, all uncertainties are momentarily stilled. The question always is, Why are you anywhere? What am I doing in New York? And the tentative, unsatisfactory answers, I’m meeting Thomas, or, Well, I’m getting on and I’ve never seen the great art museums in New York, and since Thomas is going to be there, all that, while true enough, is subsidiary to the sentence, “I’m in New York to write poems. New York poems,” which I utter aloud, even as I’m euphorically writing pre-poem notes. Simultaneously, from other multiple directions, I’m receiving instructions on the order and number of the pieces (about five), and the rules about the usage of New York materials, e.g., no ripping off, appropriating what you don’t know about New York, no pretense to know, as Larry Fagin will put it later, “New York’s secrets.” And finally, the form: “prose poems, I think.”

I’m in the foyer of a little apartment building on 12th St., the next day, between 1st Avenue and Avenue A, across the street from a public school, looking through a small square of smoky glass in a reinforced metal door until I see the face of Fagin seeing me. He comes through the door and we hug to make up for the years we haven’t seen each other, as many years almost as since Emile Griffith killed Kid Peret, and out on the sidewalk, Larry asks, “Plain or fancy?”, I say, “Plain,” and we begin to walk up a few blocks to his neighbourhood coffee shop, where we’ll get coffee and settle in.

As we’re walking, I glance over at Larry, unconsciously adjusting the image of him I had from when I last saw him, as one invariably does upon seeing someone after a decades-long hiatus. I always thought of him as a kind of quick bird, a sparrow or maybe a bright-eyed young crow or grackle, with a crow’s rasp of laughter, and now, striding alongside him, even as I’m registering his familiar beak, I begin to notice that he’s bundled up a bit, as have I, against the spring chill, but no, wait, it’s not so much that we’ve bundled up — after all, it isn’t that chill — but that we’re both simply more bulky than long ago, and if we’re still in any way birdlike, we probably look more like pigeons painted by say, Rubens. Plus, since we’re semi-aware of parodying old guys walking along, reminiscing (we’re not really old guys, are we?, but, young at heart), you could say we appear to be Damon Runyonesque, Rubens-like, tattered, plump old birds (have I ever actually read Damon Runyon?).

Larry is instantly at home in his neighbourhood coffee shop (which, I begin to gather, is what stands in for the cafés of Berlin, since New York isn’t, I’ve noticed, a café city), greeted by and immediately bantering with the old crone Asian woman who runs the place, the two of them familiarly squawking at each other as we settle into a booth, as coffee and Danish are duly set before us. It takes no more than the mere mention of Berlin (where I now live part-time) or Paris (Larry was there, too, about the same time I first went), to set us off, and Larry is telling me the story — I had passingly mentioned the poet Gregory Corso, whom I had met in Paris in 1959, which reminds Larry — of the time he and Greg Corso, along with Larry’s girlfriend of the time, and the actress Jean Seberg had double-dated one evening in Paris. “Jean Seberg!” I say, astonished to hear her name (while at the same time registering that I haven’t heard the term “double-dated” in eons), and Larry chuckles, too, as we both consider a night on the town with the gamine-like star of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, her name or image (elfin, cropped blond hair, high cheekbones) now known probably only to film buffs. “And she was in Jeanne d’Arc, wasn’t she?” one or the other of us (probably me) recalls, Otto Preminger’s failed film, “Yes, yes,” her troubled life reprised in a flash within the course of a quick anecdote, right on through to her suicide years later (when?, late-70s?, age 40).

Then we gab away non-stop for the next two hours, until Larry has to go off to meet some students, to whom he teaches writing, private lessons for individual aspiring writers, as well as some writing courses at the legendary New School, and the flow of talk, opinions, reminiscences veers wildly yet smoothly, instant shifts in sub-topics without loss of comprehension, from Paris in the late 1950s, to Language Poetry (no, he reassures me, I don’t have to worry about having missed something in having more or less missed LangPo, as it’s retrospectively known), to the San Francisco poetry scene in which we were mutually engaged in the mid-1960s, to what is it like being an intellectual in New York in 2005 (like, almost, Don’t ask). “And the Muse?” I ask, “is she still alive?” Yes, he reports, knowing immediately to whom I’m referring, and gives me a blow-by-blow account of visiting her, with another poet friend, a couple of years ago, in, good-god, East Oakland, California, still drug-addled, not quite rescuable, yet looking surprisingly great at, what, 60?

