The New York Postcard Sonnets, Philip Dacey, Rain Mountain Press
The subtitle of Philip Dacey’s fun little book is “A Midwesterner Moves to Manhattan,” but as he explains by way of introduction his New York-born mother took him along on annual trips to the city. For a summer in 1963, the just-married author lived in Barnard’s dormitory before shipping out to do Peace Corps work in Nigeria and he made several jaunts on his own as well, prior to moving to Manhattan in 2004. So this is no fish-out-of-water sequence, but instead a rapturous and clear-eyed assessment of the city’s virtues, as well as some of its vices.
Key to The New York Postcard Sonnets‘ success is the fact that Dacey eschews adhering strictly to form. One working definition of sonnet would be a fourteen line poem, usually in iambic pentameter, consisting of an octave (eight line stanza) and a sestet (six line stanza). Any writer worth his or her authorial salt knows how hard it is to write smoothly and comfortably in forms, and more so, that sometimes the idea being written about becomes more important, and therefore more vital than the restrictive form allows. In those instances, it’s time to either abandon the poem completely as a capital-S Sonnet, or bend the rules and let it stand as is. Happily, and wisely, Dacey chooses the latter.
Dacey is well aware of time here. He lived and taught in Minnesota for 35 years. Like a vacationer eying the calendar, he counts the days in a new and invigorating environment scrupulously. But unlike a mere tourist, his New York adventure has no expiration date:
First month. Have seen no snowmobiles or rats.
Noise? Deep in Central Park, the squeak of swings.
Curt locals? Who cares? At least they’re Democrats.
On subways, furs and sweats, and everything
from saxophones to shovels, bongos, bikes.
A city short on public johns, but not Irish bars.
Dogwalkers here are pros and make good bucks
walking fistfuls of four-legged movie stars.
Drivers believe in horns. On New Year’s Eve,
Broadway’s thick with taxis, limos, cop cars.
People-watching’s prime in this human hive:
old woman with cellphone, chewing on a cigar.
The great dead on my shelves, the living out
my aerie’s windows, the pageant of the street. (16)
A four-week transplant, Dacey already has a feel for the city—its rhythms, oddities, sounds and supplications. He addresses the concerns of more parochially-minded peers—“At least they’re Democrats”—not by scolding or mockery but through simple illustration. Things are what they are, to the delight and detriment of those who choose Manhattan as their stomping ground: the squeak of swings, plenitude of Irish pubs, choke of traffic backed up on Broadway; mink stoles and sweatpants, side-by-side on the MTA. Nobody bats an eye, but it’s up to a poet of Dacey’s caliber to put those disparate images into perspective. He reflects later:
My one-year New York anniversary.
How sum it up? I’m still on honeymoon.
Midwesterner, I came here not to be
a New Yorker, but just learn how to cope like one. (36)
Another key to Dacey’s success is his humility. He may well be keenly attuned, open and receptive to his urban environment, but he’s no poseur, assuming East Village hipster patois, or the cocky posture of a borough lifer. Still a Midwesterner, and with all the baggage that admission brings, he’s eager to expand his palette, opening himself up to his adopted home town’s influences, both as poet and citizen. He continues:
I’ve succeeded too well, become the typical
parochial resident: each neighborhood’s
a small city, self-sufficient, and I stay whole
weeks at a time in mine, happily burrowed. (36)
Dacey’s sonnets are each also like “a small city, self-sufficient.” He doesn’t exceed his grasp because with these poems, the reach is determined by the subject matter, and how much may be explicated in fourteen lines. He accomplishes an awful lot, with so little.
Recurring subjects in The New York Postcard Sonnets include Juilliard, “a fifteen minute walk away” from home, where Dacey’s “in music heaven” (20) because of all the free concerts, and overheard remarks from fellow Manhattanites, which he more or less records verbatim, grouped irregularly by—the day he heard them? Neighborhoods? These statements do give a kaleidoscopic dim sum of the city’s various voices, but they are among the book’s least arresting poems; spaced throughout its pages, they’re like little breathers between the moments where Dacey as observer and eventual recorder zeros in on a particular subject matter such as his sonnets on other writers. Perhaps the best, and most New York-centric, is #18:
Within a minute, the dermatologist,
Noah Scheinfeld, has examined a mole
on my back and put my worried mind to rest.
Then he eyes my book, a bio of Robert Lowell.
“Writers,” he says, “are hard to live with. Ted
and Sylvia combusted. Or take Zelda and F. Scott.”
I quote Eliot: “Writers are shits.” “Pound edited
Eliot to fame. But I think Four Quartets
is a masterpiece.” And Prufrock?” As if on cue,
he recites line after line till halfway through
he laughs, rising: “But I really have to go—
enough talk of moles and Michelangelo.”
I thank him for the impromptu seminar:
“I’ll get a rash, Doc, and come back for more.” (33)
What a marvelous miniaturization of what it is that makes New York so endearing as both place and idea for where else may one converse wittily with their dermatologist (!) about Plath, Hughes, Fitzgerald, and Eliot? Dacey’s anecdote sounds almost too good to be true, but I don’t doubt a word of it, or at least the veracity of the encounter itself. If Dacey has fudged the language a little to fit the sonnet’s paradigm, I don’t see it, nor do I hear it. There in a nutshell is what makes The New York Postcard Sonnets such a great read.