Just to clarify, my story appears in the online version of the “Walking New York” Magazine feature in The Times, and doesn’t appear in the print edition. If you’re looking, click here and search “Kovler” in your browser to find it quickly.
The New York Times published a piece I wrote as part of their Walking New York feature for this Sunday’s Magazine. In addition to a number of prominent writers, others were invited to submit a story of about 600 characters, and mine was one of few that made the cut.
I wrote about a boyhood adventure along the Grand Concourse, in the Bronx:
The Grand Concourse, Near Tremont
By Allen Kovler (aka Allen Shadow)
At 13, my friend Sammy and I would hike up the Grand Concourse all the way to Mosholu Parkway on a hot, sunny Saturday, equipped as if on an explorer-worthy trek, cargo pants pockets stuffed with sundries, Army canteens smacking our hips as we marveled at the sights: the bric-a-brac stores on Burnside, the Loews Paradise, the bustle of Fordham Road, the eerie tranquility of Edgar Allan Poe’s cottage, the home for the blind. Exhausted, we’d mount a bus back, hanging from the windows, still thrilled.
In the raw New Mexican morning
“Wichita Lineman” on the Delco
eggs and coffee at the townie cafe
all stick figure kitchen chairs
a flag and a snowy 12-inch
Cowboy hats and thick-framed glasses
stares at the hippie kids
The West foreign as Bagdad
to a Bronx boy
uneasy wonder, unleashed desire
every mile, every town
every magic mountain vista
every flat forever
California to be charmed finally
from its dreamscape
My latest chapbook of poetry, America I’ll Have My Way With You (Casa del Pueblo Press, 2015) was released during a book signing party and reading last week in Pueblo, Colorado, home of Casa and the Pueblo Poetry Project. It was the seventh time over the past 30 years that I’ve been the featured reader at a project event. (Copies are $6 each, postage included, and can be purchased by sending a check made out to Allen Shadow to P.O. Box 268, Catskill, N.Y. 12414.)
I began the America series after returning from a trip to Mexico in the summer of 2001. I’ve come to love some of my subjects, some of which are places — like New York, America. Love them so much they become personages to me, even paramours of a kind. Let’s face it, writers can get very personal with their subjects. Returning to a beloved place can reinvigorate your feelings, like returning to your longtime lover after a journey. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, but it also opens the eyes wider.
The poems in the series are written in a style called “direct address.” Think of it as writing a heartfelt letter to a loved one. In this case, it’s this whole wide, mysterious country I’ve wanted so bad to know. To me, she is like a temptress who has hold of you, keeps you hungry, keeps you wanting more.
I offer one of the poems from the chapbook as a sample:
America, I’ll Have My Way With You #136
August 17, 2001
Thank you for waiting, America
for my return from Mexico
your Lucite furniture store letters
your neglected window displays
your sandstone and faux brick face
your stairways to nowhere
at ajar doorways
your Dutch pediments
your ants and cigarette butts
your warehouse alarm housings
your dense August afternoons
lunchroom turbines whirring
dishes clanking in the alleyways
Your semis abandoned in vacant lots
your hashed roofs
your bricked up factories
your sun cut warehouse walls
your sea birds one hundred miles
from the ocean on the Hudson
Oh America, I love you
I’ve always loved you
even with your one eye
your misshapen hips
your iron nipples
The other day The New York Times covered the announcement of a treasure trove of images from the work of Robert Frank, one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century. The National Gallery of Art has released a comprehensive archive of Frank’s work, including contact sheets and work prints, much of it never before seen by the public. It all comes in advance of Frank’s 90th birthday, in November.
As The Times says in it’s Lens Blog:
The cover image for the U.S. edition of The Americans, Robert Frank’s epochal book, spoke volumes about the state of the nation in the mid-1950s. The tightly-cropped photo shows passengers in the windows of a New Orleans trolley assuming their place in the social order of the Jim Crow South — progressing from a black woman in the rear to white children and adults up front (slide 4).
The contact sheet that contained the image showed that Mr. Frank had photographed the city from multiple perspectives, but he ultimately selected the frame that most dramatically and symbolically captured New Orleans’ racial hierarchy. Learning this photo’s backstory would be impossible without the ability to view Mr. Frank’s contact sheet. Now, such important archival material, typically reserved for scholars and curators, is just a click away.
Born in 1924 in Zurich, Switzerland, Frank took pictures in Europe and South America during his early career, but it wasn’t until he crisscrossed the seductive roads of America that Frank felt he was finally making art with his lens. With his U.S. travels in the mid-1950s, his work reached a new level, and 83 of his road images were arranged into the book The Americans.
It’s no surprised that Jack Kerouac wrote the introduction to the first U.S. edition of The Americans. The 1959 edition raised eyebrows in the media for its brute black and white candor. But The Americans, like Kerouac’s own masterwork, On the Road, opened the door to the loneness of the country’s heart and spirit and, together, they inspired a generation of artists, musicians and thinkers.
It’s interesting how foreign image makers like Frank, Mechelangelo Antonioni (Zabriskie Point, 1970), Louis Malle (Atlantic City, 1980) are able to capture the essence of the land better than most native auteurs. In fact, with the stir made by The Americans, Frank was compared to America’s original outsider observer, Alexis de Tocqueville, whose 1835 book Democracy in America helped to define the young nation’s unique character (Is it what America brings to you or what you bring to her?).
I believe a great artist is a conduit for “place.” His subject somehow finds him, speaks through him. The artist ultimately “sees” through time as the French photographer Eugène Atget once described it. I believe such artists also see through other dimensions, some of which elude us, some of which speak through intersections of light and shadow, artifact and art, quietude and cacophony, moment and mystery.
It’s hard to describe The Americans. Language could illuminate it, could degrade it. Perhaps it’s like the stuff of dreams, the magic of which begins to disappear upon transfer to the conscious mind. So much spills from the bucket on its ascent from that deep, dark well.
I was surprised and pleased when I discovered Frank himself had linked the worlds of photography and poetry in his description of his work:
When people look at my pictures I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice.
When I first saw the paintings of Jeffrey L. Neumann, in a gallery in Hudson, N.Y., I could hardly contain myself. I knew I had discovered a simpatico artist, a realist painter whose images of a lost America — faded motels, eateries and roadside oddities — could have illustrated much of the nourish imagery of my poetry and fiction.
Then, recently, in a kind of artistic kismet, I discovered a poem I had written years before I happened on Jeff’s work. The poem was about a motel in Wildwood, N.J., the very same seaside relic Jeff had painted in 2009. I shared the poem with Jeff, who responded: “Wow. I can hear this set in Waitsonian (re: Tom Waits) phrasing.” He agreed to let me use the image of his painting “Sea Shell” for this publication.
My poem, accompanied by Jeff’s painting of the same subject, follows.
CHECKOUT AT THE SEA SHELL MOTEL
the caramel room
at the Sea Shell Motel
dollar store palm prints
and nicotine sills
cheap rum hangs in the shaft of sun dust
hula lamps hold the afternoon
dealings have come and gone —
Greek families, pimps, divorcees,
schmuck runaways, suicide watches
music plays no more
only murmurings and distant trucks
the scent of the bulldozer
I’ll be reading chapters from my second novel, “Puppet Girl” (now in progress), at the Pueblo Poetry Project, Wed., Jan. 22 at 7 p.m. The reading will be held at the Daily Grind Espresso Bar and Café, 209 S. Union Ave., Pueblo, Colorado.
This will be the sixth time I’ve been the featured reader at the Pueblo Poetry Project, which is in its 35th year. I’ll also be reading poems from my series, “I’ll Have My Way With You, America,” which will be released as a chapbook in the future. Meanwhile, “Puppet Girl” is a sequel to my first novel, “Hell City.”
Joel Scherzer and Robbie Rubinstein, publishers at Quick Books in Pueblo, have published my poetry, beginning with the chapbook, “Harlem River Baby,” which was first released in 1984 (and is now going into its second printing). They also edited “Hell City” and are currently at work editing “Puppet Girl.”