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Moon in the Man

By Eric McHenry

Man and Camel
By Mark Strand

click for larger imageCertain literary stock images — the stag, the dove, the red, red rose — have seen their popularity wax and wane over the years, but the moon has really hung in there. Eudora Welty once put her finger on its appeal to writers:

“In my sensory education I include my physical awareness of the word. Of a certain word, that is; the connection it has with what it stands for. At around age six, perhaps, I was standing by myself in our front yard waiting for supper, just at that hour in a late summer day when the sun is already below the horizon and the risen full moon in the visible sky stops being chalky and begins to take on light. There comes the moment, and I saw it then, when the moon goes from flat to round. For the first time it met my eyes as a globe. The word ‘moon’ came into my mouth as though fed to me out of a silver spoon.”

That literal roundness, on the page and on the tongue, may be one reason moon exercises a particularly strong pull on poets, the writers most preoccupied with the materiality of language. But the moon itself has properties that make it hard to keep out of poems — singularity, remoteness, ghostly beauty. Joe Bolton called it “a bright, magnificent coin / That can’t be spent in this world.” Elizabeth Bishop rendered it indirectly and indelibly: “Come, let me wash [your hair] in this big tin basin, / battered and shiny like the moon.” Philip Larkin mocked the poet’s tendency to metamorphose and metaphorize it — “Lozenge of love! Medallion of art!” — then succumbed himself: “The hardness and the brightness and the plain / Far-reaching singleness of that wide stare // Is a reminder of the strength and pain / Of being young . . . ”

Of all contemporary poems, Mark Strand’s may be the most moonlit. I find the moon in 7 of the 23 poems collected in Man and Camel, and feel its presence in a dozen others. “Open the book of evening to the page / where the moon, always the moon, appears,” he writes, and he could easily be describing the experience of opening his own book. The Book of Evening, in fact, would have been a fine subtitle.

It’s tempting to suggest that Strand, who is 73 this year and recently joined the Columbia faculty as a professor of English and comparative literature, is reckoning with the twilight of his own life and career. But in fact he has been a crepuscular poet for 40 years. His past collections include The Late Hour (1978) and the deeply influential Darker (1970).

The typical Strand poem is brief, slightly fanciful, and subdued, beginning in narrative and moving toward meditation. Its speaker is often alone, outdoors, at night. The darkness isn’t threatening, though — it isn’t even dark, because of the moon. But there tends to be a sort of vague dread at the poem’s periphery, a fear of self-erasure tempered by a longing for it: “To see one’s death. To see the darkening clouds / as the tragic cloth of a day of mourning. To be the one / mourned.” Strand’s great theme — depending on his mood, and yours — is either beauty marred by disappointment or disappointment partially redeemed by beauty.

But Strand refuses to muscle his poems into meaning. His relationship to his subjects is roughly that of the moon to objects below. He is a reflective poet, but always at some level disinterested, presiding but not judging. In “Mother and Son,” a man of indeterminate age finds his mother on her deathbed. The scene’s oddness and austerity make plain that Strand is working in allegory, not anecdote:

The son leans down to kiss
the mother’s lips, but her lips are cold.
The burial of feelings has begun. The son
touches the mother’s hands one last time,
then turns and sees the moon’s full face.
An ashen light falls across the floor.
If the moon could speak, what would it say?
If the moon could speak, it would say nothing.

Strand isn’t going to let the moon get away with mere symbolism, or mere solace. It wouldn’t offer a word of comfort even if it could. The son is utterly alone in the room, though his gaze moves from one face to another. It’s hard not to take this poem personally, for all its impersonality, because it speaks so mercilessly to the solitude of grief.

But Strand is no less susceptible than Eudora Welty to the beauty of the moon (and of moon), and in some of his poems it seems to be almost enough: “its lone syllable like a sentence poised // at the edge of sense, waiting for you to say its name / once more as you lift your eyes from the page // and close the book, still feeling what it was like / to dwell in that light, that sudden paradise of sound.”

The power of the “lone syllable” is a lesson Strand learned early, and has been teaching ever since. He may be, in addition to the most moonstruck American poet, the most monosyllabic. He never comes across as a writer with a limited vocabulary, but at times he does seem to be conserving a large one. There’s nothing mock-naive, or even modest, however, about his word choice. Indeed, as his appreciation of moon suggests, the simplest words are often the most potent. And a spare vocabulary can supercharge the words that depart from it. There’s nothing remarkable about ashen when it appears in a poem by a walking OED like Seamus Heaney or Paul Muldoon. But look at the terrible value it acquires in “Mother and Son,” by virtue of being the only word in the passage that’s even slightly uncommon.

