Big City, Little

Big City, Little features writing from the personal vantage by native or adoptive sons of, long-term transients in, and literary visitors to New York and/or its metropolitan counterparts elsewhere in the world. Send poetry up to 300 words, prose from 100 to 500 words to editors@nycbigcitylit.com, Re: Big City, Little.
 

New York - London - Philadelphia - Prague - Jaipur
 
 


Big City, Little

New York

Big City, Lit
Nicholas Johnson

An Arrogance of Windows
Jay Chollick

Inventing Nations
D. Nurkse

i see them, i donít see them
Angelo Verga

London

Clouds on Museum Street
Patrick Henry

Sweetheart from Sigmund Freud
Patrick Henry

Philadelphia


One Eleven North Forty-Ninth Street
Victor Schermer
 

Big City, Lit
Nicholas Johnson

Itís more than a long, dark road. Youíre in your car, with everything you need in the glove box, back seat, trunk. Youíve got your smoke, thereís the fog, and some rain, and more fog, and thoughts of searchlights.

Maybe thereís someone beside you--or there will be--for who knows for how long. A guy thing maybe: a city, a woman, warm coffee, more smokes.

Stations drift in and out in the sing-along tease 'til youíve had enough of the night, the absolute black Van Gogh claimed didnít exist. All the tricks, like in a Dylan song, play by the roadside shoulders.

Itís what you want: not exactly lost, not exactly knowing where you are, but full of the importance of being elsewhere, speeding toward. 

And so you drive on, grateful for the dashboard, steering wheel in your hands, strings of mileposts, tiny reflectors, whatís left of the white lines, rarities the more traveled, rained on.

Smoke, fog, smudge of light on the horizon: The City, allegory-big. You on the way, bridge-buzzed, highway-wired, everything within reach, toward the light, the place where "symbol is the thing itself."
 
 

An Arrogance of Windows
Jay Chollick

Despite the knotted rising 
of the slopes, up to their peaks 
they seem to me, these Catskills,
the emphatic stone Taconic,
to shrivel, sink into their dwarf beginnings
or fade; the Adirondacks fade.

And cities too, the feeble
minor neighborhood Poughkeepsie--blah, 
and Utica, and that Kodak town, 
the huddled orchards, they all seem pallid now; 
but just to me, for I am Southeast to my 
haughty city tip--Iím the New York!
And all else--inconsequential meandering
Niagara-nothing rest of it--I blow away.

I am an arrogance of windows: NYC.
I measure worth by length of shadow.
I breathe bellowing, airshaft of the lung.
Sky-scribbled, I am misery and predator, 
a homeless box. Iím easy breezy wonderful, I 
am a Jew--third finger up!

And Albany, that oneís for you.
 
 

Inventing Nations
D. Nurkse

My grandmotherís flesh has grown luminous,
cloudy behind her nylon housecoat.
Since her treatments, she can keep down
only jello, sherry, and whipped cream.
She stays up all night watching old movies:
sometimes she loses her temper, turns off the sound,
and hexes the characters in a language
no one in this city has heard of: by day
she stares at the Narrows framed in her window.
She can no longer identify the flags of freighters
and asks me to, but strain as I may
my vision blurs, and she insists, so I wind up
inventing nations: Liguria, Phoenicia,
Babylonia . . . and she nods. On her wall
Kennedy faces Truman but thereís no picture
of the child dead of consumption
or the child dead of hunger
or the child who was my father
who succeeded, whose heart failed:
all there is from that world is a locket 
showing the infant Mozart playing silence
on a tiny clavichord, behind cracked glass.

(Prior publ. Voices over Water (Four Way Books), a collection by the author.)
 
 

i see them, i donít see them
Angelo Verga

i donít see them, the bearded men
the men who sit, knees tucked in
sneakers on wet midtown street
i donít see them, waiting
to be fed, hundreds of them
many black, some whites
most young and thin,
a few gray women
i donít see them
waiting for the bread
the meat, the lettuce,
mustard tomato
at 7 a.m., the breakfast meal
the Franciscan Friars give them
the giant coffee urn at the other end
where they squat and drink and eat
or hide the napkin-covered treasure
for later. i donít see them
the crusty-skinned, the matted-haired.
i see the smooth-legged, no split-ends
women on their way to work
rushing across the street. i see them.
they donít smell, they donít spit.
i pray to them:
i beg for what i need.

(Prior publ. The Six O'Clock News (Wind Publications), a collection by the author.)

