From the Ground Up: A Poet’s Ode to the City by Foot

From the Ground Up: A Poet’s Ode to the City by Foot

June 07, 2012 at 4:00 am

Author: Rowan Ricardo Phillips
Publisher: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux
Publication Date: June 2012

My favorite subway line is the 11-Train. There’s always one waiting. It goes everywhere. It’s slow, but completely reliable. It runs the same on weekends and weekdays, rush hour and off-peak.

The 11-Train is also known as my own two legs. I walk just about everywhere. No distance is safe from my gait. I would walk from the West Village to the Marais district in Paris if I could, and without stepping foot on the back of a single dolphin or whale, unless one absolutely insisted, of course.

In fact, the two things that keep me from walking to and from everywhere all of the time are that I absolutely detest being late, and I absolutely detest having to rush. My distaste for rushing — I grew up in one of those “hurry-up-but-don’t-rush” households — reminds me of a common misconception about New Yorkers: that we tend to be rushing off from one place to another constantly, transmogrifying the city into an endless crossing and ramble of impersonal forms like grounded flocks of still-swerving starlings, clumps scuttling off to a somewhere rendered pyrrhic by the observer of it all who, by his or her interest in New York, is always more interested in the mass, the crowd, the throng, the rush, the hustle, the seeming chaos, the “New York” of it all. A flashed setting in a film or a television show offers up this New York, often an aerial New York, a constantly cavernous New York, in impossible scale, and underemployed white people in laughably large apartments where the same high school dramas became the same college dramas became the same adult dramas.

New York loves the novel. But poetry? Their relationship is as strange to explain as explaining to the rose that the thorn, too, is the rose. So I walk it off.

The deeper we commit to that New York and its marketable two dimensions, the further from us New York escapes. Of course we rush. But who wants to be defined by their haste? Perhaps in part I walk in defiance of this definition of New York. As every poem I write seems to push back toward a better definition of why exactly I’m here and what it is I was born to do, so too do I walk, I absorb, I remember, I forget, I stare, I ignore, I bristle when the nostalgia comes because I’m ever skeptical of nostalgia.

I was born in New York, raised in New York, met the love of my life in New York, welcomed my daughter into the world in New York — and yet, New York still struggles to feel real to me. And this is a good thing. Reality shouldn’t be a bill with your name on it or someone’s spite; rather, it should be a search for something true, a centering vision that steadies the self to see and do good. Somewhere in me, as I walk and walk this grid, between my blissful detachment and antagonizing familiarity, something twists, it torques like a departing cork, something real and recoverable that is in and of itself and costly to describe.

New York loves the novel. But poetry? Their relationship is as strange to explain as explaining to the rose that the thorn, too, is the rose. So I walk it off. And as I walk, as the neighborhoods fade in and out — the bodegas turning into boutiques and back to bodegas again and then back to boutiques — I recall the firemen coming by on a blistering summer day to open a hydrant so the kids could play in the street; the Delicioso Coco Helado carts marking the far-off horizon like snowcaps. This is not nostalgia. It has all always been nature. Even as the 11-train strides through the scene.

Rowan Ricardo Phillips is a poet, critic and translator. He teaches at Stony Brook University’s Department of English and splits his time between New York City and Barcelona. The poems in “The Ground” are inspired by observations of New York City post-9/11 landscapes.

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