Another way Strand keeps his poems from sagging under their own thematic weight is with a self-reflexive irony. His sense of humor is as dry as a martini’s first sip, and as bracing. “I am not thinking of Death,” he writes in “2002,” “but Death is thinking of me. / He leans back in his chair, rubs his hands, strokes / his beard, and says, ‘I’m thinking of Strand…’” In a sequel, “2032,” we learn that in addition to the pro forma scythe and hourglass, Death’s possessions include a chauffeur-driven limo, in which he feebly sits with a blanket spread across his knees waiting to be driven to the Blue Hotel. The props Strand permits him, in other words, are ridiculous either in their triteness or in their improbability. Best to have some fun at Death’s expense, Strand seems to say. He’ll be having some at ours soon enough.

And yet it is life that gets the last word in Man and Camel. Comprising three sections, the collection darkens as it progresses, but ends at daybreak. Its final sequence, the seven-part “Poem After the Seven Last Words,” was commissioned by the Brentano String Quartet to be read between movements of Haydn’s quartet op. 51, “The Seven Last Words of Christ.” Like its subject, the poem is neither a renunciation nor an avowal — according to Strand’s notes, it “relies heavily on the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas.” Yet its concluding lines are as free of that old existential dread as any in the book. Strand places his faith, finally, in the beauty and benevolent mystery that so often seem imperiled in his poems, embodying them in the process:

Back down these stairs to the same scene,
to the moon, the stars, the night wind.
Hours pass
and only the harp off in the distance and
the wind
moving through it. And soon the sun’s
gray disk,
darkened by clouds, sailing above. And beyond,
as always, the sea of endless transparence,
of utmost
calm, a place of constant beginning that has
within it
what no eye has seen, what no ear has heard,
what no hand
has touched, what has not arisen in the
human heart.
To that place, to the keeper of that place,
I commit myself.

Eric McHenry’s book of poems, Potscrubber Lullabies (Waywiser Press), won the 2007 Kate Tufts Discovery Award.


Tunnel Visionary

By Samuel McCracken

Conquering Gotham – A Gilded Age Epic: The Construction of Penn Station and Its Tunnels
By Jill Jonnes

click for larger imageIn the first years of the 20th century, travelers between Chicago and New York who wanted to go really first class had two choices: the New York Central Railroad, with the 20th Century Limited, or its great rival, the Pennsylvania Railroad, with the Pennsylvania Special (renamed the Broadway Limited in 1912.). These trains were comparable in speed, and either would have satisfied the most demanding traveler throughout the 20-hour journey. But there was a difference.

New York Central passengers set foot on Manhattan at 42nd and Park; Pennsylvania passengers never reached Manhattan. They were dumped—doubtless ceremoniously—in Jersey City. After its splendid dash across five states (not even deigning to stop in Ohio), the Special’s locomotive sat fuming on the New Jersey shore while its passengers crossed the Hudson by ferry.

In 1900, Manhattan was still, from the point of view of the railways, very much an island. It had what we now call intercity rail service only to the north: The New York Central ran northward from the old Grand Central, then up the east bank of the Hudson to Albany and beyond.

No line was more irked by this state of affairs than the mighty PRR: the Pennsylvania Railroad. Although it lacked a near-monopoly of its core business, the PRR was the Microsoft of its day. Its very motto was “The Standard Railway of the World.”

click for larger imageThe president of the PRR at the turn of the century was the formidable Alexander Johnston Cassatt (1839–1906), whose sister was the artist Mary Cassatt. Born with the proverbial silver spoon, Cassatt earned a degree in engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic before joining the engineering department of the Pennsylvania Railroad, where no matter who you were or what degrees you held, you began by oiling locomotives. Cassatt rose high at the PRR but retired at 42 to pursue the interests of his class, horse breeding in particular. In 1899 the railroad’s directors asked him to come back, now as president. In his second life with the PRR, Cassatt was a creator whose works outshone the profits they brought his company. His greatest accomplishment was known as the New York Extension, comprising a spectacular Pennsylvania station, tunnels under the Hudson and the East Rivers (as well as under Manhattan), and the Hell Gate Bridge, linking New York and Boston by way of Long Island and the Bronx.

For the PRR to build a New York station, the Hudson had to be crossed by rails. Cassatt and his associates rejected the idea of a suspension bridge and opted for tunnels, two under the Hudson and four under the East River. The tunnels were staggeringly difficult to construct, and the tale of how they were built is at the core of Conquering Gotham, by Jill Jonnes ’77JRN. This core is the soundest part of Jonnes’s work, resting as it does on her imaginative and dogged pursuit of the PRR’s scattered archives.

