Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Strand

We pass one another on the library stairs from time to time, each of us heading in opposite directions, up or down, to or from one of the 5 floors of the building. Although I don't know this young woman's name we have exchanged pleasantries. We work in different departments, with different hours; but this occasional ritual passing is an island in time, like seeing a blue heron or a shooting star. Why? Because she always carries an orange canvas bag that says:

new york city


b o o k s t o r e

Whenever I get to Manhattan I make a point of going to The Strand bookstore on the corner Broadway and 12th St. It has been there since 1956 and was previously, beginning in 1927, on 4th Avenue amongst "Book Row" where there were once 48 bookstores.

The Strand is in some ways the antithesis of the modern-day corporate store; mostly used books in an atmosphere of some disarray it is a browser's paradise. For those that love books and are happy to come across a forgotten or obscure surprise it's a place to get lost in.

A week ago, my friend and co-worker Rebecca and I were in the library lobby at closing when she espied the Lady With the Orange Strand Bag. When I mentioned The Strand connection with the bag Rebecca pointed out that Joyce Carol Oates had a short story about two young girls in The Strand.

I promptly read "Three Girls" in the Oates collection "I Am No One You Know". In the story set in March of 1956 two teen-aged self-anointed "girl-poets", NYU students, and seeming lovers, are browsing in the store. One of them notices a conspicuously familiar woman reading in the stacks and notifies in a whisper to her pal, who narrates, that she should discreetly take a look.

".....I perceived an individual in the aisle, pulling down books from shelves, peering at them, clearly absorbed by what she a man's navy coat to her ankles and with sleeves past her wrists, a man's beige fedora hat on her head, scrunched low as we wore our knitted caps, and most of her hair hidden by the hat except for a six-inch blonde plait at the nape of her neck and she wore black trousers tucked into what appeared to be salt-stained cowboy boots. Someone we knew?....I was about to nudge you in the ribs in bafflement when the blond woman turned, taking down another book from the shelf (e.e.cummings' Tulips and Chimneys - always I would remember that title!), and I saw that she was Marilyn Monroe.
Marilyn Monroe. In the Strand. Just like us. And she seemed to be alone.
Marilyn Monroe, alone!"

The girls follow Marilyn's every move in the store - torn between their own rapture and the need to protect and preserve her anonymity. When Marilyn finally begins to approach the counter with her pile of books, the narrating girl approaches her and offers to intercede and buy the books to save her from being recognized. When they hand her the books outside, Marilyn pulls out a copy of the Selected Poems of Marianne Moore from her bag and hands it to them before disappearing down the street.

The photographer Eve Arnold took a picture of Marilyn right around this time. She is seen in an untypical pose, reading a copy of James Joyce's Ulysses. according to Arnold this was not a concocted pose (speculation, predictably rampant, about her reading the sexual monologue of Molly Bloom near the book's end). Marilyn told her that she had been reading bits of it every day and though she found it tough going at times enjoyed reading passages out loud.

I was pleasantly diverted to know that Marilyn, in the story had given the girls a book of Marianne Moore's poems. Marianne Moore first came to my attention when I heard she was a great baseball fan of the New York City baseball teams; the Brooklyn Dodgers in particular - she lived in Brooklyn herself. She knew the poetry of the game and graced the page with it now and then.

Moore's poems absorb me like mysterious and beautiful puzzles; like Marilyn with Ulysses perhaps, I can never quite get the meaning, but the sound and rhythm and imagery and the little glimmer of knowing are enough to keep me coming back.

here is a short poem from her early years:


"It arouses my indignation that they should be so rare,
Yet I think I should be as willing to wear green
Sapphires as I should be willing to wear
Emeralds, the point of the thing's being, not to make people stare
But to have to wear, what keeps life from becoming a parcel of
uniformities -

What prevents its deteriorating into a bugbear:
To have what makes it start from its rut like the horse seen
Showing its might in the book of Job, where
The dramatist watches it leap like a locust in the air,
And swerving neither to the right nor left, bore its way
up into the heart of the breeze."

Friday, May 16, 2008

Voices Through the Crackle

Once upon a time back in the 1960's a poet-singer from South Dakota named Tom Rapp fronted, what they would call now, a "psychedelic folk" group known as Pearls Before Swine.

During that time, prompted by a song of "Pearls" I liked called "Drop Out!" (a directive for which i needed no prompting, attitude-wise) i picked up a copy of their 2nd lp Balaklava. Balaklava didn't have "Drop Out!" but i loved it anyway. This record was described as an anti-war record, but there was no shouting rhetoric or catchy obscenities ala Country Joe; in fact i don't even remember if the word 'war' was mentioned. An apocalyptic, world-weary tone was prevalent but there was a glimmer of hope that some how love would save the day or at least make the "last days" bearable.

What really riveted my attention and moved me in a way that protest might not, even more than the original songs, were some slivers of early archived wax cylinder recordings Rapp slipped in to color the proceedings.

The album opens with an actual recording of "Trumpeter Landfrey" made in London in 1890. Emerging from a crackling background, Landfrey (really Landfried) introduces himself as the surviving trumpeter at the Charge of the Light Brigade who sounded the fateful call to arms at the battle of Balaklava in the Crimean War. Through a "strategic miscalculation", the cream of the British cavalry was mowed down by Russian forces in a suicidal charge on October 25, 1854. This recording of Landfrey was made and distributed by a Fund to benefit remaining veterans of the war and inform the public about the bad straits and neglect fallen upon them.
In the recording, Landfrey, now an old man, concludes by lifting his trumpet and somewhat shakily sounding the charge from that day.

Later, on Balaklava, Rapp includes a another recording, made for the same benefit, this of Florence Nightingale who served so bravely as a nurse near the scene of the battle; fighting to bring better treatment and environs for the wounded.
She spoke this in her brief message on the wax cylinder, July 30th 1890, 36 years after the disastrous charge:

"When I am no longer a memory, just a name, I hope my voice may perpetuate the great work of my life. God bless my gallant comrades of Balaklava, and bring them safe to shore,
Florence Nightingale."

* postscript;
The wax cylinder recordings would seem to have inspired a song on the record composed by Tom Rapp called "Guardian Angel". With similar ancient crackle and hiss in the background Rapp delivers the fragile vocal as if through a megaphone, accompanied by a string quartet, and indicates fancifully on the album notes that the recording was made in Guadeloupe, Mexico c. 1929!
Easy to envision Rapp as the bespectacled expatriate proto-hippie poet, hand jittery from gin and cigarettes holding up his crumpled lines to the microphone...

"You say that the sky people don't even ask you your name
If it's you or another, it doesn't matter, to them it's all the same
But we live suspended in each other's mind
A bullet-proof sanctuary cathedral of eyes
That I offer you
that I offer you."