March 12, 2013

essay-review "Pretending Swagger" (on Godfrey's City of Corners) by Douglas Messerli


 John Godfrey City of Corners (Seattle: Wave Books, 2008)

New York City poet John Godfrey has often been called “the poet of the streets,” which, he explained in a recent reading at the Bowery Poetry Club, usually makes people think of the East Village, where he lives. As Godfrey reminded his audience, however, today his poems more often refer to the Brooklyn streets where he works as a nurse and in which is set most of the poems of his ninth collection, City of Corners.

       As in his previous books, his wry sense of humor coupled with the everyday activities of New York street life give his poems, as Ron Padgett has described it, a slight sense of “hauteur,” almost as if the poet, participating in the sleazy activities of the streets, is simultaneously observing and, if not judging, at least assessing those events. And, in that respect there is a philosophical edge—what some have described as metaphysical musings—to his lyrically hip notations.

        Particularly in City of Corners, the poet-narrator seems almost addicted to his daily activities—in this case sexual intercourse with numerous women—without seeming to be able to find fulfillment in the sexual act. City of Corners, at times, reminds me of some mythical Italian film where a prowling male discovers a woman at every corner who lures him on to seek gratification in the superficiality of a one-night stand.

        The narrator describes just such a scene in the very first poem of the book, “Waiting There,” where the male figure, walking down the street, discovers “My loved ones waiting there.” Pretending swagger, the male moves forward in a kind of “holy dance” of the hips. Yet time and again in these interconnected poems, he meets with frustration: in “Each Hair” “The vein is exhausted,” the “Lips not fit to kiss”; in “A Thorn” he “Gets kicks between a woman’s fingers”; “Silhouette” ends with “her hard face on the wall.” Throughout this “city of corners” the narrator seeks out love (“My defense is love”), but what he looks for disappears around those corners, “and inside I die.” As the poet writes in “Floss at the Barbecue,” despite his swagger “You walk toward me / No you don’t / Had me fooled.”

        Even a slightly successful encounter with this never-ending parade of women, temporarily dousing the fire within him, ends in his or his lover’s feelings of “Sackcloth and resentment” (“A Small Fraction”), “Dismay and disappointment,” (“End of It”), “Always the same—blame” (“Free Fall”).

      Ultimately we began to see that the search itself as a sort of demented need for emptiness: “All I want is less,” a “Place without a world” (“Take My Eyes”). The street, which in the first poem of the book was filled with “rainbows” of “bling” is by book’s end transformed into the cold luster of “diamonds, or bones” (“Bones”). And in this bleak vacancy we recognize that despite the narrator’s hard shell of “swagger,” the hauteur of which Padgett lovingly spoke, is a Romantic sensibility, inventing a world of “yesterdays” (“Train Maybe Comes”) in which there is no possibility of encountering what he calls “paradise” (“Requital”). 

      For all that, the search itself is what energizes the narrator and, in turn, the poetry; the street and the waiting women “fertilize joy” (“Slide”). Forfeiture, as the poet writes, “has merit” (“Tissues”). As Godfrey summarizes in “Nearly Perfect,” one of my very favorite poems of the book:
                                     Cold moves me on
                                     I expel a moment
                                     of smoke

As the poet himself almost comically observes elsewhere: how “Lurid and American.”

Los Angeles, August 20, 2008
Reprinted from Shadowtrain [England] (February 2009).

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