When we were young, and yes, these two elderly gents in a New York coffee shop on a Monday morning approaching noon were once young and could even “run the table,” as they say, in select San Francisco pool halls, she was the young woman all the straight younger poets in our circle were slightly in love and lust with, one of the last proteges of our dour mentor, Jack Spicer, and the author of a few poems of crystalline purity and beauty. A kind of goddess or muse. Alas, other crystalline substances attracted her attention, and for the long, long interim right up to the latest sighting she was on and off, in and out of the needle-strewn purgatory (how she would snort in derision at that sensationalizing phrase!) of her own and her dealers’ making, but making no more poems.

So, that’s the itinerary of the talk, and it’s like stirring up some pond, with smoky clouds of pond bottom rising up through the pond waters and then resettling to the bottom once more. But the main pleasures, above and beyond the particular topics, are as follows.

1) The pleasure of concentration: the locked-in attentiveness and intensity of conversation with Larry, in the midst of the general fragmentation, of travel disorientation, of people constantly chattering on cellphones in public places, of everybody — waitresses, bus drivers, clerks — multi-tasking, affording you, however competently, a fraction of their focus. At its most extreme, for example, at the neighbourhood grocery on Spring St., that very morning, where the clerk, mid-20s, “middle-Eastern looking,” as the police profilers would say, talks on a cellphone (in a middle-Eastern language) through the entire transaction, so that I don’t get one instant of his direct perception, and as I’m leaving an elderly Asian woman holding a can of beans says to him, “Bean,” or an approximation of it, and he says, “Beans. What kind of beans?” (an utterance way beyond her capabilities in what’s known these days as “global English”), disappearing among the shelves with her, all the while uninterruptedly yakking away into his cellphone. Whereas, in talking to Larry, it’s like a two-man luge team swerving down the icy chute.

2) The pleasure of coherence: to find that after all these years, the old friend, now in his late-60s, is completely and utterly in possession of his faculties (notwithstanding the title of Paul Simon’s song, “Still Crazy After All These Years”), totally sane, engaged, witty, the works. I mean, there’s no way of knowing in advance, it could be dope, off-the-wall obsessions, fetishes, that old “I’ve seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by . . .” etc.

3) The pleasure, and this is the punchline, the pleasure of a coincidence. “So, what are you teaching at New School?” I ask. “Right now, only one course,” Larry says, “The Prose Poem.” As if reading my mind.

“The prose poem?” I say. “What a coincidence! That’s just what’s on my mind right now.” At which invitation, Larry provides me a little precis on the subject, and, as always, much of it is news to me. Sure, I know something about it — Baudelaire, Rimbaud, an American 20th century tradition from Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons to John Ashbery’s Three Poems, and Jack Spicer’s Heads of the Town Up to the Aether, as well as other prose poem writers in other languages, the most important of whom for me is the recently deceased Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz and his late book, written in his 80s, Road-side Dog.

Yet even though there are great prose poems (usually by writers who generally write poetry-poems), it’s nonetheless an unstable, self-deprecating form, seemingly for people who can’t really write in poetry lines, and have to forego the real poem’s armada of multiple storytelling through enjambment, metre, rhyme, and the rest, retaining maybe only some semblance of the breath and the poetic principle. It’s a hybrid, a decayed neither this nor that form, such that even now, every discussion of it begins, So what exactly is a “prose poem”?, a question to which there’s no satisfactory answer. How to distinguish it from the scrap, note to oneself, aphorism, vignette, sketch, essayette, journal writing, or shaggy dog story? Not possible.

“But you write prose poems,” Larry recalls. “You wrote ‘Topic Sentence,’” he says, citing a piece of writing I wrote around 1970, a piece about learning to write composition at school and how the writing itself subverts not only all the rules of composition but one’s entire being, and which, again quite coincidentally, is a piece of writing I’d just been revising in the last month, although I’m not sure I’d ever thought of it as a prose poem. “That’s a prose poem,” he declares, like the guy at passport control putting the stamp of arrival in your passport. Bang!


4. Trompe l’Oeil

When Thomas asked me, “What would you like to do in New York?”, the only practical thing I could think of was, “See some paintings,” although the more accurate answer would be, simply, “See New York,” plus, “meet some people.” In any case, the infrastructure of my 5, 6 day tourist visit to New York is provided by the notion of seeing art, visiting the museums, just like other tourists, the Cloisters, Frick Collection, Guggenheim, the Met, MoMa, and, as it happens, our friend Douglas Crimp is giving a lecture on Daniel Buren’s installation at the Guggenheim, which will lead to dinner with Douglas, meeting some other people, I’ll check in with my old friend Larry Fagin, and in the course of doing all this, getting from place to place, riding on buses, subways, walking, eating in restaurants, I’ll get to see something of New York and find out what’s on what’s left of my mind.

