Poetry Sunday: “Goodbye, New York,”
by Deborah Garrison

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Today’s poem is from The Second Child, a book that includes poems about motherhood, marriage, and professional life in New York City. According to one article, Garrison’s roles as editor, wife, and mother all infuse her poetry, and her first collection, A Working Girl Can’t Win, “struck a resonant note with both critics and readers.” I read both books and found much to identify with and admire in poems that use plain speech and events from everyday life—even domestic life—to communicate the range, depth, and complexity of human experience.

As I’ve noted in previous columns, there is a deep-seated prejudice against such subjects in literature, infamously evidenced by writer V.S. Naipaul when he said: “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me.” He attributes this perceived inferiority to deficits in the female perspective—”sentimentality, the narrow view of the world.”  [The Guardian, 6/2/2011] One rejoinder, of course,  is that within the infinitesimally tiny world of an atom exists a universe. Another is to mention writers like Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, and others—many represented in this column—whose work so powerfully proves that the lives of ordinary women can be legitimate subjects for great art.

“Goodbye, New York” makes use of fourteen rhyming couplets following the pattern aa bb cc and so on, where most rhymes are full (Queens / beans, read / bed, key / me, Nell’s / tells, answer / dancer, roof / proof), some are slant (cart / Park, A.M. / again, phone / home) and some are polysyllabic (hometown / wrote down, Station / destination, and door / before). These variations in rhyme break the perfection of pattern just enough to avoid a common pitfall of rhyming couplets, the tendency to fall into singsong or doggerel.

The poem is an homage to New York, a litany of details and memories that, for this speaker, define her experience of the city. A piece like this could easily become nostalgic, something flirted with in line 19’s “Sinatra still swinging at Radio City.” How does the poem as a whole manage to sidestep this? One way is the very deliberate use of irony, always an effective antidote to sentimentality. “Big fat city,” a tongue-in-cheek use of cliché, sounds ironic, and “the lyrics I sang but never wrote down” comes with a little stab of pain of regret and self-deprecation. There is irony, too, in “the occasional truth that the fortune cookie tells,” “a friend in need, who wasn’t at home,” “the brash allegations and the lack of any proof,” and those poets and dancers described “difficult” and “aging.”

A device that makes the poem an effective homage is its use of apostrophe. Sometimes called a “poem of address,” an apostrophe poem embodies direct speaking to a dead or absent person as if he or she were present. In “O Captain! My Captain!” Whitman talks to Abraham Lincoln, and Emily Dickinson addresses an absent lover in her poem “Wild nights!—Wild nights!” [from www.poetryfoundation.org/learn/glossary-terms/apostrophe] In practice, the usage is a bit more broad and includes direct address to objects and abstractions, sometimes personified:

[T]he word apostrophe comes from a Greek term meaning “turning away.” So, in poetry, an apostrophe is not a punctuation mark. Instead, it is a literary device that helps the writer accomplish a goal. As in the example above, one of the speakers turns away from addressing another character or the audience and instead addresses a third party, . . . often an abstract concept such as love, hate, or freedom. Writers might direct speech to a person who is physically absent or deceased. They might even address an inanimate object or a place. [www.grammarly.com/blog/apostrophe-poetry]

When Lady Macbeth says to her vision of a dagger “Come, let me clutch thee! I have thee not, yet I see thee still!” Shakespeare is employing apostrophe. The device can make a poem feel more intimate, creating the impression that the speaker is overhearing a conversation between the speaker and the thing or person addressed. It can also communicate depth of feeling, as if the speaker were moved to make a spontaneous outcry, as in Shelley’s address to the “blithe Spirit,” in “To a Skylark” or in Donne’s “Death, be not proud,” in Holy Sonnet 10. Romantic poets loved using apostrophe and, as you may imagine, some went over the top in their praise. Today’s poet avoids this in several ways. One is in her choice of things to praise. Some, like “Grand Central Station,” “Queens,” and “Radio City,” we could predict in a poem about New York. Others are less expected, either because they are so precise as to be idiosyncratic to the speaker or because of her use of surprising diction. Examples include “the bodega where I bought black beans,” “the tiny brass mailbox key,” and “the sloppy kiss in the basement at Nell’s.” Things made surprising by word choice include the near-oxymoronic (and slant-rhyming) pairing of those “lively graves” and the “pregnant waitress”—just think how that line would flatten if the word “pregnant” had not been used.  “Sloppy kiss” is another example. Kisses are common in poems, sloppy ones not so much.

