Book Review: New York: A Haibun Journey by Marc Awodey
The staggering verticality of New York City's skyscrapers provides a high perch for David, the narrator of Burlington poet Marc Awodey's latest collection of poems, to stumble from. The book portrays his descent in verse. The text tailspins to such destructive emotional depths, it's as if David had literally thrown himself off the highest Gotham spire.
New York: A Haibun Journey initially masquerades as a play, complete with a cast of characters and sections divided into Acts 1-4. These theatrical conventions hint that traditional narrative might follow, and Awodey makes good on that. His 21 connected poems unfold chronologically, with a beat as methodical and rhythmic as the city's subway rumblings.
The poems record two Vermont friends' weekend jaunt to New York City, where they hope to escape winter in the glow of the city's museums and galleries. The first poem, "Flight," reminds the reader that winter's affiliation with death in the plant world can spill over to humans, particularly those with an artistic consciousness.
Art versus crematorium.
He agreed, he disagreed.
work versus inactivity.
Awodey succinctly reduces winter to the struggle between creation and destruction, and he beautifully encompasses the diametric feelings winter often elicits.
So the journey begins, narratively and formally. The book's subtitle, A Haibun Journey, refers to a poetic form that Awodey both uses and abuses throughout. Traditionally the haibun form marries a narrative section to a concluding haiku. Awodey often reverses the arrangement, twisting and stretching both to match the tortured grotesqueries of depression to which David descends. The traditional haiku, in which the first line is composed of five syllables, the second of seven and the last of five again, is shaken up in "Numb Flesh":
i wish haiku were fiction
i'd give a
for it to be so
The form serves as a drum beat that gains speed and unravels apace with David's disappointment. The Met holds no inspiration for him, as the Cezannes prove unlocatable in "The Old Masters":
David passes on the chance to view the art studios of the Brooklyn neighborhood DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass), choosing instead to sit drinking and smoking in a bar where he concludes, in "Red":
dumbo stinks like oil
it reeks of graduate school
-looks like a
Moving on to the East Village in "A Soundless Sea," David again bristles at the idea of participating in New York's offerings:
They chose to go to St. Mark's bookstore.
He didn't know where the bookstore was
but he knew he couldn't go into it quietly.
That was a place for people who wanted
things to buy.
David only wanted to give everything away,
or trade his earthly possessions
for another drunken
Literature, visual art,
anything resembling an untroubled human
had become a loathsome occupation
in David's dilated eyes.
Instead, David winds up in another bar, buying not books but beers. He has embodied the far-too-common reaction to New York City's art world: Struck by the impossibility of discussing art, or even facing art, when it exists in such quantity that an individual feels he or she could drown, he dead-ends.
By Act 4 - Soho, David has sunk into such a thorough depression that rather than view an Outsider Art Show, he finds himself seduced by the notion of being an outsider ("The East River"):
all the pinheads,
the criminally insane
imbeciles, lepers were handed
to express themselves
so that these quaint,
art works could be harvested
hawked and guarded
by armed guards
offered for sale
in green turtle
jaguars and helicopters
to write embossed checks
to buy real outsider art
On the next page David, disgusted by the exchange of money for art, finds himself longing for "feebleminded pleasures." He is prepared to relinquish artistic connection to secure his outsider status.
David pines for Vermont. He pines for his wife Abigail, whom he frequently invokes as the only hope for his salvation. David pines as Dante pines on his Inferno descent, bearing with him thoughts of Beatrice. Allusions to other poets are heavy throughout the book. Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, Ezra Pound, John Berryman, Jack Kerouac, Jim Morrison, Charlie Parker, Ulysses and, of course, Dante are called upon, but in David's depression these calls go unanswered. These mighty men, many of them responsible for shaping the poetic consciousness of New York, seem to have fled the city, leaving David uninspired and alone.
His frustration with New York City grows, as if he's angry that it's not haunted enough; as if the financial boon of the last 10 years brought so much money to New York, no room was left for its ghosts. Kerouac certainly could not afford an apartment in today's Greenwich Village. Parker would find the corner named for him much too gentrified, with jewelry stores where there once were junkies.
Awodey weaves a densely layered text, piling allusion on allusion, form on form. The result is heavy, and it is little wonder that David sinks under this weight. In the book's forward, New Hampshire poet Roy Morrison calls New York "a poetic voyage into a harrowing artistic and spiritual nether world." This is true. The book's central question is, why does the artistic mind so often attack itself? Does David dive so low, cruising towards destruction, to stir that coin's flip side -- creation? Are depression and poetry symbiotic?
New York apparently was written before the World Trade Center attacks, as Awodey does not mention them. It is interesting to compare how sentiments have changed since that event. The easy judgment, distrust and disgust David feels towards New York here reads as a glance into the past, back to a time when there was more space for moods, self-reflection and even art. Now, to survivors in a city that still feels dusty with death, it seems the only thing we have room for is living.
For this reason, when he or she finds David drinking in a Dumbo bar, a reader might be tempted to point overhead to the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges. There, despite the excesses of the past decade and the ravages of 9/11, the words of Whitman can still be heard: "Live, old life!