So, that’s what we do. The seeing of New York takes various forms. For example, it can be as oblique but ordinary as the middle-Eastern clerk at the grocery on Spring St. (Spring St. is also where we catch the subway to go uptown), whom I see each morning around 7:30, 8 o’clock, when I buy cigarettes or pastry to go with my morning coffee, and just as the first time I saw him, this time, too, through the entire transaction, he’s talking away on his cellphone, even while punching up my purchases on the cash register, telling me the total, bagging them, except this time the connection is unexpectedly broken, and he looks in puzzled consternation at the little hand-held phone, “Got cut off,” he says, and I ask, “Who’re you talking to?” or “Where are you calling?”, and he says, “To my wife. In Yemen,”, “Yemen?!” I say with astonishment, and in that one step forward, from being peripheral to his attention, to being within it, that’s what I mean by “seeing New York.” “Well, have a good one,” I say on my way out.

Or, just one more example, Thomas and I are taking a long, beautiful bus ride all the way through the city up to the northern tip of Manhattan to see the Cloisters museum, and we have to change buses in Spanish Harlem where the ads are in Spanish, and everybody, from the guys in a doorway behind the busstop to a trio of Sunday-dressed 6 or 7-year-old boys in spotless white suits, are speaking Spanish, the busstop ad, for Bud Lite beer says, in Spanish, “You can have it all,” and features a woman dancing in wild abandon, and the softcore porn focus of the erotic photo of her is a gleaming bit of hipbone pointing to her crotch, and as I’m noting the incessant devilry of the ad-makers, the vast sociological analysis-intelligence poured into or wasted on these commercial appeals, the bus rolls up. The driver of the bus, like the previous driver, is a large black woman, and I might as well get this in now, all the busdrivers I’ll see in New York are very large African-American men and women who display such imperturbable calm and competence as they deal with countless tourist requests for information, lurchings of aged and disabled people, crazies, all the while piloting these huge vehicles through swaths of traffic that I begin to think of them as not only pillars of the community but giant boddhisatvas getting the populace from place to place, if not toward enlightenment, at least to the next stop.

And in fact, just a few streets into this leg of the journey, a skinny black guy with a straggly, youthful beard, and wearing a white hoodie under a sort of parka appears outside the doors of the bus and is, I realize, begging the Amazonian busdriver for a ride though he doesn’t have the fare, and in the end, she opens the doors, lets him aboard, he effusively blesses her in the name of the Lord, heads down the aisle, but he almost can’t leave well enough alone, and has to come back to the driver and pronounce a further benediction, “God bless you! Yes, he does!”, to which, she matter of factly and with precise wit replies, “God oughta bless you with some money to pay for this ride.” This infinitismal encounter, while the Hudson River and its soft, wooded bluffs on the far shore roll by as the bus heads north, is exactly what I think of as “seeing New York.”

At the Frick Collection, housed in a mansion on E. 70th St., just off Central Park — we’ve come down from the Cloisters by subway, and taken a short walk across the narrow rectangle of the park which runs from 59th St. to 110th — Thomas is particularly taken with a strange 18th century work of art by Jean Etienne Liotard, a Swiss painter. He calls my attention to it, it’s called “Trompe l’Oeil,” but I’m too busy thinking about three Rembrandt paintings in another room to do more than glance at it, and it’s only somewhat later that I actually look at Liotard’s odd creation. Here’s what you see: there’s a piece of raw brown board, with its wavy grain-lines going across it, and attached to the board are four objects, two small, slightly chipped, grey ceramic bas-relief plaques, both of a nude woman and a winged child, Cupid and Venus, hung on bits of string tied around screws driven into the board, and below the ceramics, two bits of drawing, both of women’s heads, on ragged-edged scraps of paper awkwardly pasted to the board. And it’s only on second, third or even further glance that you see it’s not a board, screws, string, ceramic plaques, and pasted down drawing scraps, but a hyper-realistic painting of a board, screws, string, plaques, even the shadows of the plaques, and drawings, intended to deceive the eye and make you think the objects are real.

