Tuesday, April 29, 2008

New York and New Haven

This is written from New York City where I will be a few days before going back up to Hudson to participate in an event planned for May 3 by the CLMP (Council on Literary Magazines and Presses). I’m staying in a loft in Soho belonging to Walter Brown, an architect and one of my staunchest friends. In fact, I used to live here (1972-1976) when he and I were partners. We were one of the early pioneers who revamped the old industrial spaces of the area south of Houston and above Canal Street. of Manhattan and made living spaces of them. In my first book (All Roads at Once, 1976) there are a couple of poems based on the move down here, one titled “Measuring a Rooftop in the Cast-Iron District” and another “In Duane Square.” Duane Square is actually in what’s now called Tribeca, though it wasn’t back then. The poem, apart from other topics, accurately predicts that Duane Square will be developed as residential real estate, and that’s exactly what happened. SoHo in the early 70s (it used to be written with upper-case “h,” an abbreviation indicating “South of Houston Street”) was a strange no-man’s land, with very few residents. There were no grocery stores or services, just warehouses and light industry. There was one restaurant, laconically called “Food,” and two bars, the Broome Street Bar and Fanelli’s, the latter dating back probably to the 1890s when these blocks were Manhattan’s red-light district. I remember that Donald Judd had a beautiful space on the ground floor of one of the cast-iron buildings, with glass walls so that you could see inside where his taciturn and enigmatic sculptures were installed. A number of important artists were Soho residents in those days, among them the photographer Aaron Rose, one of the earliest pioneers, who bought a building there in the early 60s and renovated it himself. (I wrote the introductory essay for a collection of his photographs published by Abrams Books in 2001.) Strangely enough, both Fanelli’s and the Broome Street Bar are still going strong; but little else in Soho is the same. Few of the early art galleries remain, and the overwhelming atmosphere is of upscale consumption and partying. At least the original buildings are still there, wonderful architectural fantasies of 19th century cast-iron construction, unlike any other part of the city.

To get to New York I first drove to New Haven and stopped there to revisit places I knew from the five-year period I lived there. (I taught poetry writing there off and on in Yale’s College Seminar program.) I’m familiar with and fond of the sprawling campus, which is not at all sequestered from the surrounding city; main New Haven streets cut right through it. There’s a wide repertory of architectural styles for the campus buildings, beginning with Connecticut Hall, the 18th century structure where the university held its first classes, to 19th century Gothic, to 1930s Gothic, and several Neo-Georgian buildings whose architectural idiom feels more New Englandish than Gothic style possibly could.

I also paid a visit to the Yale Center for British Art, where, in addition to the permanent collection, two fascinating shows were up. One was called “A New World: England’s First View of America.” Its contents include the surprisingly detailed watercolors made by John White, who accompanied Raleigh on his voyage to “Virginia” (present-day North Carolina). The Algonquian people who lived there, their towns, flora and fauna, all are carefully rendered in startling detail. It was a privileged moment, before colonization and disruption of the lives of the original inhabitants, a disruption that soon became murderous. The first foreshadowing of coming conflicts was the lost colony of Roanoke. So many improbable events gather in the story of England’s efforts to plant themselves in the New World. The exhibition includes the famous engraving depicting Pocahontas in English dress after her marriage to John Rolfe. And she wasn’t the only Indian to be brought to London. Does anyone know if these early visitors married and had children in England? Do they have living descendants? It would be interesting to hear that they do.

The other exhibition was titled “The Lure of the East” and assembled a large number of paintings, watercolors, and prints having to do with British travelers to the Mid-East. Some of the painters’ names I already knew like David Roberts, Edward Lear, William Holman Hunt, and John Frederick Lewis, but never were so many works on Mideastern themes gathered together, at least, as painted by English artists. Jewel-like colors and an English Romantic “take” on what Muslim societies were like. The accompanying pedagogical material for the show made the by now well-acknowledged point that these Westerners didn’t truly understand the world they were trying to portray. But then their portrayal of Western society of the time wasn’t so realistic either. Idealization, picturesqueness, stylization: that was the norm. How far away it seems from contemporary art. But the show does register the intense and active fascination that figures like Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Richard Burton, and T.E. Lawrence felt when confronted with an alternative to their own culture. And clearly Burton and Lawrence were anything but ignorant where the Muslim world was concerned. They took the trouble to learn Arabic and study Islam and the social organization of the culture they adopted. It makes a sharp contrast to the American invasion of Iraq, where no one involved knew much about the country they were dismantling, where not even officers spoke a word of Arabic, and common soldiers had no sense of what Islamic religious practice was. But such facts shouldn’t be surprising in a society where only a fraction of high school seniors are able to locate Iraq on the globe. And with an uninformed electorate, how can democracy be effective?


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