Poetry & New York City

New York and Other Lovers: Poems by George Guida. New York: Smalls Books, 2008. 105pp.

Several years ago I was walking in mid-town Manhattan with a group of friends and the playwright Leonard Melfi. We were discussing how important Italian immigrants were to the building of New York.  What I remember specifically from that day is that someone said it was the Italians who “built New York.” Perhaps it was Leonard, perhaps not.

When I began reading George Guida’s new collection of poems I was taken straight back to that day in New York. But Guida’s collection celebrates not only the Italian influence on New York, but a dozen other ethnicities as well. In poems like “The Jewish Andie McDowell,” “Hindi Radio God,” and “Dong Dai Moon” he speaks of strange, wonderful encounters with its diverse population. A line in “Third” sums up the experience: “You were swept away by Midtown crowds.” Though the poem has slightly sinister undertones, one can identify with a certain time and place one’s own life as one became caught up in the riptide of foot traffic along the city streets.  It is the city that has been our lover; not a woman or a man, not a building, or a now non-existent café, but the city with its odor of burnt pretzels and hot dogs from a regiment of street vendors.

 New York and Other Lovers is broken into two parts. The first, “A Lover in New York,” consists of 21 poems, each of which deals with the poet against the backdrop of New York.  The book opens with “At Last,” a poem as sad with regret as any blues number.  There are moments in that poem that reminds us that we all, to some degree, carry our own internal music.  The intimacy of our internal rhythms is shown here to mingle with that of the street.  “At Last” is a perfect poem for Guida to open with because it sets the rhythm so perfectly: “The three minute song/dies a long, slow death/Separate loves of one life fuse/in suites, sonatas, mash-ups, fugues.”  The atmosphere enveloping these poems is reminiscent of the jazz clubs that once lined 52nd Street.  If we listen carefully to Guida’s voice we can still hear the music.  The poems that follow are thought-provoking riffs on love and the city that haunt its author and its reader.

In Part II, titled “New York and Other Lovers” (30 poems), the city itself becomes more central.  It opens with “Life in the New World,” a poem written on September 11, 2001. As the title suggests, the New York we once knew is gone. While the streets may look the same, the skyline has changed irrevocably, and along with that change our mentality of the city, our mindscape, has been altered, and not for the better. These poems remind us of the new world in which we are all living, regardless of how near or far we live from New York.  Other poems like “Manhattan Bound F” and “Second Avenue Subway” hum with the vibration of city life.  But Guida also reminds us that the increasing commercialization of the city is destroying much of its character; the character that attracted us to the city in the first place.  “You can keep it/and your stockbroker brick-oven pizza/I’ll take the steel-cart falafel under the El,” Guida declares in “I Don’t Want to Live in Manhattan.”  For all of its romantic inclinations, the poems collected here also are realistically driven.  Guida’s lyricism is honest and direct.  This is what makes New York and Other Lovers such a joy to read.

So here is New York then, in all of its grit and color and noise, all of its anxiety and wounded beauty. Guida’s poetry does not really present us with a love of New York so much as it generally reflects a complicated relationship with the city.  He reminds us that there is not one New York, but myriad New Yorks; from the public to the personal, from the historic to the yet to be, each city lying upon our memories like so many transparencies amid the clutter and the concrete.


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