I’ve seen examples of this curious little sub-genre of painting before, but without paying more than cursory attention (that’s the story of my life: not paying attention!), mildly amused by the optical illusion, the tricking of the eye caused by the trompe l’oeil painting. But it’s not until the next morning, just before I’m off to visit Larry Fagin, as I’m having morning coffee, sitting at the writing table in my hotel room, reading philosopher A.J. Ayer on the subject of perception, notebook at hand, that I’m unexpectedly led to one of those double-takes that can cause you to re-evaluate anything from the smallest notion or trivial preference to the entirety of your life.

I’d thought of A.J. Ayer as a rather typically dry linguistic philosopher, associated with a long-since-faded 1930s analytic movement known as “logical positivism,” which argued that the only reliable reality was that provided by science, and that everything else was more or less meaningless metaphysics, poetic piffle, but now, reading a general introduction to the subject, The Central Questions of Philosophy, that Ayer wrote in the 1970s, toward the end of his life, I find him to be a perfectly reasonable, urbane, interesting guide to the question of what’s real. The part I’m reading, about perception and reality, just happens to be the very thing on my mind in my own work as a philosophy teacher at a small college just outside Vancouver, which is where I’m generally to be found when I’m not living in Berlin or, as I’m doing at present, “seeing New York.” I frequently pester my students with questions like, How do we know that the tables and chairs and people in this room, the trees outside the window, and so on, are real? And if they say, We just know, or, our senses tell us, a position known as common-sense or naïve realism, I can ask, What does “we just know” mean?, or remark, But aren’t our senses often fooled, for example, by optical illusions, or trompe l’oeil?

Ayer asks, How do various philosophers, a long, reputable line of them, “come to assert that the access to physical objects which we believe that we obtain from the exercise of sight and touch is not direct?” How can they maintain that physical objects are not perceived directly but through a medium or conception of some sort, variously called “ideas,” “impressions,” “representations,” in the 18th and 19th centuries, right down to present day notions of “sense data,” “qualia,” or “percepts” as Bertrand Russell, and Ayer himself, call them? That is, how do we know that it isn’t all in our heads, or that external reality, whatever it is, can’t really be known, and all that we can know is what’s mediated through our senses and minds? The argument Ayer slowly constructs is readable, but dense, and I frequently pause to look up, rest my eyes, have a sip of coffee, glance out the window into the building-well.

When I look up I see, on the slanted angle of wall directly facing me, one of several artworks decorating my hotel room, the usual unremarkable, sort of non-descript drawings and watercolours of gardens, landscapes, vases. And this one is unremarkable, too. It’s a watercolour of a large, plump vase filled with some leafy plant and in front of it a china coffee pot, cup, a spoon, some other objects perhaps (a sugar bowl?), on a wooden tray. I’ve glanced at it innumerable times already, I guess, in the day-and-a-half or two I’ve lived in this hotel room, but it’s only now, maybe it’s because I’m reading Ayer on perception, that I notice that there’s something odd about it. Although its pastel colours and the domestic still life it portrays are subdued, it seems a bit too realistic, too three-dimensional. Now that I’ve gotten up, moved around the octagonal glass table to get a closer look, now that I’m looking at it from a centimetre away, I see that it doesn’t seem three-dimensional, it is three-dimensional. The leaves of the plant in the vase or round-bellied pot are not just painted, but cut out and stacked in several layers, and so are all the other objects in the piece, the coffee pot, the cup, sugar bowl, spoon, tray, the whole thing is a painted paper cut out sculpture of sorts, at various levels within the narrow glassed-in frame, or picture box. It’s signed by Trisha Hardwick, and this reverse-trompe l’oeil has somehow landed as a decoration in a modest hotel room in Lower East Side New York. And couldn’t some postmodern cultural studies critic write an entire work on the sub-genre of Hotel Room Art?

That’s when it strikes me that the whole thing, life itself, is a trompe l’oeil! A trick of the eye. Or rather, there is at least one perspective from which to see the possibility that most of one’s understanding of what it all means, what it’s about, might be a kind of optical illusion, that whatever I now think about my life, politics, art, the nature of the starry universe, time, death, is potentionally revisable, as all writing is permanently revisable, in the light of subsequent experience. After all, didn’t I, at previous times in my life see the world primarily through some ideological framework or prism, from early childhood wonder/terror to midlife versions of Marxism, literature, and eros, prisms that I currently see as having been partial and/or distorting? Or I think of others who took it that their firm beliefs (about Victorian mores, say, or Greek glory) were indubitably true and not refractions of the ideological constructions of their era, went to their graves secure in their apprehension of reality. Not possible now. Not possible not to always be aware of the possibility that we have almost no idea of what it’s about, it’s not skepticism, and I’m a local realist myself, but the recognition that uncertainty is the medium in which the human condition floats.

