In Praise of Manhattan by David M. Katz. Loveland, Ohio: Dos Madres Press, 2020. ISBN 9781948017664 (paper).
Reviewed by Joyce Wilson
In this time of distorted facts, fake news, and exaggerated claims, it is a delight to read David Katz’s new collection of poems, In Praise of Manhattan. The subject is retirement. Setting aside temptations to embellish his story, Katz shows how much he prefers, instead, to discover his own truths. He is on familiar territory, having lived in the city for all of his life, yet as he recalls the enigmatic, sometimes bewildering turns this life has taken, Katz wades through memory and desire, nostalgia and ambition, and reaches solid ground.
How did he get here? How far has he come? And where now? are questions that
arise while reading these poems. Katz takes a good look at his beginnings. He will never forget the lessons in physics from Mr.
Lazarus, who made diagrams on the blackboard to show the way things work, the pulley, the block and tackle. Yet it was his wife,
Mrs. Lazarus, whose gifts seared more deeply in his memory after she read to the class about Flanders Field and the open graves.
Fifty years later he still recalls the lines she read, “The lines in which the living hear the dead” (“The Poetics Lesson,” 6). He
marvels at how much they prepared him for experiences to come: the societal realities of war, the death of his parents, and the role poetry would play in addition to his career.
Before he became an award-winning financial journalist, Katz remembers, he was a youth of modest prospects. It seemed ironic that his first job placed him against a supervisor who was unable to motivate him to improve his writing, perhaps because she was female and younger than he was (“His First Boss”). He remembers the anguish in her face when she fired him. Yet the memory is tinged with romance. She was starting out, as he was, and together they were bound by their lack of experience, making their way in the same city at the same time. He can only hope that she found something to give meaning in her life that would overcome the weariness he saw taking root in her face.
Beyond wrestling with the experiences of his life, Katz was determined to learn from
the poets about the craft of writing. From their example, he selects carefully between what he can applaud and what he can use.
Much as he admires the poetry of Wallace Stevens, at this time in his life, Katz does not want to imitate his philosophic heights.
Instead, he looks to the near-at-hand for detail and imagery. He cherishes noise, the noise of the city from the garbage truck
beneath his window, and the urban silence that follows. He prefers city noise to the silence he experienced once in the mountains,
a passing absence of sound that he associates with loss. He compares the rumble of the automobile engine to his father breathing.
. . . It’s that moment,
Between silence and another silence
Or between silence and the rough noise
Of the motor turning over
That has made all the difference.
(“Poem Ending with Frost,” 4)
It is interesting to note this fondness for Frost, the poet versed in country things, in Katz, city born and raised. The reference to Frost’s famous last line from “The Road Not Taken” cleverly avoids the topic of two roads that diverged in a rural wood and emphasizes instead the automobile as the center of existence.
Uneasy outside city environs, Katz nevertheless has a fascination for Gary Snyder.
As he does with Stevens, Katz keeps a reserved distance from Snyder, explaining, “I am the awkward side of you, scrambling / Up the mountainside behind your sure/ Ascent. . . ” (“The Mysterious Further Higher Peak,” 40). Yet he suggests meaning in the numerology of their age—he is 68 to Snyder’s 86—which brings them close somehow, as they venture further toward the same peak, the summit of old age. Aware that he can learn from others through their differences, Katz expands his frames of reference.
Katz praises the poet Dick Allen for inspiring him to choose what is hard. In a succession of couplets, he unspools images of difficulty to amplify this idea: “you make me want to talk about the hard times.” For Katz, it was hard to fall and scrape knees on pavement at school, run up against obstacles in the road like fallen trees, or snatch a pickle from the brine after he cut his hand. Something in Katz savors these experiences, the physical pain, the challenge of resistance. In the end, he wants to continue a dialogue with the deceased poet and address “what’s hard to take” as an ongoing pursuit, “[that] makes me want to sit down on a stone,/ And talk with you of times as hard as stone” (“In Memory of Dick Allen,” 3). Katz has seized the occasion of elegy to express his gratitude about getting to know Allen personally; at the same time, he admiringly assesses Allen’s literary achievement.
Katz reaches a culmination of tributes to the island of Manhattan with his poems
at the end of the collection. He connects with Walt Whitman, the shirtsleeved poet, although, while Whitman wanders free and
jobless, Katz walks the streets looking for a job, ready to acquire rather than forfeit. Still, he has a purpose: “To meet the
shadow of the man I was/ Born to be, to be and die, but live past seventy” (“Mannahatta,” 48). Like Whitman, he finds strength in
the cultural riches he encounters. “I have been walking here for many years./ The night is filled with possibilities” (“Walking
Up 34th Street,” 45). Katz maintains his pride of place in the city that has watched him stumble, triumph, and grow, where he repeatedly finds himself intrigued by the next glimmer of inspiration and the opportunity to pursue it.
Copyright © Joyce Wilson 2020.