OF THE HUDSON: A New York Book of Psalms
Gardner, Shearsman Books, Exeter, UK, 2009
confess that at first I found this long poetic sequence mystifying. There are sixty poems
purporting to be sonnets; the sonnets purport to be psalms and the
psalms purport to be glimpses of the Promised Land. The latter is a metaphor for New York,
visited by the poet on a Churchill Fellowship in 2008.
I was baffled: why does Angela Gardner call the series sonnets when
clearly they are not? Fourteen lines in themselves do not automatically comprise a
sonnet, but in this case, Gardner tells us at the outset, sometimes there are not even 14
lines: the poems are sonnets in that I count them as 14 lines i.e. I count the gaps
as lines also. This is analogous to saying a 30 km run constitutes a
is a sonnet not a sonnet? When is a view only a glimpse? And when is a utopia
a dystopia, a promised land simply a hollow land? Perhaps these are deliberate devices to
reinforce the idea that things, people, places often fall short of expectations: the
lie of the land(sonnet 20). Throughout the sequence, emptiness is a
recurrent motif: The Hudson is forlorn in the rain / its Oyster Bars open but
empty. The word, nothing appears at least a dozen times. It becomes
apparent that a psalm can be a lament as well as a celebration.
Gardner has established a reputation as a visual artist and there is a strong visual
quality in her work. Some of her images of New York are memorable and real (another
days high tide / of litter hits the sidewalks;
germs walk like
cattle over the skin; Figures trawl through threadbare clothes ); there
is a bleakness here that conveys an individuals alienation from society,
images at times reminiscent of Munch s The Scream. Much of the imagery
is confusing, echoing the first person speakers confusion in confronting the
overwhelming metropolis. If the poets intention is to convey that N.Y
represents a betrayal of promise, then I can see why she promises sonnets and doesnt
deliver, why she quotes psalms only to reveal their irony, and why she sees profanity
alongside the sacred. Ive also wondered whether her method may be similar to the
musician, John Cages, in that she allows time for the gaps to grow and take on
significance in the mind and imagination of the reader.
paradoxes throughout the sequence; on one hand the poet seems seduced by New Yorks
hallowed places, shrines to the greatness of human endeavour, like the skyscrapers, the
city grid, the freeways and tunnels, all testimonies to a cultures greatness. On the
other hand, she exposes the shallowness, the tinsel - town vacuity and hypocrisy of
commercialism and consumerism: Children pose as Christmas toys.
epitome of capitalism, its a city to be pitied rather than admired and the
gods of Wall Street are false and degraded, idolising mammon not God (sonnet
25). Its a place that depersonalises and leaves a sense of emptiness.
has dehumanised the inhabitants, turning them into virtual humans, or puppets (walk
dont walk): unlike other animals, weve lost our capacity to feel:
Two dogs race past after a frisbee
// I have misplaced the experience of
people seem hollow and desensitised, immune to human suffering. A recurrent image is of
clothes uninhabited by flesh and blood, (my clothes stand up encamped around my
body (33); we are mere semblances of humanity. Other images which convey the nature
of human insignificance and unreality are computer screens which all day and night
blaze without us; metal filing cabinets piled on streets; crowds where
there is no human contact; loveless sex; the loneliness of empty windswept bars lining the
banks of the Hudson. Perhaps the title itself conveys a false sense of promise; there are
no views of the Hudson; it is instead a ghostly backdrop to the city.
strength of these poems is that they convey the unreality, the brittleness of this city
without ever actually using abstract words like disappointment,
alienation or disillusionment; there are some fine moments (e
g on the 32nd storey, the speaker looking down, realising that the sacred
is beyond reach and that the only comforting myths that function here are those of pop
culture, e g Superman flying high, or of ancient culture, Icarus.) There is a sort of
yearning for something sacred, something beyond, but the spiritual yearning is betrayed
and seemingly satisfied more by art and popular culture than by religion. The ironic use
of quotes from the psalms, King James version, is rather obvious and not, I find, all that
effective. More effective are bleak references to the means by which we try to rediscover
(or escape from) our common humanity: television, celebrity, cinema, art galleries,
installations, a modern cultures substitutes for the real thing.
does this collection offer? Some interesting but obvious reflections on New York in the 21st
century? Are there new insights or only reinforcement of things we already knew?
the affirmation that simple things are what make us human: The unlikeliest
encounters redefine us, making being unexpectedly holy; there is the sense that
friends, family, summer warmth can compensate for loveless sex, materialism and the
worship of money as the king of all the earth.
sonnets are a new search for meaning, for religious scaffolding in a crumbling society,
then the search may have been worth it; they reflect now in the same way as
digital images do.
its impossible today to convey religious aspirations merely in words, which, like
biometric scanning at airports, ultimately reduce us to stark banalities. If psalms are
songs of worship, and holiness, New York seems to have fallen short as a suitable object.
At the end, the poet leaves us with several empty pages, snowfield(s) of white
an all singing all dancing emptiness on every page. And, in
the end, emptiness is just emptiness and we carry nothing away we
have missed the point: It was what we were looking for yes?