I took a good look around Zuccotti Park this afternoon, because I won’t be seeing it for a few days. I’m headed up to Vermont to fulfill some obligations connected with my job at Goddard College, and tomorrow will be the first day since October 10th that I haven’t spent some time there and read poetry. (I do, however, plan to keep posting over the long weekend, as I have some ideas about the whole OWS experience that I want to touch on.) I’ll resume my trips to lower Manhattan on Monday.
Today, I read poems by May Swenson and had meaty conversations with a woman named Deena, a man named Emile, and “the knitter,” a woman I see every day sitting in a folding chair on the Liberty St. side of the park, often in the company of a couple of other knitting women of varying ages, always with a cardboard sign that identifies her as a “56 year old grandmother” who is doing this for the children.
Deena, who looked to be in her 30’s or 40’s and had a slight West Indian accent, was sitting on a low wall and hailed me as I passed on the sidewalk. In a friendly way, she wanted to take issue with my sign: “It’s not the planet that’s going off a cliff! It’s us! It’s the people!!” The complaint was just a pretext to start talking about all the things that are wrong. She said she wants to get the money out of politics, “but how do you do that? And how is it even possible for 1% of the people to get control of all the wealth?” She expressed what she thinks needs to happen as “getting out from under them.” She’d heard some people say that what we have to do is buy land, start growing our own food, become self-sufficient. What did I think of that? It would be pretty hard to do in urban areas, wouldn’t it? I talked about urban food movements, about the huge vacant lot in the middle of my neighborhood that might be an attractive target for a people’s takeover. “Have you brought that up at one of the meetings?” she urged. I felt chagrined at the thought of how far away from actualization in my neighborhood any such plan currently seems, and how little energy I have to push for it.
To read May Swenson (from New and Selected Things Taking Place, Little, Brown and Company, 1978), I stood beside a huge flag made to look like the Stars and Stripes, except that these stripes were green and the field of stars had been replaced with a Whole Earth image. The people who were holding it up also had a small sign, like a legend, at the top: I PLEDGE ALLEGIANCE TO THE EARTH. That seemed like a great context in which to appreciate Swenson, as she’s such a noticer of earth; in fact, one of the poems I’d already picked out to read was “Her Management,” whose conceit–a personification of the earth as one who “does not place, relate, or name/the objects in her hall” (250) in marked contrast to the humans who do– reminds me wonderfully of Dickinson. It was great to be able to read a poem entitled “Working on Wall Street,” and I felt awfully daring reading the intimately erotic “Four-Word Lines” (“I’d let you wade/in me and seize/with your eager brown/bees’ power a sweet/glistening at my core” ), but either nobody was paying attention or lesbian eroticism is unintelligible to a general audience; to my disappointment, I scandalized no one. I did attract a couple of attentive listeners at other points in the reading. One was Emile, a slim young man with large dark eyes, his long black hair pulled back in a pony tail. Emile wanted to talk about poetry, about which poets I liked. He likes Mayakovsky, Baudelaire–is more familiar with international poets than with U.S.-based ones. “Are you an artist?” I said and he smiled and said, “No, unfortunately, only a student”–but it turns out he is a student at the Art Students League, which he said is the most affordable educational alternative. In the past, he attended City College. Emile seemed wonderfully well-informed on many points of history both distant and recent. We discussed the sad history of U.S. interventions, going back to this country’s founding; he told me things I didn’t know about the positions the first three U.S. presidents took on the Haitian revolution. I asked him how often he came down to the park and he said “every chance I get.” He had been in Times Square the day of the big march, “But, sadly, I left before they brought in the Cossacks–I mean the police on horseback,” he said. “Why ‘sadly’?”I asked. “Because I should have been there with them, when things got to that point. It’s always a question of how much do you push, go out of your comfort zone….” He added that thinking of the police as Cossacks made him picture a scene in the movie Dr. Zhivago….
I spoke to the Woman Who Knits just as I was heading for the subway. I’ve passed her many times–a plump white woman with gray hair, hunkered down over her needles–and only thought (I confess it) that it would be nice if women of my cohort didn’t so often feel they have to play the grandmother card. But now she nodded agreement with my sign, and I found myself asking her how everything was going. Not bad, she said. “We have to keep the kids warm–I mean the young men and women.” People are donating yarn, and money to buy yarn. The other day a woman stopped and asked for a pair of scissors, then took her knitting out of her bag and snipped off the yarn ball and handed it over. I asked the knitter if she was sleeping in the park and she said no, she comes every morning. Yesterday was such a lovely day that she didn’t want to leave, and ended up being there something like 11 hours. I remarked on how willing people are, anywhere in the vicinity of Zuccotti Park, to talk, to smile, to meet each other’s eyes. “Yes,” said the knitter, “I compare the way people are with each other here to how it was in the first days after September 11th, if you were in New York then. People would do that then, really look at each other and talk to each other on the street. But it only lasted for a few weeks, then things were back to normal.”