Clouds on Museum Street
Patrick Henry

Bent iron crosses overshadow dusty archives,
Where Freud studied, wrote and ended his times,
Giving language so many of the terms
For the sense of doubt that ensnares lives;
Continued in the caring cautious tone
Speaking soft of terror in this darkened room,
Calm for out there where manic types will storm,
To face myself, hard as an unstarted poem;
Shedding guilt and cash and hours at confession
Withheld from Catholics where I should belong;
On the road, thinking as I reach the warmer South,
He never meant sex alone, but all our twisting path.
 
 

Sweetheart from Sigmund Freud
Patrick Henry

London seemed suited to Freud in its sober, analytic guise: monarchy, Parliament, the stern duty in 1914 and again in 1940 to withstand almost alone threats to all reasonable global civilisation. Freud took refuge here after Hitler invaded Austria in 1938, and died here in September, 1939, two weeks after Britain declared war.

I was one year old and beginning a wartime childhood on the North Sea coast, the surrounding anxieties there being perhaps worse than usual. Only Sigmund would have known, and he was gone. At 17, I became a government clerk near St. Paul's Cathedral. Blitz ruins still lay all around in London, even in 1954.

I passed another fifteen years here among the poetry, art, sex, drink and confusion, and then needed respite. As Freud was my third favourite writer--after Dostoyevsky and Kafka--,I spent time and lots of money on the analyst's couch of one of his disciples: a beautiful, untouchable lady.

When I was sort of cured, I escaped that smothering city--hopefully forever.

One Eleven North Forty-Ninth Street
Victor Schermer

Soon after the founding of our nation, a dedicated group of men built an asylum on a plot of land outside the Philadelphia city limits. There, the insane could receive humane treatment, like the calming psychiatric chair invented by Dr. Rush, or perhaps hot baths, or the soon-to-be-outdated leeches. There was support and concern and lessons to be learned: the so-called "moral therapy," indebted, no doubt, to the spiritual teachings of the day.

In time, the city extended around the place, and a stone wall was constructed to contain the wild ones inside, their thoughts as radical and disturbing as the great books burned under Hitler's regime. Then the new generation of physicians erected a large turret, which gave the place the appearance of a prison.

Slowly, there in the West End, an urban ghetto grew, a place of poverty and strife, surrounding the wall. And inside the wall, wealth accumulated, as the rich and near-rich sent their sick ones to be cured, cured of their disturbing thoughts.

A society developed inside the wall, resembling ancient Greece or Rome. Doctors walked through the endless halls and carpeted rooms discussing diagnoses, theories, deteriorations, remissions, discharges. Patients lived there for one, two, three years, getting worse or better, known, known in their depths and inner deaths by the dead themselves.

Then the money expired. New medicines took the place of costly walls, and doctor after doctor fell in battle, until a man in a black suit came and bought them out.

Greece fell, Rome fell. You noticed the walls crumbling a bit. You noticed the sadness in the doctors' faces. You noticed the absence of mind in place of the crazy mind. You noticed the abacus balls, fingered by the moneyed interests.You noticed that the patients went in and went out.

Some say it was like the South during Reconstruction. I say it was the end of light and dark. I say it was the slow dying of the soul. I say the ghetto is everywhere and nowhere.

Big City, Little

Prague

The Hunger Wall
James Ragan

Obscurity
James Ragan

Ice Storm
Viktor Tichy

Pillar
Maureen Holm

The Hunger Wall
James Ragan

After walking to the bridge at Karlova,
we found the river where at dusk the swans
dipped their beaks into the falls for sanctuary.
The trees closed in for shade. We gazed
through willows to the opposite hill, a single
light from a room growing thick with sadness.
Solemn smoke now cooked the evening meal.

We were just about to treat our hunger well
when, out of sunlight, undeclared,
a shaded mass of stone began to stretch
its neck along the slope.
It would scan the water for a quarter hour
before the foliage rubbed its throat,
some internal hunger now assuaged 

for only moments, then again, the impulse
thumbed like whalebone on a drum.
The poplars began to rustle. A hawk
spiraling, like an aspen deep in chatter,
betrayed its nest to block the sun.
The dam below rose up to boulder water
as if to show how easily wars are won. 

The feed the hunger wall, the waitress points,
the fingers in her skirt rubbing coins
her hand is shoring up to feed the past.
I don't want the poor to endure me, she says
King Charles said to those he paid, as he watched
their faces, building borders, hunger for a wall,
as she faced the smoldering Vltava, watching hunger well. 

(Prior pub. Trafika and The Hunger Wall, Grove, 1997) 
Pulitzer-nominee, James Ragan, has read for four heads of state, including Václav Havel.
He was born in Slovakia.
 