Now, I’m going to skip the running conversation-argument that Thomas and I are having about art as we pad through the lush rooms of the Frick, gaze at the Grecian vases in the Met searching in vain for an image of a maiden pouring bath water from an amphora, or trudge up the six-storey circular ramp of Frank Lloyd Wright’s rather unsuitable Guggenheim Museum building, which currently features a Daniel Buren installation that consists mainly of a six-storey mirrored square column and little kelly-green stripe-markings along the outer rim of the six-storey ramp, an installation I’m not much interested in, but then, as someone with a more than minor case of vertigo my judgment is probably not to be trusted when I’m in a space that’s largely a six-storey atrium/abyss, I mean, thanks, but I get enough abyss in everyday life.

Nor am I going to go into the history of modern art, which began with the Armory Show in New York in 1913, or Marcel Duchamp, who sort of single-handedly invented it when he attempted to put an inverted, porcelain, men’s urinal, the most notorious of his “readymades,” in an art show, which thus raised the question, “What is art?” for all subsequent art, performance, installation, etc., since it suggests that anything might be art if it’s called “art” and placed in an appropriate context, like an art gallery.

No I’ll just skip that, though I thoroughly enjoyed Doug Crimp’s lecture at the Gugg in defense of the so-called decorative, or rather, the accusation of the decorative in art, which, he suggested, might be a coded accusation of homosexuality, and into which he wove the story of himself working as a young, gay, curatorial assistant in the Guggenheim in the early 1970s when an earlier large Daniel Buren piece, a cloth hanging I think, occupying all six stories of the abyss, was at the very last minute, the night before the opening, pulled from a group show of somewhat similar artworks for some obscure reason. What lingers in mind is Crimp’s passing reference to the New York poet and sometime art critic Frank O’Hara (who died in 1966, less than a year after the death of my poetry teacher Jack Spicer, both of them dead at age 40), O’Hara, who said, “You just go on your nerve,” . . . no, I’m going to leave all that aside and stick to my little insight about trompe l’oeil.

Thomas and I walk around New York, and now I more frequently see trompe l’oeil. It is often art or even the institutions in which art is displayed, like, say, the Cloisters Museum, which, at first sight, looks like a medieval monastery or convent, but turns out to be, on further inspection, a mock Middle Ages monastery actually built in the mid-1930s, with Rockefeller money, to house medieval objects and even chunks of actual medieval monasteries which have been built into the modern simulacrum monastery. For that matter, trompe l’oeil is also the glass globe paperweight, a sort of art toy, with a unicorn in it, that I buy, with childlike enthusiasm, in the museum shop, something produced and marketed on the basis that the Cloisters has among its possessions the set of 15th century tapestries portraying the hunting and capture of the mythical unicorn. Inside the transparent globe, there is a handful of translucent bits so that when you turn the object upside down and then set it down rightside up again, there’s a snowstorm of these bits in glowing green as they catch the available light, like a shower of magical fairy dust falling onto the plastic unicorn, and my eye sees it with the same innocent wonder I had at age 6.

But as well, trompe l’oeil in “life.” When we come back from uptown, approaching Cooper Square, we see that a bearded man, almost nude except for a loincloth, standing atop the stoplight mountings at Cooper Square, is tied to a cross. As we walk closer, into the gathering crowd that’s assembled under and around him, and on the far side of the street, along with a half-dozen police vehicles and more arriving in a wail of sirens, the man, his arms tied to the makeshift cross, naked except for an American flag wrapped diaper-like around his mid-section, it gradually becomes clear (how does it gradually become clear?) is performing a street-theatre protest against the American war/occupation in Iraq. Surely, I think, as Thomas takes a few digital photos of this surprising imagery, as are other people in the crowd, this is tomorrow morning’s cover photo on the tabloids. But (I’ll just parenthetically remark) as it turns out, it isn’t the next day’s cover photo, and in fact, I can’t even find a mention of the event in the New York Daily News or the Times, but this is another issue altogether I’m thinking about, about the messages in New York and which ones do or don’t attract notice. For now, though, just the momentary trompe l’oeil illusion of a crucifixion in the streets of New York.

