Lucy and Todd

Posts Tagged ‘New York’

Robin Robertson — The Long Take

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on April 9, 2018 at 9:22 am

 

The Long Take, a narrative poem, is the story of a guy called Walker: his “name and nature”. He was born in Nova Scotia and was alive to what you might call an old-fashioned natural world, out of a Robert Flaherty film. He fought in France. Feeling soiled, disjointed, he believes he cannot return to the purity of his home place, so he washes up in New York City, in 1946, and experiences life there in the stark chiaroscuro of new cinema.

In this black and white world he begins to write. From an island beginning he becomes a sharp, cinematographic observer of urban humanity – in the latter half of the 20th century, what other kind is there? He hears from men how New York works: “Up there …” he gestured at the bright/jewelry of the towers,/the wasted light of penthouses and suites,/’… are all the girls and all the money.” Walker encounters some people from Hollywood and gradually ideas of it work on him and he lights out for there. Walker you could easily imagine as the actor Robert Walker: a world-weary, battle-hardened, acutely sensitive man, scarred and unbalanced.

Any narrative poem about New York City reminds you of Hart Crane’s The Bridge; California brings to mind Robinson Jeffers, a writer with whom Robin Robertson has much in common. In its beginning, The Long Take remarkably captures linguistic styles of 1940s American writing – Saroyan and Steinbeck. As it progresses into the mid-1950s, we’re hearing Ginsberg and Baldwin.

You also sense the paintings of John Sloan and hear Joseph Moncur March and Les Murray (whose Fredy Neptune is another shattering narrative of a damaged fighting man). David Jones’s In Parenthesis, Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (to our disappointment, Walker is also a drinker) – you will be washed in all these when you read this poem. Dust, the dust and sand natural to Los Angeles, but also that raised by the constant, insane development and re-development of the city, is John Fante’s dust.

Walker gets a job on a newspaper, easy as pie. Those were the days. But everything in Los Angeles has always been happenstance, in turmoil, endangered, unreliable – just like the houses and the iffy, oily soil they rest on. Assigned to the city desk, he covers murders. There are so many of them. Then as now, LA is a shifting and shiftless society. Dead bodies: “Like they’re dolls … How they’re still holding on to something that might save them – their purse or their newspaper or a dollar bill.” Walker is also appalled by the staggering number of indigents – many of them ex-servicemen – and on his own bat he begins to write exposés on the subject.

Admirers of Robertson will be familiar with his attentions to the human body and the thousand ways in which it can, with deliberate evil, be injured or destroyed; some of them still wake up screaming remembering his early poem The Flaying Of Marsyas. Don’t dare to think that you will be disappointed here: Walker can’t forget things he’s seen, done, and the things he sees, even now. He thinks he’s watching a man, pursued by the LAPD, unfurling a red handkerchief; its bullets taking him apart. Another guy’s smile is described as crossing his features like a fly exploring a wound.

Walker’s awful recollections are thrown against memories of the ever-changing beauty of his birthplace and the rapid, increasingly Dante-esque carnival of wilful self-destruction he finds Los Angeles to be. Bigotry and racial violence are an ongoing, frighteningly natural extension of the war: people being torn down in the same way as buildings – buildings that cannot be allowed to live out their natural lives: “They call this progress, when it’s really only greed.”

At one point Walker gets time off from his newspaper to look into the plight of bums in San Francisco, yet another kind of city for him to surgically, magically refract. He travels there on a bus, seated across from a woman who is eating a big bag of funnel cake. One had hoped that a writer of Robin Robertson’s sensibility, flaps of flesh and bubbling blood notwithstanding, would never have had to know about funnel cake.

Suddenly, we realise that Walker can’t handle his insights: he becomes as bad an alcoholic as the people he’s writing about. The corrupt city gives up on itself and Walker witnesses its destruction, exactly as predicted by a literate though homeless pal.

Walker’s downfall is heartbreaking, because it’s not only his. A woman razzes him in a bar, and he replies, as Los Angeles, as America, for all of us: “I know why I’m drinking. I just don’t know why I’m here.”

The Long Take owes much to film noir – that is its texture. And this is an apt language for speaking about the US now. Noir was a kind of underground, semi-sanctioned Hollywood grumble about the real state of the country, a sub-political lens on the chirpy, too-highly burnished official version of the new American life that ignored racism, poverty and the persecution of ideas.

