Sunday, April 20, 2014


I few months ago I signed up for a year's worth of New Directions' Poetry Pamphlets and (prose) Pearls, two series of chapbooks from a publishing company I've long admired but haven't always kept up with. As the books have arrived each month I've found some that I had already seen on the NDP list and knew I would like, like Paul Auster's The Red Notebook which I had read years ago in another format, and a few (definitely a minority) that I set aside after a quick skim. Bernadette Mayer's The Helens of Troy, NY arrived last week (coincidentally as I was re-reading the Odyssey in Robert Fitzgerald's splendid translation) and it's one of the better ones.

This is a modest collection of poetry, perfectly befitting its chapbook format; it's not particularly "literary" in a traditional sense (in the sense in which the poets I usually like tend to be "literary"), by which I mean that although the book includes, among other things, a couple of sestinas, a villanelle, and a sonnet, the language isn't particularly elevated or elaborated in relation to the kind of ordinary conversations that seem to have given rise to the poems. There's no explanatory Foreword or Afterword to the volume (nor is one really called for), but from what one gathers Mayer interviewed a number of women who happened to share a first name and a place of residence, and then worked scraps of their stories and conversations into something like a hybrid of oral history and found poetry, accompanied by black-and-white photographs of the Helens, most of whom are middle-aged or older. (There is one nude — named but mysterious — whom Mayer seems not to have met in person.)

At times fragmentary or cryptic, always unassuming, the poems nevertheless adeptly evoke the particularities of time and place, of what it has been like to grow up and grow old in a city that may have known better days but that hasn't quite given up on itself. (There's an awareness of decline throughout, but no self-pity; one subject proudly holds a bumper-sticker that proclaims "TROY: BACK ON TRACK!") The Helens reminisce about childhood haunts, favorite restaurants, long-dead husbands — or just about what it's like to be named after the most famous woman of antiquity. Names are important here; one of the women, Australian-born, bears the extravagant married name of Helen Hypatia Bailey Bayley [sic], while another, born Helen Mayer (but evidently no relation to the author), quips that she "once met rollo may's son & I thought i was more may [emphasis mine] than he."

Photo at top: Helen Worthington Bonesteel. Bernadette Mayer is now working on a similar project centered on Troy, Missouri.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Cassie Burns

The first snows of December haven't yet fallen on the dirty streets of lower Manhattan, but already there's a chill in the air. The photographer, shifting the legs of his tripod and adjusting the camera for just the right view, shudders under his dark frock. It's an overcast morning without much shadow. The little cluster of urchins have observed his preparations, asking him questions and begging him to take their picture. He has waved them off at first but finally agrees, if they will only stand without moving where he tells them to stand, drawing the eye down from that dead expanse of exposed wall. He has other sites to shoot today and can't waste too much time.

A few men, loitering outside the mission or doing business in the shop that pays cash for "old books, newspapers, pamphlets," have been attracted by the commotion and stand in the background, curious but by old habit loath to draw too much attention to themselves. Along the fence there are posters advertising the plebeian entertainments of the week of December 19th — the Windsor, Huber's Museum, the annual ball in honor of John P. Kenney, and Bartholomew's Equine Paradox — but already one of the posters has had patches of paper torn away by the wind or vandals.

The girl lives a few blocks behind where the photographer makes his preparations, at New Chambers and Cherry Streets, an intersection that today no longer exists. Her name is Cassie Burns. She has dark blue eyes and has just turned thirteen, but she's small for her age; there's TB in the family. Wearing an oatmeal skirt, she stands a bit apart from the boys, the usual playmates she watches over almost like a mother. Womanhood is already inexorably separating her fate from theirs. They will be factory workers or soldiers or will join the drunks that haunt the mission; she will have the harder path of motherhood, struggle, lonely old age.

The children, hunched up against the cold in their worn coats, finally settle themselves enough for the photographer to begin. Only after the fact does he notice that two solitary standing figures, one on either side a few yards away, have left ghostly impressions on the glass. The image is issued as a lantern slide bearing the title "N.Y. City — Homes and Ways 62. McAuley Mission, Water St."

The above isn't a "true story," in that I don't know it to be true, but who knows how far it is from the mark? There really was a Cassie Burns in the neighborhood of Water Street and Cherry Hill when this picture was made, in the first decade of the 20th century. It's highly unlikely but not impossible that the girl — if it really even is a girl — is her, but she undoubtedly knew this block well and may well have played with the children shown here. The real Cassie Burns, it is said, would go on to have nine children of her own.