This precision of detail is a craft decision and one thing that elevates the poem from being just a list of praises. I was able to identify three different, narrowing frames of reference. The widest includes the details, e.g., Radio City and Grand Central, any reader would recognize as landmarks in New York City. Next come the details readers might not have thought of on their own but which, when stated, feel spot-on for New York—things that might earn a nod from readers native to the area. Examples include the blintzes, the dogs off their leashes, the mailbox key, the fireworks viewed from a tenement roof, and perhaps even the description of poets and dancers as “difficult” and “aging.” The narrowest frame of reference encompasses details peculiar or idiosyncratic to this poet, as in the reference to watching a prizefight in a bar, or “the call I made from a corner phone / to a friend in need, who wasn’t at home.”

One descriptive detail that strikes me is line 20’s “You were ugly and gorgeous but never pretty.” Poets are admonished to be circumspect in their use of general adjectives, but everyone knows this as a rule meant to be broken; sometimes an adjective is exactly the right word in the right place in a poem. Here, the words do not so much communicate the specific attributes of ugliness or prettiness as they do the intensity of the experience of being in New York City, never as shallow as the word “pretty” connotes.

Although this poem eschews punctuation, its syntax is regular and its diction plainspoken and colloquial. “Accessibility” is commonly, and in my view mistakenly, viewed as a blanket negative in poetry. I prefer to think of it as a neutral attribute. Some highly successful poems are accessible, for example Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays,” while some, such as Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” are more difficult. A poem can have depth and complexity, even mystery, and also be accessible.

An article on the Poetry Foundation website discusses the idea of accessibility in the context of the influence of Philip Larkin’s influence on Garrison’s work:

“[H]is plainspoken English, his basic good grammar and avoidance of obscurity, really spoke to me. I found it amazing the way he used the most apparently colloquial language, and yet his achievement was always supremely poetic—even his shrinking self-deprecation was made into art. . . . Maybe you could say my style, such as it is, has emerged out of the business of communication in everyday life.” [From www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/deborah-garrison ]

This quotations expresses what I love about “Goodbye, New York” and Garrison’s other poems that use everyday language to make art.

The poem sharpens and intensifies its use of ordinary diction through extreme compression. My favorite examples are the mini love story comprised by “the joy of ‘us’ and the sorrow of ‘me’,” and the wonderful “You were the pickles, you were the jar” image that compares New York to a food commonly eaten there and the container it comes in—the whole shebang. I love that the food the poet chose to represent her city is a homespun item and a regional delicacy.

The Poetry Foundation calls Garrison’s work “subtly musical,” and there are musical resonances aplenty in today’s poem, the most obvious being the end rhymes that bind its couplets. Other examples include internal rhymes like “fat city” and “lively graves” (slant) and “my byline, my skyline” (full), as well as consonance (the bodega where I bought black beans, balcony bar, Central Station, Sinatra still swinging, and “my byline, my buzzer”). Also musical is the anaphoric repetition of “you were” at the beginnings of lines 1, 2, 3, 9, 11, 14, 16, and 20.

I’m always on the lookout for variations on the sonnet form, and it occurs to me that this poem, consisting as it does of 14 couplets, is arguably such, with one big turn (volta) in the very last line. Prior to this, the poem uses simple past tense, the default tense for telling a story, so we don’t pay much attention until the tense suddenly shifts, in line 28, from “you were” to the present “now you’re the dream we lived before.” This is the point at which readers understand the poem to be more than homage. It is also an elegy, a poem written to mourn something that has been lost. Many of the poems in The Second Child deal with a move from the city to the suburbs, but you don’t need to know that in order to enjoy and appreciate this poem. It stands on its own as an homage and an elegy to the city of New York, why I chose it for today’s column coming out five days after the 17th anniversary of September 11, 2001.


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