Walleah Press

Famous Reporter 41 : June 2010



Famous Reporter 41





VIEWS OF THE HUDSONA New York Book of Psalms

 Angela Gardner, Shearsman Books, Exeter, UK, 2009

I must confess that at first I found this long poetic sequence mystifying. There are sixty poems purporting to be ‘sonnets’; the ‘sonnets’ purport to be psalms and the psalms purport to be glimpses of the Promised Land. The latter is a metaphor for New York, visited by the poet on a Churchill Fellowship in 2008.

Initially I was baffled: why  does Angela Gardner call the series ‘sonnets’ when clearly they are not?  Fourteen lines in themselves do not automatically comprise a sonnet, but in this case, Gardner tells us at the outset, sometimes there are not even 14 lines: “the poems are sonnets in that I count them as 14 lines i.e. I count the gaps as lines also.” This is analogous to saying a 30 km run constitutes a marathon…almost.

So, when is a sonnet not a sonnet? When is a ‘view’ only a glimpse? And when is a utopia a dystopia, a promised land simply a hollow land? Perhaps these are deliberate devices to reinforce the idea that things, people, places often fall short of expectations: ‘the lie of the land’(sonnet 20). Throughout the sequence, ‘emptiness’ is a recurrent motif: ‘The Hudson is forlorn in the rain / its Oyster Bars open but empty.’ The word, ‘nothing’ appears at least a dozen times. It becomes apparent that a psalm can be a lament as well as a celebration.

Angela Gardner has established a reputation as a visual artist and there is a strong visual quality in her work. Some of her images of New York are memorable and real (‘another day’s high tide / of litter hits the sidewalks’; ‘…germs walk like cattle over the skin’; ‘Figures trawl through threadbare clothes’ ); there is  a bleakness here that conveys an individual’s alienation from society, images at times reminiscent of Munch’ s ‘The Scream’. Much of the imagery is confusing, echoing the  first person speaker’s confusion in confronting the overwhelming metropolis.  If the poet’s intention is to convey that N.Y represents a betrayal of promise, then I can see why she promises sonnets and doesn’t deliver, why she quotes psalms only to reveal their irony, and why she sees profanity alongside the sacred. I’ve also wondered whether her method may be similar to the musician, John Cage’s, in that she allows time for the gaps to grow and take on significance in the mind and  imagination of the reader.

There are paradoxes throughout the sequence; on one hand the poet seems  seduced by New York’s hallowed places, shrines to the greatness of human endeavour, like the skyscrapers, the city grid, the freeways and tunnels, all testimonies to a culture’s greatness. On the other hand, she exposes the shallowness, the tinsel - town vacuity and hypocrisy of commercialism and consumerism: ‘Children pose as Christmas toys’.

The epitome of capitalism, it’s a city to be pitied rather than admired and the ‘gods’ of Wall Street are false and degraded, idolising mammon not God (sonnet 25). It’s a place that depersonalises and leaves a sense of emptiness.

Technology has dehumanised the inhabitants, turning them into virtual humans, or puppets (‘walk don’t walk’): unlike other animals, we’ve lost our capacity to feel: ‘Two dogs race past after a frisbee…// I have misplaced the experience of reality.’

 Ordinary people seem hollow and desensitised, immune to human suffering. A recurrent image is of clothes uninhabited by flesh and blood, (‘my clothes stand up encamped around my body’ (33); we are mere semblances of humanity. Other images which convey the nature of human insignificance and unreality are computer screens which ‘all day and night /… blaze without us’;  metal filing cabinets piled on streets; crowds where there is no human contact; loveless sex; the loneliness of empty windswept bars lining the banks of the Hudson. Perhaps the title itself conveys a false sense of promise; there are no views of the Hudson; it is instead a ghostly backdrop to the city.

The strength of these poems is that they convey the unreality, the brittleness of this city without ever actually using abstract words like ‘disappointment’, ‘alienation’ or ‘disillusionment’; there are some fine moments (e g on the 32nd storey, the speaker  looking down, realising that the sacred is beyond reach and that the only comforting myths that function here are those of pop culture, e g Superman flying high, or of ancient culture, Icarus.) There is a sort of yearning for something sacred, something beyond, but the spiritual yearning is betrayed and seemingly satisfied more by art and popular culture than by religion. The ironic use of quotes from the psalms, King James version, is rather obvious and not, I find, all that effective. More effective are bleak references to the means by which we try to rediscover (or escape from) our common humanity: television, celebrity, cinema, art galleries, installations, a modern culture’s substitutes for the ‘real thing’.

So what does this collection offer? Some interesting but obvious reflections on New York in the 21st century? Are there new insights or only reinforcement of things we already knew?

There is the affirmation that simple things are what make us human: ‘The unlikeliest encounters redefine us, making being unexpectedly holy’; there is the sense that friends, family, summer warmth can compensate for loveless sex, materialism and the worship of  money as the ‘king’ of all the earth.

If these sonnets are a new search for meaning, for religious scaffolding in a crumbling society, then the search may have been worth it; they reflect ‘now’ in the same way as digital images do.

Perhaps it’s impossible today to convey religious aspirations merely in words, which, like biometric scanning at airports, ultimately reduce us to stark banalities. If psalms are songs of worship, and holiness, New York seems to have fallen short as a suitable object. At the end, the poet leaves us with several empty pages, ‘snowfield(s) of white paper’… ‘an all singing all dancing emptiness’ on every page. And, in the end, ‘emptiness is just emptiness’ and ‘we carry nothing away we rot’.

Perhaps I have missed the point: “It was what we were looking for yes?”

Janet Upcher lives in Hobart where she's a teacher, editor/translator, reviewer and writer of poetry and fiction.