Boston encompasses a broad cartography including sections of western Massachusetts, childhood homes in Cambridge & Somerville, high school in the woods of Southborough, parts of the upper Cape, the highway threading Providence, Fall River and New Bedford, the gravity that’s drawn me back on so many occasions since I first left in 1975. I’ve recently been thinking that my poetry is obsessed with self & place, a register of landscapes and their effect on my language. How locations reverberate with personal significance, the loops in time that bend into each other’s orbits, conflating decades into single points.
I sat at the edge of a forest in Chapel Hill a couple days ago to drink coffee and read Ed Barrett’s new book Kevin White (Boston: Pressed Wafer, 2007). A series of prose poems centered around Boston, it’s populated by various figures from the city’s cultural, political, sports and criminal worlds, including Nomar Garciaparra, Fanny Howe, John Wieners and the title figure, who served as mayor from 1968 until 1984. Virgil and Hölderlin can be found in these pages as well, part of a vivid cast of ghosts and images populating this landscape portrait.
In some ways reminiscent of his previous effort to evoke Boston in the first section of Rub Out (Pressed Wafer, 2003), Barrett writes through the city, as though channeling a wide swath of its history, ghosts and idiosyncrasies. Organized into nine sections of short prose poems, the reader is borne into the city as early 21st century palimpsest, long since faded from its colonial and transcendentalist epochs, weighted with various layers of historical, ethnic and national signifiers. Barrett’s poems draw a city he wasn’t born in but which claims him nonetheless:
“Why did I feel like Boston was the real world when I grew up in Brooklyn in so many different neighborhoods and around so many different kinds of people and felt more Jewish than Irish Catholic? ” (63)
The figures that flow in and out of the poems of Kevin White serve as the equivalent of Catholic saints, sometimes talismanic, at others incomprehensible yet beautiful. An introductory note refers to visions John Wieners had of the Virgin Mary, serving as a psychic map for the reader to consider while navigating. It’s through points in the landscape and specific people that Barrett momentarily conveys a living, contradictory and vital entity:
“The soul is a Boston of spoken words carved inside a chest of tea, sudden languages without information off Dorchester Bay.” (47)
Barrett has chosen his saints well, and they provide a shifting cast of characters whose voices inhabit a dissolving city continuously brought back into focus by the beauty of these poems. For anyone who’s spent time in Boston, an array of specific and recognizable details emerge, transformed into a glowing strangeness. Barret’s Boston isn’t idealized, its essential violence, underworlds, provincialism, its phantasmal quality are all included here. But what moves one to reread the book is the tangible, eloquent blocks of prose mapping the city: mystical (transcendental), graced with common sense and a tough wit. The Burger King down the street from John Wieners’s apartment in Beacon Hill, one of the places he liked to frequent, is alluded to during a moment when the poet has returned to stand with the author and his publisher Bill Corbett next to a dumpster. A city of poets, momentarily:
“Just then the soul of John Wieners stood beside us and when he picked up the Burger King crown and set it on his courtly brow, you could see that it wasn’t paper at all, but the live body of a blue-claw crab, its shell delicately balancing on top of John’s bald spot, its legs in the air like a Boston prostitute, and in each of its needley pincers a birthday candle glowing in the blue smoke of the Virgin Mary’s cigarette. ” (78)