So the poem becomes completely up to date: Robertson has chosen a supremely uncomfortable, recognisable flashpoint in US history, an almost perfect mirror image of the nation today: crude, newly unleashed material ambitions mix with off-the-chart levels of fear and paranoia. The only difference is that then it was Russkies and immigrants, and now, uh …

TMcE

This review appeared in the Herald on 18 March 2018

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Everyone is Watching–Megan Bradbury

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on July 12, 2016 at 10:21 am

This fascinating novella, almost a work of philosophy, is about the death of New York City, its forced abandonment by the very people who ought to live there: the middle and lower middle class, artists, musicians and writers. A cyclic, impressionistic narrative, it returns again and again to historical and contemporary figures whose connections are staggeringly strong, apt, poetic and, seemingly, unbreakable. That they were broken and that the city has been left culturally stunted is poignant, and conveyed with incisive, rueful calm.

The people on which Bradbury anchors her story are these: Walt Whitman, arguably America’s greatest writer, who lived in Brooklyn through most of the 19th century, when it really was a place of its own; definitely not part of the ‘United States proper’, as Frank Capra had it. Whitman is the foundation of this book, a pure note of angelic American hope.

The devil is the planner, builder and destroyer Robert Moses. A crappy visionary with obscure motives, he delivered parks, beaches, hulking roads and two World’s Fairs to the people of New York over the course of the 20th century. And in the process he illegally evicted thousands of them from their homes.

To counterbalance this Frankenstein, Bradbury proposes two controversial artists, the poet Patti Smith and the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Both vitally interested in fame itself besides their art, they famously lived at the famous Chelsea Hotel, an icon and mainstay of Bohemia, just when the city of serious art was coming apart, and the infrastructure of Moses was crumbling too. The Chelsea, once luxurious, had quickly been cut up, and cut up again in the Depression – that was when the artists had moved in:

‘They lived in rooms with half a fireplace, half a ceiling rose. The outlines of the rooms were brand new and their borders were confusing. Ghost apartments. Ghost hotel.’

Those are the thoughts of the writer Edmund White, who’s also a character in Everyone is Watching. He’s there because he’s arrived back in New York too late, it seems, to live in the romantic, literary city he remembers from the Sixties. When you think about it, what’s happening to the Chelsea now is a perfect metaphor for the city:

‘When the renovation is complete, it will be a tourist hotel … the beds will be made with clean white sheets … this building will not now produce anything new.’

Artists were antithetical to what the forces of business wanted for the city. They were deemed destructive, perverse. But as clear thinkers and seekers of the new, they were just what New York always needed. The choice of Edmund White to commiserate with this story is a clever one, particularly as regards the West Side of Manhattan. Robert Moses built a huge highway there; the giant piers where ocean liners docked from all over the world became derelict, and then the locus of the gay revolution, the symbol, to White, of the freedoms New York offered when it still could. Now, the West Side is merely ‘cool’: people with money and no brains all clamour to live in the Meatpacking District.

‘Walt Whitman used to live round here somewhere,’ one woman says to another. ‘I don’t know where exactly.’ Surprising, huh?

Bradbury makes connections between people and places, and across time, that are edifying and moving. Robert Moses builds the 1964 World’s Fair and the teenage Robert Mapplethorpe works there, selling waffles. Walt Whitman is astonished by his first walk across the Brooklyn Bridge – he likens it to the printing press he operates for a living. A hundred years later, Robert Moses attempts to throw an even greater span across New York Bay. But things have changed. People no longer want to lose whole neighbourhoods to the automobile.

There’s a striking passage about how it may be possible to live on a reasonable budget in New York: ‘They avoid the organic grocers and they buy food that’s past its use-by date. They don’t have a TV and so don’t pay for cable. They use the Internet for free at the Brooklyn Library. When they go out with friends they order a beer, which they share, then they top the bottle up with liquor brought from home.’ One suspects this would make Edmund White feel sad. Walt Whitman would love it.

Why did New York have to go? ‘… that filthy place which didn’t work. What is it now? A historical exhibition of a cleaned-out place.’ What a disaster.

TMcE

This review appeared in the Herald, 25 June 2016.