Pre-War Doorman, Margaret Ryan
IBEX New York, 2015 $15.00 (£9.82)
My City, My Self
New York poets write New York poems. Where you live is where your life happens. In these poems, though, geography is autobiography. Ryan has lived in New York long enough for it to be woven into her story. She can read her life in Bernini’s ‘Bacchanal: A Faun Teased by Children’ at the Metropolitan Museum:
I pace the pavane Bernini planned.
I become the marble in his hand [ . . . ]
The boys and faun carouse eternally. My daughter
lengthens into girl and rounds toward wife.
I lose my little beauty by the hour.
This, I think, is what ekphrasis is for: not just to see something, but to be changed by it. Ryan moved to the Upper West Side in the 70s, when the city was broke and crime was high. She lived across from a 1905 Broadway hotel called The Marseilles, where
snow covered the smashed-in roof.
Pigeons roosted in servants’ quarters.
At night, the homeless broke in, lit fires— [ . . . ]
Mr. Kay, the Broadway Barber—
Carrara marble, platinum mirrors [ . . . ]
said the Marseilles
was grand, like the Waldorf, once.
[ . . . ] It was hard to think
of ‘grand’ in our neighborhood [ . . . ]
It was before Tom’s Restaurant had a bit part
on Seinfeld. It was before Seinfeld.
The Marseilles got renovated. It’s now housing for the elderly poor—but the neighborhood has been gentrified beyond the reach of the middle class. We see the scope of such drastic change through Ryan’s astute eye. In a vintage clothing store, where she once craved Thirties dresses like her mother’s, she watches her daughter reach into a bin,
unearthing piece by piece
my college wardrobe— [ . . . ]
She takes worn denim
between thumb and finger. I recognize
a kind of ravishment.
Skating in the ice rink at Rockefeller Center by the gilded statue of Prometheus, Ryan connects with her inner fire:
[ . . . ] I stretch my arms
toward Prometheus, the golden image.
Bend my knees and rise and turn again
to face facts as others face the altar.
I am not powerless, or innocent.
I thought these poems were local. They’re not—they’re global. To spend time with them is to understand how our environments become us, and we them.