And what to make of two black guys appearing in the subway car, singing in two-part harmony, “I have seen the light / Hallelujah”?, just like black kids sang two- and four-part harmony in the hallways of the high school I attended a million years ago, time itself the ultimate trompe l’oeil, but what light, I wonder, have they seen, as they pass the hat? Is it the light that the poet Robert Creeley, whose death I’m mourning, unbearable absence, the light he talks about when he says, “There wasn’t choice if one had seen the light / not of belief but of that soft, blue-glowing fusion / seemed to appear or disappear with thought”? Have I seen the light, or seen the trompe l’oeil? In any case, Hallelujah.

Or, speaking of those who have seen the trompe l’oeil of revelation, there are the Jews in their yamulkahs. At first, I barely noticed, seeing a man on the street, uptown, around Park Avenue and 70th, wearing a small black skullcap, the ones Jewish men put on when they’re about to pray in synogogue or at some ritual observance at home, and subsequently, I sporadically glimpsed other such men, on the streets, in museums, restaurants, wearing yamulkahs, as they’re called in Yiddish (in Hebrew, it’s kippah), though they’re usually not worn in public, as far as I know.

But I really didn’t pay attention until one morning, a day or two before our departure, Thomas and I were having breakfast in a restaurant with an acquaintance of his, a pianist, currently somewhat down on his luck, who, in order to earn a living, had to give piano lessons to the bratty children of the well-to-do, often recently enriched, Jewish families of the professional classes on the Upper East and West Sides. The pianist launched into a minor tirade, bitter but persuasive in its details, about the barbaric nouveau-riche behaviour of these Jews and their children — thousand-dollar-an-hour lawyer-mothers complaining about the cost of his 75-dollars-an-hour lessons — all of this delivered by him with a sophisticated awareness that the very mention of such things could be construed as in itself a form of anti-semitism. “Yeah,” I said, not discouraging him, “I’ve been noticing Jews wearing yamulkahs in public. What’s that all about?”

Later that day, or maybe the day before, I’ve got the sequence mixed up now, when Thomas and I were roving through the Met, there appeared one, then two, and shortly afterwards, a third man, not together but individually, in some masterpiece-crammed gallery, in their 40s, well-dressed, wearing, discreetly but insistently, yamulkahs. Hey, what’s going on?, I wondered, how come they’re wearing yamulkahs? I’m a Jew, but I’m not wearing a yamulkah, and I’ve been a Jew, a “bad Jew” admittedly, but a Jew, way longer than them, so, what’s the deal? By which point, I was saying some of this to Thomas, as we were passing a Rubens or a Titian. “It’s some kind of statement, I guess, maybe something about Israel,” I mused. “Some kind of ‘Jewish Pride’ thing.” But why now? Why at a moment, considering the situation in the Middle East, that might be described as one, not of Jewish pride, but of “Jewish shame”? But, no, I’ll put aside my own tirade about the “moral failure” of Israel, the desecration of the Holocaust that Israeli politics has become, and just stay with the odd sense of the apparition of New York Jews in yamulkahs in the Metropolitan Museum, as though they were strolling in a 19th century Jewish neighbourhood in Wilno or Budapest or Berlin, on Sabbath eve, about to don the paraphernalia of worship. Though they’re subtler than other displays of religious identity, I don’t like these yamulkahs anymore than I like seeing Muslim women in North America wearing hair-hiding headscarves, buttoned up from head to toe, all of them mock-humbly proclaiming themselves more holy than thou, more holy than me.

Finally, the swiftest bit of trompe l’oeil of all, quick as a thought. Thomas and I are wandering about in midtown Manhattan, north of Times Square, he’s pointing out the various towers and their architectural features to me, something I might not notice at all but for his interest in them, I would just see them as “tall buildings,” we’re on our way to have lunch on a park bench in the south end of Central Park, when, on a crowded sidewalk, in the mid-day pedestrian flow, various uniformed young people are handing out a small object the size of a business card, which, it turns out, is advertising new nonstop direct flights from New York to Berlin, and there’s the funny coincidence that we happen to be people who are shortly flying, if not by direct route, precisely from New York to Berlin. On one side of the packet there’s a Delta Airlines plastic card announcing the new service (“Good goes around,” Delta informs us), and on the other a plastic Coca-Cola business card (“Make it real”), and in between, glued to the two cards — somebody, some agency, as always, thought this up, that’s what astounds me — when I fold it out is a miniature map. It’s a little map of the streets of New York, and when I turn it over, on the other side, it’s a map of Berlin. I say to Thomas, almost at the instant that the trompe l’oeil is appearing in my mind, “Wouldn’t it be nice if it you could just turn the New York map side over” — and I turn it over — “and you’d be in Berlin?, or turn over the Berlin map” — and I do — “and you’d be back in New York?”, a little trompe idea that lasts no longer than a chuckle as we amble on toward lunch in Central Park.


