North Street by Jonathan Galassi. New York: HarperCollins, 2000.
As Reviewed By: J. S. Renau
Jonathan Galassi has been on the scene for some time now, as a top-notch literary editor, a gifted translator (most notably for his rendering of Eugenio Montale), and lately, as the editor-in-chief of Farrar Straus Giroux. That North Street is just his second collection of original poetry—separated by eleven years from Morning Run, his first offering—is worthy of applause in and of itself, particularly given the legion of poets domiciled in universities, aiming for full professorship, cranking out volume after volume of very professional poetry. Naturally, Mr. Galassi needn’t worry about that, so one assumes he writes poems for the same reason most of us do, or should: because it gives him pleasure to do so, because there may be something more irrepressible than career advancement that compels him to spend so much time pecking away at a keyboard.[private]
And, indeed, North Street is dominated by its themes of time, middle-aged domesticity, and the natural world. The poems’ speakers appear almost obsessed by the juxtapositions of youth and maturity, especially against the backdrop of an immutable natural world. Galassi’s speakers regard growing old from various points of view—a father watching his daughter on the playground or a man perusing his old school annual—and marvels at the “terrible newness” of youth in which children “can only be what they feel.” Galassi succeeds in the volume’s better moments in capturing the dread and confusion of a man entering his middle years.
North Street succeeds when it is content with small ambitions, on both the sonic and ideational levels. Galassi’s quieter, more pensive poems achieve a level of intellectual and emotional intensity found lacking in the rest of the volume. Particularly in the volume’s second section, “Sackett Street,” Galassi is a poet reminiscent of Donald Justice in his ability to evoke the mystery and quiet terror of time’s passing. And like Justice, the place at which he arrives is an edgy kind of nostalgia (granted, North Street only threatens its readers with a paper cut, but it has its edges all the same) that catalogs loss, or as he writes in “Turning Forty”:
We’re old enough now to be old enough,
to know what loss is—not just hair and breath;
each has eyeballed reality by now:
a rift, a failure, a major death.
The best poems of North Street explore the point at which its speakers are struck with the dread of growing old, the point at which lives contract into the “serious years.” In “The Shock,” the speaker peruses his old school annual and offers up the usual nostalgic references to the people and scenes of his youth. And though the old pictures are likened to “a foreign country,” so far removed from the present, the speaker can remember vividly small details of the people contained therein, leading the speaker to question whether youth’s vitality is more appealing than the knowledge of experience:
But do the scrubbed looks in the photos show us
inklings of our later being here?
Are they the Ur-forms of us as we know us,
or sometimes are we shades of what we were?
In fact, North Street can be viewed as large canvas on which the poet works out his ambivalence toward his youthful self, or selves. Repeatedly, images of youth are described in terms both familiar and nostalgic, but balanced with adjectives like “terrible” and “dangerous.” The worldly knowledge that we gain through experience both numbs and protects us from the “uncertain weather” of the world. “View,” one of Galassi’s stronger efforts in the volume, is an interior monologue in which the speaker addresses his young daughter as they spend an afternoon at the playground:
The clash of perspective between youth and age, between the happiness of those who “progress in spite of their heft” and those who “can only be what they feel,” continues throughout the poem, culminating in the daughter’s defiant gaiety that flies “in the face of the uncertain weather and my mood.” Unencumbered by the weight of experience, Galassi’s youthful characters are often charmingly sketched in their ignorance-is-bliss existences; however, they are just as often filtered through the middle-aged personae of the volume, with all that baggage brought to bear on the small scenes as they are enacted or recounted.
The accomplished middle sections of the volume are framed by less interesting work, particularly the beginning, a collection of “dithyrambs” that come off as poor imitations of Amy Clampitt. Although they are thematically interesting when viewed together with the rest of the book, in and of themselves, the poems of the first section sound like apprentice work—the natural imagery is overwrought, and the hectic measures, vocabulary, and frequent alliteration can be as grating as they are playful. The opening poems attempt to capture the rawness and vigor of youth through language equally raw and vigorous:
I want to get at the knot,
the white heat at the heart
of you, want to undo it,
the clot, the lock, the hot
rock, knock it back
so it opens to flood…
Part of the design, one assumes, of these introductory poems is a certain artlessness, an immaturity of the affections. They are wildly amorous and highly sensuous, although not far removed from gibberish. Only when considered next to the love poems that conclude North Street does one begin to see a kind of rhetorical strategy evolve. Whereas the early love poems are equal parts exuberant and inarticulate, the concluding poems are more thoughtful and contemplative. And to Galassi’s credit, love and desire remain for his speakers every bit as mysterious in middle age as they were in youth, or as he writes in “Thank You”:
for everything I feel,
the inner whirlwind and the chill,
the hectic emptiness, the flare,
The personae of North Street are redeemed through their affections, and these affections manifest themselves most often in the parlance of the lover. This type of gesture may not square well with our contemporary knee-jerk cynicism, but the gesture is a pleasant one to apprehend, even if its results are uneven from poem to poem.
Ultimately, Jonathan Galassi’s latest volume is not masterful, but it is competent and confident; it demonstrates a good deal of craft and occasionally yields some provocative moments. It goes awry when its poems bite off more emotional range and license than they can properly cover within the scope of their lines. North Street does not make a spectacle of its dysfunctions, nor does it seek to be anything but what it is: the musings of a sensitive middle-aged professional man coming to terms with his lost youth. For this reason, the book will get its fair share of smirks and brush-offs from the literati, but the handful of accomplished poems in North Street deserves better.[/private]