Yesterday, while police in L.A. and Philadelphia were getting ready to solve their respective ruling classes’ Occupy problems in a definitive manner, I was in Zuccotti Park holding an umbrella up against the chilly rain and shouting André Breton poems into the canyons across Broadway. I discovered that Surrealist poetry is just the thing to read on the street. Zuccotti Park itself is quite surreal these days, and the irreverent juxtapositions and brilliant disjunctions for which this dream-based work is famous mean that a passerby who hears only the tiniest fragment of the work may actually receive the spirit of the thing quite as fully as someone who solemnly attends from beginning to end.
The volume from which I read is Selected Poems by André Breton, translated by Kenneth White in a bilingual 1969 edition from Grossman Publishers/Jonathan Cape. It’s a fetching little paperback with a bright pink cover, sold at the time for $1.50. (I discovered in the middle of the volume, a receipt for that amount, plus another charge of $1.50, most likely indicating another book purchase for the same amount, back in those days that seem to belong to another life.) I had no memory of having read any of the poems before this, although I supposed I’d dipped into them back when the book was new. I enjoyed several of them very much, particularly “Free Union” (“My wife with the woodfire hair/With the heat lightning thoughts/And the hourglass waist/My wife with the waist of an otter in the tiger’s jaws” ) and “Last Post” (“How small it is, this letter I’m expecting/I hope it will not get lost among the grains of poison” ). I’m quite sure that it was “Vigilance,” with such marvelous lines as “I hear human linen being torn like a great leaf” (63), that I’d just begun to read when I saw a man with gray eyes, not old not young, wearing a thin rain poncho, stop and listen intently. He listened to the end of the poem, smiling with delight, and then said that he was on his way from a Think Tank meeting that had just been happening around one of the rain-splashed park tables, and he was so delighted to hear me keeping the spirit of OWS alive by doing something like reading poetry–he’d been worrying about the loss of that spark, afraid everybody was going off to 60 Wall Street (where a lot of the meetings have been taking place in days since the raid) and losing that visible, creative presence. Hearing this made me more sanguine about the water damage to my book, which emerged from the adventure visibly the worse for wear–a fate that has befallen a surprisingly large number of the volumes I’ve read from over these recent weeks.
I went back today, in clear, cold weather, and read from Elizabeth Bishop’s The Complete Poems 1927-1979 (Farrar Straus Giroux, fourth printing, 1984): “One Art” (“The art of losing isn’t hard to master” –I admit I was thinking with some bitterness of the loss of pre-raid OWS vibrancy), “Sestina,” “Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore” (like so many pieces I’ve read at Zuccotti Park, another great New York poem–“From Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bridge, on this fine morning, please come flying” )–and I was halfway through “The Moose” when yet another visitor came along wanting to talk and I got distracted.
That’s the amazing thing about this location, and this moment. People keep talking. Even when the park looks almost deserted and the passersby all seem to be hurrying along with their heads bent, it’s only a matter of time until meaningful conversation breaks out. So on Tuesday I talked with a man in a suit standing under a wide umbrella who said he was worried about too much greed, and only gradually revealed that he’s an unemployed librarian who was just coming back from a job interview at a tutoring agency. (Though he wanted to see the greedy corporations reined in, he also thought that we need the competition that capitalism produces, or people would get lazy.) Soon we were joined by a man who was visiting from India, expressed his sympathy, and asked, “Does your protest address globalization?” Today (Wednesday), I spoke with a Cooper Union student who wanted to find out what the Working Groups are doing, and an older couple from Flint, Michigan who have some relationship to Occupy Flint and were briefly in town, wanting to see what had become of New York’s encampment, and a man in his 50’s who said he’d been down here as a supporter in September, and is traveling back and forth to Angola where he teaches English as a second language, because since 2008 he’s been unable to get a job in this country. “They talk about all these places in the so-called Third World being ‘failed states’–well, this is a failed state!” We were joined in our conversation by a Jamaican immigrant who said she’s been a security guard, but can’t get work either. Now she’s trying to get her GED. With one hand, she was holding up a sign with a complicated message I couldn’t quite decipher; with the other, she was offering for sale a display of buttons–“We Are the 99%” and so on.
On the way back to Brooklyn, I finished Bishop’s “The Moose”: “‘Yes…’that peculiar/affirmative. ‘Yes…’/A sharp, indrawn breath,/half groan, half acceptance, that means ‘Life’s like that./We know it (also death)'” (172).