In this debut compilation, a seasoned poet thinks back on a full life in the city that never sleeps.
Harris, like Walt Whitman, Hart Crane, and John Ashbery before him, is most decidedly a New York poet, and the throb and hum of the metropolis beat persistently underneath his best work. He was born in the city, and many of the poems in the early sections of this collection tell of his youth in its northernmost of boroughs; “South Bronx” opens, “The apartment a railroad / in a tenement barely / less old than the Civil War. / Long narrow hall leads to / windows that overlook / backyards overgrown…. / Dogs with bristled fur / sulk between scratches, growl / at short-cutting yard crossers / and one-eyed cats.” There is grit here—and abandoned pets—but the delicate attention to detail betrays Harris’ obvious love for the seedy homes and haunts of his younger days. The poet wouldn’t stay in the tenement, though; his working years would see him serving as an assistant district attorney, a criminal court judge, and an executive director of a city commission to combat police corruption. The geography of the collection reflects the author’s rise; “Sudden Squall at Church and Chambers Streets,” for example, is set near New York’s halls of power—the high courts and municipal buildings of Lower Manhattan: “The wind-whipped rain is / no respecter of freshly dry-cleaned suits / nor buttons loosely sewn.” Yet ultimately, New York is simply a backdrop for Harris’ deeper reflections on greater, more elusive themes: love, work, aging, death. This book is, in the author’s words, a “late-in-life compilation,” and an air of wistfulness (or is it regret?) fills the volume’s many corners. There are elegies here, and remembrances, but there is beauty, too. “Terrace on Central Park,” for instance, opens hopefully: “I sit in the shade and / savor the scent of / sun-lit street. / The pond that peeks / through leaf-laden boughs / adds an aquatic aroma.”
The city takes away but also gives in this reflective collection.