 

Obscurity
James Ragan

for Jan Zajic (1950-1969), the second human torch to protest the 1968 Soviet invasion of Prague

There goes the night not knowing what
it is seeing. A boy has cut his lip shaving
and rinsed the basin free of blood
his hand had salved into the mind for no thought
in particular. At dawn he shot a heron.

He must have forgiven the debt his teacher
owed, perhaps, the promise of the moon
above his head forever, or a noun
his erratic tongue had failed to annunciate.

He might have counted as redemption
each lace of breath the girl had stroked
into his wailing hair at St. Vitus Lake.
He must have known. There ring the bells

he must have known were saved at Ty'n
for Palach, for the first to run; the pact
to torch imagination remembers only one,
no matter what the name, what the home.

He believed it is the found wisdom of an age
not to forgive the sins of a nation,
how the catacombs at Staré Me?sto
age with molding chalk of poets' bones.

Here comes the imitator echoing stolen words.
Here runs the conspirator across the cat heads
of Karluv most, every rib of stone
a memory of loss, a birth into the every tongue,

saying there goes the wind not knowing what
it is hearing. There crawls a leaf, a moon,
and flames. There trips the clock's second hand,
which every moment tumbles deeper
into everywhere like a cough into a lung.

There goes a noun, unpronounced, into obscurity.

(Prior pub. Bomb and The Hunger Wall, Grove, 1997) 
Pulitzer-nominee, James Ragan, has read for four heads of state, including Václav Havel. He was born in Slovakia, where he lived until the age of five.
 
 

Ice Storm
Viktor Tichy

A salvo of cracks every five minutes. Do the trees suffer
when they fall?
I recall the barking Soviet carbines in Prague, August '68
only this time, the casualties don't bleed.

Incorruptible poplars bow their foreheads
lamenting the frigid bite of frost.
The lightest breeze plays a requiem on glass xylophones,
as I stride through the zircon land,
a hooded knight in a white parka.

Waterfalls of light cascade off the cedars.
Heaven spilled into the lake
and froze. The adolescent sun conceives
a million babies skating on inch long crystals.
The red bud longs for the yellow bud
in the prophylactic ice. Instant Christmas ripping overnight
out of an empty box.

The tether ball with four icicles looks like Sputnik.
The pine trees are lathered by my father's shaving brush,
but God, look at the birches I planted with my children!
Their trunks bent to the ground, freeze-frame fountains.
My whole generation grew up bent or crooked.
Is this the fate of any disposable nation?

My neighbor grimaces like a frostbite amputee,
a Nazi surgeon in Siberia cutting bones with a chain-saw.
Even the ancient cedar in the cemetery
broke its trunk in half over a granite gravestone.
Is all beauty a deadly freak of nature?

An enormous maple by the pond split in half,
a squirrel den in its crotch turned inside out.
"That was their home, Dad. Are squirrels useless?"
My son stares at the nest in the maple corpse.

"A squirrel will plant fifty times more trees
than the average human, but will not cut any down."

"Are we worth less than squirrels?"
I sense the first-grade god behind his eyes shrinking.

"For sure, if you ask an oak tree;
probably not, if you ask a general.
And I would eat squirrels alive
before I would let anything happen to you.
That's why your tree has roots in America."

A native Czech, Viktor Tichy lives in Iowa.
 
 

Pillar
Maureen Holm

Is it like this
In deathís other kingdom
Waking alone
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone.

-- T.S. Eliot, "The Hollow Men", III

Prague, castled hilltop,
the floodlit haunt
of wanton and ascetic.

The flag flutters up
to show the president home,
pouring over Sanskrit love poems
or the belly-felt polemic
of peasant sons,
who cinch their pants up
once theyíve delivered,
and grope themselves
when left alone.

I submit to the stones
at Hradc?any,
the Slav-façaded romanesque
of cheekbones,
the chiseled lips of pebbles
sloughed off the chests of boulders,
the heel-eroded, toe-dipped steps,
the sloping shoulders
of wrinkled drainpipes,
the rain-bent royal windows
of indigent third-floor lawyers
left unlatched and flapping,
furloughed and unattached,
in Budapest or New York.

There should be a bridge here closer on,
hard on to this wistful, windy bastion,
but there is none.
There should be a kiss.

Is it silk or is it wool,
that quivers along the shoulder seams,
the button-stippled ribs and wrists
of this tilting pillar, half-erect,
I hold flexed against my knee,
leaning into me, willing me
to bend it to my whim?