Although a number of the world’s rivers, including the Thames, the Severn, and the Mersey, had already been successfully tunneled, the Hudson held more forbidding barriers. Under it lay loosely packed and water-logged silt that gave nightmares to engineers, workmen, and the PRR’s board of directors. The tunnels were constantly flooding, and “sand hogs” routinely lost their lives. The death toll does not seem to have been computed, but it must have been in the hundreds. Tunneling the East River was no easier and no less costly. It took five years to drive five miles of tunnels from the New Jersey Meadowlands to Sunnyside, Queens.

There were political obstacles to bore through, as well. Pennsylvania Station was superimposed on the heart of the now-vanished Tenderloin district, a world of cheap bars and brothels that stretched between 23rd and 42nd Streets on the West Side. There was much illegal vice in the Tenderloin, and Tammany Hall made sure that the law was not mocked there except at the established rates. Because Cassatt’s project threatened a rich source of income, getting a franchise for the tunnels was a process that would have normally involved bribing a number of public officials, most notably the members of the Tammany-controlled Board of Aldermen. Cassatt was opposed to bribery; for him it was a genuine case of the principle and not the money. At the outset of his campaign, he had the support of the similarly high-minded Seth Low, who had recently descended from the presidency of Columbia to the mayoralty. But Low was defeated after a single term, leaving Cassatt to deal with a resurgent Tammany. He outwaited it, and got his franchise.

The next problem facing the PRR was that it had to buy about 200 small parcels of land covering four blocks without letting the sellers know the depth of the buyer’s pockets. Cassatt entrusted this task to Douglas Robinson, Theodore Roosevelt’s brother-in-law. Robinson appears to have been equal to the task: He managed to acquire the roughly 28 acres on which Pennsylvania Station was to sit.

Once the land for the station was secured, the architectural challenge was less daunting. Cassatt went to the premier New York firm of McKim, Mead & White. Charles McKim provided what was certainly the largest and arguably the greatest railroad station ever built. It was also tragically short lived, being demolished just 53 years after its opening by Cassatt’s clueless successors. To one architecturally inclined graduate student occasionally passing through Pennsylvania Station in its ill-maintained and grimy last days, it seemed still the most magnificent building of any sort in the United States.

On Pennsylvania Station as architecture, there is an important complement to Jonnes in the 2002 book New York’s Pennsylvania Stations by Hillary Ballon, professor in Columbia’s department of art history and archaeology. Ballon’s own perceptive essay is supplemented by Norman McGrath’s stunning photographs of the 1963–66 demolition of the station. Marilyn Jordan Taylor’s confident account of the proposed Moynihan Station — which is slated to be built in and beneath the McKim, Mead & White–designed Farley Post Office building just west of that firm’s murdered masterpiece — is a wrenching reminder that we should not necessarily put our trust in princes or public authorities. After 2002, the project seemed headed for the death of a thousand cuts after Amtrak withdrew, and it appeared to have expired in the dusk of the Pataki administration. But on March 23, 2007, with encouragement from Governor Eliot Spitzer’s administration, a state authority approved key funding to move the project forward.

If one wants to know how Pennsylvania Station and its necessary infrastructure came to be, one must go to Jonnes, who knows the story better than anyone else. But she can also be careless about details.

Jonnes’s errors rarely strike at the center of the narrative, but they weaken her closely woven social context. She tells us that Senator Nelson W. Aldrich of Rhode Island was the son-in-law of John D. Rockefeller. He was in fact the father-in-law of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and it was the Aldriches who conferred prestige on the Rockefellers, not the other way around. Jonnes refers consistently to the flagship Hearst paper in New York as the Journal-American, a title that did not exist until 1937, when the ailing Hearst Company consolidated its morning and evening broadsheets. She speaks of the New York Central running “on” Park Avenue when it had been underground for more than a quarter of a century. Additionally, Jonnes’s prose is, to use no stronger word, careless. She uses the same terms in proximity far beyond the strictures of Fowler on “elegant variation,” appears rarely to have met a cliché she doesn’t like, and has an unfortunate and apparently obsessive affection for calling New York “ Gotham.” This may derive from her title; the subtitle — “a Gilded Age Epic” — has the additional problem that the events she recounts occurred well after the Gilded Age, generally agreed to have ended with the Depression of 1893, and certainly dead with the 19th century.

