Streets of Manhattan
Musings on New York's ability to embrace all
YUYUTSU RD SHARMA
like your yogurt kisses
I long to forget
in the boulevards of NYC’s
like your cherry mouth
sings Starbucks songs
of winds stirred by flames
(Your Name, A Blizzard in my Bones)
“There is something in the New York air that makes sleep useless,” says Simone Beauvoir about the vital bustle the mega city. For over a year, I have been working on the manuscript of my New York poems, entitled, A Blizzard in My Bones. The very energy of the city is electrifying in a special way, making you go back to it, and walk its bistros, boulevards and shores, even when you are away, far, far away.
The first time I went there, I had fortune of living in Greenwich Village where legendary John Lennon “regretted profoundly” that he “was not born in”.
Back home as the Kathmandu Valley rivers swelled from incessant monsoons, I have been walking the suburbs, working long hours in small tea shops over my notes on this city of cities where, in words of Groucho Marx, “Practically everybody ... has half a mind to write a book — and does.”
In the winter of 2012, I also had the leisure of walking the numbered streets of Manhattan with my manuscript in mind, hanging out with fellow poets, spending time in art places, libraries and spacious bookstores. Often, I went to share my works at local NYC poetry venues, and read almost everything I could lay my hands on —memoirs, poetry, stories, reports along with all time favourites like Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, Lunch Poems, even recent books on the city, including, Salman Rushdie’s Fury and Deborah Landau’s The Last Usable Hour.
One of the first few books I had read about the city remains Maxim Gorky’s The City of the Yellow Demon. The book had clouded my vision of the city for a long time. Gorky sees New York as a bleak underworld without a glint of happiness, a working class hell. However, landing in New York, I was amazed to find a very different world. What I saw was not a dreary dungeon, but as Salvador Dali pointed out “an Egypt turned inside out. For she erected pyramids of slavery to death, and you erect pyramids of democracy with the vertical organ-pipes of your skyscrapers all meeting at the point of infinity of liberty!”
Another crucial book I found by chance in a Greenwich Village cafe was Federico Garcia Lorca’s Poet in New York City. Again, I had difficulty in dealing with Lorca’s surreal accounts the city emptied of any spirituality, “a city that doesn’t sleep”. Lorca presents the metropolis as a brutal place where every day “they slaughter/four million ducks,/five million hogs,/two thousand pigeons to accommodate the tastes of the dying,/one million cows,/one million lambs,/and two million roosters/that smash the sky to pieces”.
Could I too write on this city in a similar vein? Just because it is customary for poets to be critical of the cities and civilisations? Shall I lash the city that has become a refuge for million nationalities from every corner of the world, including the American people from every State?
Over the years, my stay in New York City had given me different impressions. While working on my take on it, I could see how today the Cold War bias was uncalled for, almost irrational. I could not but celebrate this glorious city’s status as previously I had celebrated the Himalayas. The Himalayas are nature-made and New York man-made, humanity’s triumph. For that is what hopefully in the coming decades humanity would turn into, if it evolves from tribal, narrow visions.
“Make your mark in New York,” wrote Mark Twain, “and you are a made man.” Last year I reached the city a week before the Hurricane Sandy hit the West Coast and a month before notorious New Town massacre. I had expected the worst, the whole island upside down, civilian life disrupted. Due to nasty road expansion work and chaos in my own Himalayan metropolis, I had sore memories seething in my mind. Due to the hurricane, my NYU assignments were postponed for a couple of weeks and I had to prolong my stopover in London.
After a fortnight as I reached the city, I found everything in order. Eager, I looked for the signs the calamity might have caused. Like a child, I ran in the spacious streets of Manhattan and took E Train to Brooklyn. All I got was some stray narratives of the Sandy-hit areas in few poetry readings. So quickly, the Sandy catastrophe had turned into a thing of the past. People talked how there was no electricity for a few days and one of my poet friends said she had to go all the way to affluent Uptown to get a hot cup of coffee.
On my way back on subway past midnight, I went laughing all the way. I had left the Valley where 18 hours of power-cuts has become a norm. Our children have grown up groping in the darkness of a republic-in-the-making that has not been able to find a focus. They have become used to the drone of maddening power generators and the clouds of dusts of hovering over the streets ripped apart and left bleeding like permanent wounds. Day to day civilian suffering along with rampant corruption has left a permanent scar on the face of Nepali polity.
Of course, you expect quick action from a First World nation, one could argue, and there’s nothing to be surprised if things had come back to normal. That’s not the only reason that makes you celebrate the city of the blazing skyline. New York is a place where humanity has evolved. No matter where you come from, you are welcomed there the morning you arrive. All you have to do is imbibe the free spirit of a New Yorker. “One belongs to New York instantly,” discerns Tom Wolfe, “one belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years.”
To the rest of the world, it might seem different. If ever the humanity evolves into a place of ultimate coexistence, that’s what it would look like, a New York. What to talk of Europe and Americas, we know how in our own subcontinent, in cities like Kathmandu, Mumbai or New Delhi, in the inner circles the outsiders are looked upon with suspicion and distrust. Our cities have a long history of ostracising and humiliating outsiders. The literatures in vernacular languages of the subcontinent are full of such tribal assaults of our so-called “barbarous civilisations”. That’s why one wonders, wasn’t it along such lines of logic Walt Whitman had to shout, “Give me such shows — give me the streets of Manhattan!”
like your bright eyes
stays calm as stars
over blue Atlantic waters.
like your dolphin heart
in the numbered streets
Your heart mind
of my life’s withered leaf
aflutter in the dark streets
of your city.
(Your Name, A Blizzard in my Bones)
(The writer can be reached at email@example.com)