I come from the land of long overcoats and unhailed cabs,
of dull drinks in the afternoon,
of half-smoked cigarettes stubbed out on a windowsill under an ashen sky,
of thin club sandwiches and vast Waldorf salads,
of worn-out apologies to agents and wives,
of Broadway dreams that broke apart on Bowery gutters,
of cashflow and bloodflow, of Madison Avenue brainstorms
and Broadway heart-throbs, a land where the sun comes up once
and goes down a thousand times each day,
where death is only a siren away, where a steaming cup of coffee grows cold
by the time it reaches the 40th floor.
I come from the land of the missing neon letter, of borscht and brisket,
of hustled cutlery and worried patrons, of piss and pavement,
a land of take-out and order-in, a land of missed busses and jumped turnstiles,
of the all-night pharmacy and the all-day hangover,
of the destitute rich and the wealthy poor, of the three-day bender and the
of the unstrung and the unredeemed, the land of the cold shoulder
and the stab in the back.
I come from the land of uniformed elevator drivers in white gloves
who hide their Negro thoughts and speech from tenants in ermine and mink,
who drink their beer and watch the Friday night fights in the darkness
of small and distant rooms, who when they do talk to the tenants
talk of only the weather.
I come from the land of the unswept sidewalk and the unleashed threat,
of the hurled hurt and the sideswiped kiss,
of the cold handshake and the word-heated heartbreak,
the land of the unpressed doorbell and the unreturned phone call,
the let’s do lunch, don’t-call-me-we’ll call you.
I come from the land of numbered streets and the numberless lost,
of the lettered avenues of the illiterate poor,
of the hungry and the starved, of the waited on and the waited for,
of the empty subway car rumbling under sleepless streets,
of old whores and old men,
of unmade beds in unpaid-for flats,
of dim and dying light bulbs that shine for no one.
I come from the land of the hansom ride through Central Park,
their starstruck lovers oblivious of the dawn breaking over their heads,
of the first furtive kiss stolen under a nameless doorway,
of prayers poured out in thick-stoned churches and synagogues, in tongues twisted with grief and unfulfilled desires, yet silent with unspoken hope.
I come from the land of the whisper and the caress, the fist and the finger-point,
the slow brush-off and the swift rebuff, the land of the star-crossed
and the stage-struck, the unpublished and the unheard of,
the unknown and unsung for.
I come from the land of the burning bright lights and the forever darkness
of men’s souls,
of the unslaked thirst and the thirst too well quenched,
of the madness in office towers and the sanity of lunatic asylums,
of the shylock and the shyster,
of poets whose last breath is an unsung verse,
of taxis and troubadours, pot-heads and priests,
of newborns birthed in charity wards and the silver-spooned in private rooms,
of neon and night, diners and dime-a-dance halls,
of unthumbed nickels and dimes in the cold metal slots of pay phones,
of luncheonettes and laundries, museums and movie houses,
of quickie weddings and quicker funerals,
of concrete and crayons, roller skates and ice rinks, bars and bowling alleys,
of carousels and the hard-sell, gyp joints and gin mills,
the street-wise saint and the too wise sinner,
the hip and the helpless, the dreamers and the waiting-to-be-dreamed of,
the amnesiac and insomniac, the immigrant and the ignorant,
the addict and the addle-headed, the con man and the cop,
a land of endless longing for stars that always seemed forever out of reach,
but somehow always within view.
We lived in upright mansions that fought their way into the stratosphere
with all the arrogance of their tenants, mansions built to last forever,
turreted fortresses ribbed and boned with smooth-riding elevators
driven by colored men or Irish boys wearing white gloves
and unfought-for braids on their shoulders,
mansions with names as garish and gaudy as their tenants,
names like the Dakota, the Beresford, the El Dorado, the Ansonia
and the Apthorp , the Astor and San Remo,
stone behemoths unrepentant in their steadfastness
and persistence against time.
And in their well-appointed apartments fathers and mothers had children
who would live forever, who themselves would live forever,
who would come endlessly in and out of rooms that would always be there, whose pianos and bookcases would stand forever where they stood in corners and against windows, whose heavy furniture would forever stand their places, indenting the lush carpets with their overproud weight.
We lived in upright mansions that dared the seasons with their solidness
and immensity, that could take the snows of winter upon their shoulders
and the rain upon their roofs for a hundred years at a time, and show no signs
of wear, while buildings lesser or minor grew up or fell around them.
We lived in upright mansions that defied all dating,
and were sentinels of a silence which dared to be broken.
Late sun, the color of trumpets,
blown across the sky in sheets of light,
dawn-threaded by way of twilight,
followed by the evening’s sigh.
Night over New York, plummet
of sudden rain, a mask of water.
Hunched shoulders of tenements,
red brick and brown, in watery
Lives of unslaked thirst
not in parallel with their destinies
run counterclockwise in circles of regret,
remorse, and rain.
In the teeth and jaws of midnight
riders of train and bus
peer out of smeared windows
a second self, peering back,
no place to go,
cold, neon, alone.
A fright of pigeons upon
a blackened roof, upward
into watery air.
Dream ache for breadcrumbs
on a dry sidewalk.
A smear of light from an all-night
diner, spread across the sullen sky.
A lipstick-smudged dawn
and a burst yoke sun fearfully
rising up behind slow, dense clouds.