5. Death in Central Park

A few weeks before I went to New York, while I was in Berlin, I had a dream in which my father (who died in 1975) appeared before me, and announced that this would be his last visit or the last time he’d see me, but when I anxiously and/or tearily protested, he lightly said, “Well, maybe I’ll see you in Central Park,” and, still in the dream, I’m pretty sure, I thought to myself that the dead are surprisingly frivolous. “I love you,” I said to my father, before he gave way to other dream scenes, big empty warehouses, maybe the hangar-like art display spaces at the Hamburger Bahnhof museum in Berlin, big enough for small airplanes, and an artist friend of mine is pushing a heavy, black leather, stuffed ball in rehearsal for a performance piece, while in the background there are uniformed men from World War I, in puttees and gasmasks, fog or gas rising at their ankles, and so on.

Just to forestall any false sense of suspense, when a few weeks later I was in Central Park in New York I did not, as far as I can tell, meet my father there, nor was there any corresponding image or incident that connected in some oblique way to the dream. But then, I don’t put much stock in dreams, though the rare powerful and coherent ones, like the one with my father, encourages a sort of superstition, in this case about the possibility of the dead making contact with us, and since I’d told Thomas about this dream before I got to New York, once we were in Central Park, it was in some corner of our minds, an amusing possibility, a possible poetic manifestation.

So, I don’t think dreams have meaning, or much meaning, and that there’s little to be had from them as foretellings or premonitions, the historical and traditional functions of dreams, or by a Freudian interpretation or, for that matter, any other psychological reading. Dreams, if not just junk-image subconscious recycling, images processed through a narrative mechanism innate to the brain, ought to be regarded, at best, as proto-artworks of the unconscious, and like artworks, though they make use of the dreamer’s own biographical materials, they don’t necessarily tell us anything about the meaning of the dreamer’s life, only something about the meaning of the artwork, in this case, the odd suggestion that the dead, of whom we have innumerable images, haphazardly visit our world but are capricious, frivolous, careless, especially about us, the still living. I’m tempted by the view of my teacher, Jack Spicer, who said that even dreams are not patient enough for poetry; according to him, only the dead are patient enough, and poets are like the dead.

The Renaissance phrase in Latin has it, Et in Arcadia ego, which can be read as, “And (even) in Arcadia I am,” spoken by Death. That is, even in the most bucolic space imaginable, Greek Arcadia, or New York’s Central Park, or the Tiergarten in Berlin, for that matter, death is omnipresent, and as it happens, as we’re crossing the park, amid joggers, strollers, trees, ponds, children, birds, burgeoning life, the elderly lolling on benches, it occurs to me that if my father is unlikely to turn up, there’s always the possibility that it is Death itself who will meet me in Central Park.

In Central Park, at the south end, just above 59th Street, we find a park bench in front of a trickling waterfall coming over blocks of black stone, spilling into a pond. We walked up from the Museum of Modern Art, and stopped at a sandwich shop (soup for Thomas, a panini for me) and took our lunch into the park to eat, found a free bench, sat in the sun, as did others who had come out of nearby towers, some still yattering into their cellphones (a woman speaking Spanish two benches down). In the park, fewer signs, less messages than in the ideological streets.

What one sees, then, are all these lives, somehow unexpected, minds filled with memories, ideas, intentions, at the moment of our mutual encounter, except for the children, who don’t necessarily know it’s a “park” or “lunchtime,” who don’t yet have most of the categories and names for objects that weigh us down, but move through the largely undifferentiated phenomena in a kind of lightness of being. I accept with a mild despair that I’ll never know what’s going on in the minds of all these people in the park, much less the rest of the earth’s inhabitants, though I’m also occasionally grateful to be spared the utopia of total transparence we sometimes imagine. I’ll know only the minutest fragment of all these lives — I have some idea, say, of what’s on Thomas’s mind, of who he is, or I have a sense, however partial, of the clerk at the Spring St. grocery who’s forever talking on a cellphone to his wife in Yemen.