None of these irritations makes Conquering Gotham a bad book or one not worthy of the interest of anyone seriously concerned with the majestic and sad history of the only real Pennsylvania Station. Rather, this excellently researched book is an irreplaceable study of how one generation built the greatest monument of Midtown Manhattan and another generation destroyed it.

Samuel McCracken is a critic and essayist living in Boston.

 


How the Other Half Works

By Bree Nordenson

Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor
By Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh

Every weekday morning, Eunice, a middle-aged mother who lives in a poor neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, rises at dawn to prepare large quantities of soul food before leaving for her job cleaning offices. She returns at midday and, with the help of her two children and six grandchildren, she sells meals out of her home to neighbors, policemen, and local construction workers. Eunice has supplemented her minimum-wage earnings this way since 1996, but she’s never established a formal business. She’s never sent a penny of her profits to the IRS nor been visited by city health inspectors.

In Eunice’s neighborhood, where 50 percent of residents are unemployed, such under-the-table transactions are the rule, not the exception. Typical also are the weekly payments Eunice makes to her grandchildren’s teachers to overlook their lunchtime absences, and the free meals she provides a handyman for doing household repairs.

In Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor , Columbia sociology professor Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh tells the story of how Eunice and her neighbors, for want of better work opportunities and adequate government services, have created a system of economic ties to feed their families and bind their community. Venkatesh challenges the assumption that the lives of the inner-city poor are marked by ineptitude and chaos: Our lasting impression of the subjects in the book isn’t that they’re lazy or dependent, but resourceful and resilient.

“I discovered that the seemingly random collection of men and women in the community — young and old, professional and destitute — were nearly all linked together in a vast, often invisible web that girded their neighborhood,” writes Venkatesh, who spent five years in Maquis Park, his pseudonym for this ten-block area, while researching the book in the 1990s. “Through it the local doctors received home-cooked meals from a stay-at-home down the block; a prostitute got free groceries by offering her services to the local grocer; a police officer overlooked minor transgressions in exchange for information from a gang member.”

Many residents in Maquis Park supplement earnings from legitimate jobs with undeclared income from repairing cars in alleyways or selling goods on the street. Some pastors and landlords, meanwhile, accept payments from gang members to store weapons and other contraband in their buildings.

Despite this unsavory element, Venkatesh argues that the informal economy maintains the neighborhood’s social fabric. Local business owners and landlords hire homeless drug users, prostitutes, and hustlers to live in or near their properties to provide security and prevent them from otherwise harassing customers and tenants. And without a strong police presence, the neighborhood’s clergy, small-business owners, mothers, gangsters, prostitutes, and street vendors are engaged in constant communication to ensure the financial viability and safety of every resident. When this system works, life proceeds peacefully. “This is the ghetto, Sudhir. This ain’t the suburbs,” one storeowner reminds Venkatesh when he questions the propriety of money lending between Maquis Park businesses.“We need to rely on each other way more than most folks do. . . . You lend me your hand — or your money — I lend mine to you. It’s a real easy way to know who’s in and who’s out.”

When this network is disrupted, the neighborhood suffers. Indeed, the book’s only consistent narrative thread — a chronicling of the local gang’s extortion of Maquis Park’s residents — reveals the fragility of a system that exists outside the laws and mores of the larger society. When the gang, the Black Kings, violates a tacit agreement to respect others’ need to earn a living, it upsets the delicate balance of things. Call the cops? Guess again. Residents take matters into their own hands, forming an ad hoc community court, which includes a Black King leader, to regulate the gang’s activity.

Off the Books opens and closes with the murder of the Black King boss, Big Cat, an event that causes much uncertainty in Maquis Park: Who will broker cheap, off-the-books labor? Who will protect the small-business owners and hustlers? Who will the residents approach if gang activity gets out of control?

Venkatesh can be an effective storyteller but sometimes falls back on blanket statements that emphasize the “complicated” nature of this “shady world.” Thankfully, that heavy-handedness is offset by frequent use of long and colorful quotes from Maquis Park residents.

Ultimately, Venkatesh succeeds in creating a nuanced portrait of a small slice of this informal economy. Rather than moralize on lost tax revenue or the dangers of gangs, drugs, guns, and prostitution, he describes the neighborhood’s creative means of survival. And although Off the Books does not posit any suggestions for how to improve the economic mobility of this subsection of the working poor, it provides rare insights into the urban underground that will be of value to scholars, policymakers, and journalists alike.

Bree Nordenson ’06JRN is assistant editor of Columbia Journalism Review.