Dull thumping dawn, and
a swollen-hearted sun
afraid of the new day.
In the thousand-atomed night a tunneled darkness runs
Through the eyes of the lost and forgotten ones.
In dime-store hearts starry anthems play
The songs of a long-passed summer’s day.
In the lunch-counter brightness a shadow falls
And dreams are made of clay.
Arcades of sadness open and close
So quickly no one really knows
The moment of decay or where it goes
To sleep or wake another day.
And we rocked and we danced and held on tight
To the dreams that were blinded before our sight.
Candy wrappers and cellophane floats
On ice cream sticks in the shape of boats.
They litter the street where love has lain
In the summer heat and freezing rain.
The wisdom of Solomon on matchstick covers,
A murmur of an apology hovers
Over the eyes and lips of ransacked lovers
Who, in the moment just before the flame
Spoke silence instead of Your holy name.
In the tin can dawn a quiet rises
And hope puts on its dear disguises.
Next street over, that’s where the prize is.
Why doesn’t hope come in all our sizes?
VSun glinting off the buildings on Columbus and Amsterdam Avenue
touches the old bricks with a lazy fire, ember-like and drowsy
in the late afternoon sun, as the day sighs toward evening.
The people are out now, up on the roofs of their tenements,
craning their necks at the shy stars.
They breathe their dreams into the newborn night, alive now with jazz
and recriminations, cigarette dialogues and perfume despair.
And all over Manhattan there is the almost soundless click of radio dials
being turned on and twirled, a filigree needle in a cocoon of soft yellow light.
In the velveteen night Benny Goodman and Igor Stravinsky lock
in an aerial embrace.
In hotels and street corners gabardine men slouch in phone booths,
fedoras over sleepy eyes, riding a lifetime of dreams one nickel at a time.
I got dreams, say the voices, I count for somethin' too, give a guy a chance
for chrissake .
And the music swells bebop and baroque, cottony blues and subway swing,
drifting over Park Avenue sidewalks and Bowery gutters, over swells and bums,
over black men with Paul Robeson voices and doormen with unctuous tongues,
over forgotten men with their pockets full of dreams,
over Fifth Avenue millionaires in their book-lined tombs,
over lovers fumbling in the back seats of DeSotos and Pierce-Arrows,
over Broadway sinners and Canal Street saints,
over children burrowed under Mother Goose comforters,
over the whole God-blessed lot of them.
And the broken dawn comes stumbling up from the east like an old hobo
with wind-ruffled hair, the dawn in his starry eyes,
and his breath scented with forgiveness.
There, the old brick building, shellacked with sunlight
in the late breathing air;
there, a shaft of sun through an embrace of trees;
there, a child in a stroller, damp fingers
clutching a damp pretzel, eyes awash with pleasure;
there, on the sidewalk, an afterthought of pigeons
in the late seeming day;
there, at the curb, stately Packards and DeSotos;
there, in the quiet clamor of twilight,
the sound of a band playing a hymn;
there; in the playground, a swing still moving
with the remembered weight of a child;
there, a Good Humor truck, idling for a smile;
there, above the wheeling earth, a tremble of stars
in a cloud-packed sky;
there, and there, the lengthening shadows
and the spreading silence.
And everywhere, in everyone, the unshaped anxieties
so peculiar to Sunday evenings,
the little, unattended funerals of the year.
And there, in a sky wide with gray, a pocket of light opens and sunlight
the color of trumpets spills out and lays in a hammered sheet alongside the gray.
The narrow concrete island that divides Broadway is crumbling now;
no more do the old ones from the old country sit and sigh on the benches;
the young homeless have taken up residences there, wrapped in their plastic
On either side of the island stand the monuments of his childhood:Charles Addams apartments bursting with gables and gilt,
dormers and dead rooms, pre-war, pre-glitz, predictably ghoulish.
Inside, the pipes rattle and clang with a comfortless heat;
shadows deepen in corners unswept and unseen.
The years mark their passing in layers of dust that collect, undisturbed,
on windows, on walls, on the eyes of old ones who see only the past.
And as the gray and the gold of the sky hardens into hardest blue,
the yellow light of bulbs that even now have burned most of their old lives away,
burn amber behind cracked parchment shades that have yet to rise
more than a few inches from their window frames.
Outside, the ghosts of the dead ones gather on the benches,
and in the dark and frosting air can be heard the sound of Ferris wheels turning
as wedding rings are placed on hands that will never grow old.
Bright Meteors that Flash Across the Night
Bright meteors that flash across the night,
Sing the air on Your sweet flight.
How bright Thine eyes when the moon is high,
Like meteors across a sunken sky.
Vast oceans that roll without age or fear
Could be gathered up in a drop of Your tear.
How boundless Thy compassion, how infinite Thy grace,
Like an ocean that’s lost both shore and place.
Waking universes that turn and spin round
Could fall into one of your tears and drown.
How forgotten thy pain, how ignored thy sorrow.
Like a universe your humility stretches into tomorrow.
Your Hem of Fabled Fire
Your hem of fabled fire trails just above my hands
Above that point where courage fails
In the teeth of life’s demands.
‘Tis such a small effort to grab hold of Your hem;
All that I have to do is reach
Beyond desire’s where and when.
Though Your hem is fire, it’s cooling too.
The cottony softness of its touch
Is mild as the morning dew.