Friday, July 2, 2010

"Going to Zero" by Peter Balakian

Going to Zero is a poem that contains a familiar echo, a trace of another poet.My guess is that author Peter Balakian takes his cue from Frank O'Hara's poem "The Day Lady Died", another narrative about a man making his way through New York City:




The Day Lady Died
by Frank O'Hara


It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness

and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing.
This is New York City from the eyes, ears and walking feet of a man who knows the city and loves the many distractions and cluttered blocks of relentless activity, the commotion and hustle to get from one place to another. It is, of course, a poem of some knowledge and emotional response being contained under the surface, but when he arrives at the 5 Spot and listens to Mal Waldron open up on the piano, all the facts hit him in a hard rush. Billie Holiday, the singer who's experience-cracked voice could unlock the buried emotions of listeners all over the world, has died sadly, and O'Hara's response, deferred in the noise and hustle of city life, comes at him at last, as Mal Waldron plays, the truth comes out; he cannot listen to his beloved jazz quite the same as he had . (I; had the pleasure of listening to Mal Waldron perform live--he is an outstanding musician).

Balakian's narrative is longer, the effect is more accumulative than O'Hara's grief epiphany. There is the same set of distractions and sights the poet travels through to his destination, but while O'Hara seemed to be trying to sustaining a buoyant optimism, the events in Balakian's line are shaded with hints of a gathering melancholy, a sad state of affairs about to be revealed:

wanted to buy the Frankenthaler, a modest, early print,
minimal, monochromatic; surface and perspective in dialogue;
on 24th off 10th –the gallery still smelled like wood and plaster—

but I didn't stop, and when the train reached the Stock Exchange
the Yom Kippur streets were quiet, and the bronze statue of Washington
was camouflaged by national guard. I was walking my old mail route now
like a drunk knocking into people, almost hit by a cab
until the roped-off streets cut me at the arm.


It's hard to take in the sites and attractions of a city when you happen upon the site of the worst domestic terrorist attack in American history. There is numbness, a nagging sense that all the galleries, restaurants and marvels of classical architecture that New York City is famous for are no longer significant in dimensions that make our humanity seem insignificant, a lust shared by Ayn Rand and Albert Speers
At Broadway and Liberty

the fences wound around the bursts of dust rising
over the cranes and bulldozers, over the punched-out windows—
I stared through a piece of rusted grid that stood like a gate to the crystal river.
I was sweating in my sweatshirt now, the hood filling with soot,

as I watched with others drinking Cokes and eating their pizza of disbelief.
Zero began with the Sumerians who made circles with hollow reeds
in wet clay and baked them for posterity.

At Broadway and Liberty. At 20 floors charred and standing.
At miasma people weeping. Anna's Nail Salon, Diakichi Sushi,
the vacant shops, stripped clean in the graffiti of dust-coated windows.

Something blasted from a boom box in a music store,
something, in the ineffable clips of light,
disappeared over the river.

In another context "pizzas of disbelief" would be a perfect phrase to use when ironic whimsy is the mood, but it fits here beautifully, a skillful detail illustrating the silent, choking grief as the process of cleaning up the carnage of ground zero proceeds; the chaotic clamour and ecstatic in-your-face atmospherics that make O'Hara's New York so appealing from the outset of his poem, until the brilliant timed emotional collapse of the last line, becomes, in Balakian's poem, the groan, crash and hammering of a city laboring to bring itself together after an unimaginable calamity; the life of the city goes on after the loss of thousands of lives because it has to, and amid the cramped genius that is New York City a collective despair falls on those day timers who watch in various states of lingering shock. The mania of "The Day Lady Died", but without the ecstatic propulsion brings to his mean streets; O'Hara gives a picture of himself when he isn't poised or positioned to the talkative life of the party continually ranting about the genius that live in Manhattan. His shell has cracked, and even the sweetness of city life cannot keep him aloft. Balakian's narrator, I think, isn't trying to sustain any illusion of being up or feeling honored to be in a world class city--all else is scenery and distraction that must fade from concern until one contemplates the very air that incredibly, brutally changed around them.


Yes, one might say, we are clawing our way from under this rubble, but where are we going?

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