New York Pocket Book by Paula Green.
Wellington: Seraph Press (2016).
Reviewed by Erik Kennedy.
Paula Green’s New York Pocket Book is a three-layered homage. First, it is a love song to the city of New York as seen through the eyes of Green’s proxy, a character called Josephine. Second, it is a reflection on the continuing influence of New York poetry (and American poetry generally); the small, square, orange book design by publisher Helen Rickerby is clearly a nod to City Lights Pocket Poets books like Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems. Third, it is a letter of thanks to her family ‘for ten wonderful days on Manhattan Island’.
The object of the book is to praise, and Green does that. She praises ‘smoke from the deli and dogs in jerseys / the passage of pedestrians and [the musical] The Book of Mormon’ (“The New York moon”, p 77). She praises the poets John Ashbery and Barbara Guest and Alice Notley and imagines tender interactions with them. She praises ‘Spring Street the midnight flashing / with life and convenience the packets and jars / bright beyond recognition the American dollars / in a snug roll that peel off easily’ (“Josephine finds it hard to read a new city”, 13). She praises, in a strong poem, the ‘religious experience’ of being at the Statue of Liberty, with your imagination drifting and count[ing] / your freedoms and notfreedoms’ (“The Statue of Liberty”, p 48).
I’m sure Green has succeeded on her own terms. But producing fifty-four poems out of a ten-day trip is a big ask for any poet. Inevitably, the book feels more sketched out than filled in. (I accept that the travelogue is a genre, but it is always a high-wire act, demanding that the poet write compellingly about places that her readers may know much better than she does.) Observations that might have matured into nuanced views seem twee, superficial. Dashed-off poems about having a bagel on the Lower East Side or passing a street protest or watching a group of bird-watchers in Central Park, for example, will struggle to command readers’ attention. Poems like these are there for ‘realism’, to set the scene, like wall-hangings or heavy, carved chairs in a period drama.
And there are some awkward mistakes on points of fact. Nolita bookshop McNally Jackson is referred to as ‘Jackson McNally’. The famous quote on poetics ‘No ideas but in things’ is attributed to Wallace Stevens instead of William Carlos Williams. Josephine appears at one point to be fantasising about browsing the shelves at the Main Branch of the New York Public Library, but you can’t do that – all books must be requested from librarians in the main reading room, and they are delivered from the subterranean stacks by conveyor belt.
Editing should have eliminated bloopers like these, which damage the book’s credibility as a sort of poetic ‘guidebook’. (‘The idea of a tourist using this as a guidebook appeals,’ Green has said in an interview with Sarah Jane Barnett.)
New York Pocket Book is at its best when Green clearly ties her character’s movements to ideas of her own. We might refer to this as ‘active tourism’ rather than ‘passive tourism’. At the centre of the book is a sequence of seven poems about a visit to Ellis Island. These are poems of empathy with people who risked everything to come to a new land only to be stigmatised (or even criminalised) by bureaucrats who devised tests to assess the risk the immigrants posed: ‘The alien body like the alien mind was tested to ensure its strangeness was neither contagious nor malignant’ (“The glass cabinet”, p 57). Needless to say, these poems have come to feel very relevant for 2017.
An even clearer example of the effects that Green achieves when she privileges the idea over fanciful description is presented by what is probably the best poem in the book, “Josephine reads about the mystery of size at the Museum of Natural History” (p 67):
You probably recognize many
of the big ideas shown here, but chances
are their small relatives are unfamiliar.
There’s a reason for that, they say. Ideas that
are big grab our attention, amaze us,
even scare us; small ideas are easy to miss.
But big ideas are actually quite rare.
Keep that in mind as you begin to explore
the bone structure of the biggest ideas that
ever walked the earth.
This is simple but outstanding, conjuring up as it does both scales-of-the-cosmos exhibitions and one of the climactic scenes of Jurassic Park.
Ultimately, New York Pocket Book is more for Paula Green completists than for poetry-about-New-York completists, but the size of Green’s ambitions – her willingness to stretch herself in order to take on a big subject in a short span of time – does her credit. What use is a poet who plays it safe?
Erik Kennedy’s first book of poems will be published by Victoria University Press in 2018. He is the poetry editor for Queen Mob’s Teahouse. He lives in Christchurch.
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