All these lives, but from the anticipatory perspective of death, all these deaths. My father does not appear in Central Park, the dead do not contact us, notwithstanding a few psychics on TV who assure us otherwise, nor do we contact them. But in old age, I think about the dead, I mourn the death of Robert Creeley, whom I’ll never see again, or I get involved in the argument about the slighting obituaries on the occasion of the recent death of Jacques Derrida, author of The Work of Mourning, but think to myself, However it comes out, this particular grumpy argument, it won’t matter a bit to Derrida, who is no more, and I anticipate, worry about, the deaths of my agemates, my friends, myself, or sometimes I think about, again with a mild despair, of all the deaths, of the senselessness, arbitrariness of so many of them. I can cut into the imagery, find an example at any moment I choose, arbitrarily, the first thing that comes to mind is not the camcorder televised images of bodies flying out of the burning World Trade Center towers that September morning but, on this viewing, the cemetery on a hillside near the Polish-German border at Seelow (Thomas took me there) containing the corpses of 20-year-old Russian soldiers slaughtered in one of the last battles of World War II, sent across the Oder River in insane human waves, I’m looking at the gravestones, names written in Cyrillic, there is no end to it all, but there is an end to each. The dead, in a sense, are only in us, but ontologically, there’s a further sense in which we see the sheer idiocy of death. No wonder that even atheists demand resurrection.

If there is just one of the now dead New Yorkers who might appear in Central Park, sauntering past the park bench where I’m eating my panini, it’s a slight, lean man in his late 30s, who casually turns and says to me, “Hi. How’s it going?” And while struggling to match my faint recollection of his image — high forehead with a widow’s peak of hair, tomahawk-shaped nose, bright eyes — with the person now before me, I stutter, “Frank? Frank O’Hara? You know me?” “Sure,” he says, “you wrote the letter to the New York Review of Books in 1966 about my poems, didn’t you?” “Yes, yes I did,” I say, always having hoped that O’Hara had seen that letter, which was published a mere three months before his accidental death, and then, remembering that O’Hara was an acquaintance of my friend, the poet Robin Blaser, add, “Robin gave me your poems to read,” as I’m vainly trying to recall whether it was O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency or his Love Poems (Tentative Title) on whose behalf I was protesting (the latter, in fact), but in any case the protest worked, since the critic, whom I had petulantly chastised for virtually ignoring O’Hara’s work, gracefully replied by printing the O’Hara poem I’d requested. “How is Robin?” O’Hara asks, genuinely interested, as if he’d been meaning to phone him any day now. “Oh, he’s fine. It’s his 80th birthday in a couple of weeks.” “Well, I’m just on my way to see Larry,” O’Hara says, referring to his painter friend Larry Rivers, “maybe you’d like to come along,” adding, “I just have to stop at the museum for a minute,” meaning, of course, MoMa, where he worked, and I rise from the park bench.

Then Thomas and I stroll out of the park, back into the immediacy of life, into the messages of the streets, leaving behind death in Central Park. “Life is random,” “Enjoy uncertainty,” “Give chance a chance,” the ads for a music machine say in the rotting subway station, water dripping from the rusted steel beams overhead into the ear-splitting squeal of the cars on the tracks, or on the train, the poem of the week is Emily Dickinson (Dickinson!!), and though I would have preferred, “Because I could not stop for Death / He kindly stopped for me,” nonetheless, they’ve chosen her account of how she “stepped from plank to plank” (walked the plank?) until she acquired “that precarious Gait / Some call Experience,” and Levi 501’s again remind of us of such complications as “Movies became films. / Medium became grande” (a cultural in-joke about fancy coffees), so, is “Life getting too complicated? Uncomplicate.”

But the most insistent of all the messages, the ultimate message, plastered everywhere, on hoardings, posted on public transit (along with the poem of the week), broadcast over the subway public address system, is, “If you see something, say something,” meaning, as everyone is meant to know, each person must be alert to the threat of terrorism, to the unending “war on terrorism,” to “unattended,” as they’re euphemistically called, bags or rucksacks, to suspicious acts, characters, anything, “If you see something, say something.” And there are two things to note: 1) how seamlessly the terror warning has been translated into the language of all the other advertisements and messages, and 2) the irony, since we, or at least I, am always seeing something, and saying something.

In the Spring St. grocery, on the morning of my departure from New York, the clerk is talking on his cellphone, in Arabic, to his wife in Yemen, while he’s toting up my purchases, putting them into a paper bag (which advertises a forthcoming summer movie), making change, it’s become a little routine we have, and I cut in, asking, “How’s Yemen?”, he brightens, and without breaking pace, or so much as a blink, translates my message, and a second later replies, “Yemen says hello.”

New York-Berlin, June 2005


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

Posted in:

More from Stan Persky: