Ode to the Lost Motels of the Jersey Shore

Exploring Seaside Heights, N.J., for the first time, and, sadly, I find no treasure-trove of midcentury motels like there are in Wildwood. Here, as testament, is an image of a Jeffrey L. Neumann painting of the Seashell Motel in Wildwood and my poem on the same subject (total coincidence, but not surprising, since Jeffrey and I cover the same beat: lost America).

 

"Sea Shell," a painting by Jeffrey Neumann

“Sea Shell,” a painting by Jeffrey Neumann

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

‘Finding Robert Frank Online’ and Beyond

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.

‘Checkout at the Sea Shell Motel’

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.

"Sea Shell," a painting by Jeffrey Neumann

“Sea Shell,” a painting by Jeffrey Neumann

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

Catcher 22: Holden Caulfield Today

“The Catcher in the Rye” was as singular a novel as the voice of J.D. Salinger, who passed away on Thursday. To my generation – The Who, Woodstock and all that – it was the bible for the disaffected, misunderstood teenager, who was ready to flip from Peter Pan.

Of course, the flipping continued. After high school, there were new discoveries on the road, so to speak, to self-discovery: Kerouac, Ginsberg, Hemingway, Dylan, the Beatles, the Williamses (Tennessee and Hank), the Millers (Henry and Arthur), Lorca.

But today’s youth don’t have time for such protracted processes. As Jennifer Schuessler put it, writing in the New York Times last June:

Today’s pop culture heroes, it seems, are the nerds who conquer the world — like Harry (Potter) — not the beautiful losers who reject it.

Some critics say that if Holden is less popular these days, the fault lies with our own impatience with the idea of a lifelong quest for identity and meaning that Holden represents.

Since the 1980s, I’ve been saddened by the fast-track trajectory of college students. Pressure to choose a gilded career flattened any chance for soul searching during its ideal developmental period. No doubt many college students in recent times have bounced from major to major, from career to career, and have fallen under the wheels of life a few times. Yet something still seems lost in today’s culture.

Nevertheless, I’m convinced there’s something inherent in human nature that seeks its own inquisitive level despite the “so now” pressures and distractions of the times. Our three-year-old grandson, Russell is as spoiled with store-bought toys as many, but I was heartened to see that his favorite play thing of late is an empty chewing-gum box — the best gift his pappy ever gave him.

The soul lives on.
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“Robert Frank’s The Americans” at the Metropolitan

I just saw the exhibit “Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’” — centered on the photographer’s seminal book by the same name  — on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, through Jan. 3.

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 (1959).” It 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.

Robert Frank's "U.S. 91, leaving Blackfoot, Idaho"

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 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.

But I try. Actually, I thought poetry might somehow have a special access pass to the world within photography. So I offer up the following images from my forthcoming chapbook “America, I’ll Have My Way With You”:

I MISS YOU ALREADY AMERICA

I miss you already America
and you’re not even gone

leave me your messages
by the grimed phone booth
how you joke of the truth
hat tossed to eternity
leave me your hay bales
in the sweat hum of the field
waiting on farm hands
and wayward girls
leave me your Ford grillwork
idle at the company house
preaching at the two lane

leave me your truck’s whine
at the crossroads
singing that heaven
is elsewhere in the night
leave me your green trailer
singular at the corner
monument to guts
leave me your shag heart
dusting the television night
with boredom and blood

You might view the video of my song “Miss America,” too.

I was surprised and pleased to see Frank himself link 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.

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The Car

His pipe smoke curled around the rearview
the plastic arc of the steering wheel
taking position on Kingsbridge Road
the carnival of souls and storefronts past Sedgwick
quited somehow in the womb of the Dodge
rolling through the world in a ship

University Avenue next
then Fordham Road, Webster
the paternal power, the V-8
the omniscient voyager
one day making California,
Oregon, Canada, Mexico, Tibet

I was a quite five year old
stacking the stool my grandfather made
into the turned-over dining room chair
driving it state by state
hour by hour
around the world

“He’s such a good boy”
visitors would say
“plays nicely by himself”
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Kansas City Star

Papa walked the great hall
of Union Station
learned to box the language
at the Star
on his way into the world’s war

on the cusp of Bird’s entry
into the warble of the world
from the flesh and iron
of Kansas City

yard town, hog center
breadbasket, whistlestop
9ths and 13ths and Vine
where the Western Auto sign
now blinks and punctuates
the Thomas Hart Benton landscape

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