I run my nails 
over the mortared tongues of bricks,
the cornerstones, the hipbones,
that tip to me like redwood chips,
yearning for singe and fire,
for flicker and collapse,
in the slowly embering aftermath,
whetstones cast
for treacherous renewal
in the urban-burgeoning overflow
of a random riverís three-year burst
of early estranged desire.

The mouth withheld,
its martyred tongue still flicks,
spits out the hearts,
eager and once true, but too young
of couples,
still aches to lick and split
the long-limbed shafts
of seasoned, imported lumber,
awkwardly caressed, then left
to warp and wonder,
to anguish and reflect,
under the sudden, too-narrow marital bed
of the circumspect adulteror.

Was it silk or was it wool?
I should have known by now,
known by the feel by now,
by the feel, by the drape, by the fall,
by the shimmer and sheen,
by the imperceptible shuddering
nap of it,
the bias, the weave, the wrap of it,
that closes like teeth
around a shoulder blade.

I should have known, 
being practiced in the art;
I should have known,
being skilled in the design,
of fabric,
that best suits willful men.

Maybe Iíd know if I touched it again.
Maybe Iíd know.
But grim-façaded Hradc?any
breathes a Slav-erotic moan
and crumbles bodily,
as I turn and walk away,
fingering the lint,
the unintended, open-ended questions,
remnants from this precipice
of yes or no,
the tilt of pillars
in monogrammed sleeves,
the tip of hipbones 
under pocket seams,
the wisps of love,
the wisps of greed,
that willful men deposit,
heedlessly,
when faced into the wind,
into the vented mesh,
the lace, the texture,
of my breath-embroidered skin.
 


Big City, Little

Jaipur

Think Pink
Brant Lyon

"Well, as Diana Vreeland once said, 'pink is the navy blue of India'."

To her, the comment makes perfect fashion sense. But then, she manages a revival house cinema done up in art deco, so what else could I expect? The pert idioms of late-50's Hollywood, a doyenne of haute couture, and certain dainty starlet who modeled it, are what come off the rack as I'm telling her of how Ram Singh II was expecting a state visit from the Prince of Wales in 1876 and so--in a grand gesture of hospitality (if not good taste)--decreed that the entire city of Jaipur be painted pink.

She's thinking of the movie musical, Funny Face, in which Kay Thompson plays a high-powered executive editor of a fashion magazine loosely patterned after the original Empress Diana and her ready-to-wear ladies-in-waiting at Harper's Bazaar. Well, one scene in particular anyway, in which the actress dramatically unfurls across the floor of the office suite a bolt of pink satin destined to drape every woman in America who stands naked waiting for Miss Prescott to dress her, no--every woman in the world, no--the world itself, including the kitchen sink, as she exhorts, 'THINK PINK!"

How could I tell her then of Ramesh's unglamorous, gap-toothed smile, the stale liquor on his breath, unrosy cheeks on his unfunny, brown face and look of hunger that shone from his eyes, a world apart from Audrey Hepburn's lovelorn gaze lost in a Greenwich Village bookshop or the boulevards of Paree? I'm calling from the East coast; she's on the West. Color coordinates of local time and space clash, twain never meeting, mismatch my new Spring line of thought, which is trending toward blue.

I stand confused (turn left or right?) outside India's--no, all Asia's pre-eminent movie theatre, the "Raj Mandir," whose facade is, I tell her--of course!--a pale shade of pink. Some Bollywood flick has turned out tout Jaipur; women in their after-eight saris, men close-shaven and smelling nice, even the children looking spiffy. Intermission, and as I cross the lobby to leave, the other show starts: to see and be seen posing against the balustrades or seated on banquettes that hug gracefully curved walls like the smart lines of a cocktail dress. He senses my hesitation, but I refuse him the few rupees for a ride back to my hotel in last season's sorry cycle-rickshaw.

He softens me up until I give in to what it would be like to be in his unfashionable shoes peddling down these cold streets, "you know, all pseudo rosy-colored," I relate, "like Audrey Hepburn still extending her pinkie as she's swayed by the that modish philosophy of Empathicalism." One hundred rupees to find out, next day, sightseeing in the Pink City. Spindly piston-legs chug past Tripolia Bazaar, Ram Niwas Garden, the sad zoo near Albert Hall, cool marble cenotaphs of Jaipur's royal family at Gaitor, outside the city gates.

All afternoon he sweats out hope and last night's booze. We take high tea in paper cups standing on the curb below nine hundred pink honeycombed windows as the sun sashays down the runway and makes its turn behind the Palace of the Winds. I pay him more than twice our bargained fare, and for a moment Ramesh swears he sees the chic royal ladies in purdah from Pink City's tonier days discreetly blow him kisses from behind their rouged screens.