(El Paso, TX: Veliz Books, 2017)
To New York City, I’m an outsider. I’d never even visited until my mid-twenties, when my New Jersey grad-school friends and I piled into a car late one night. We drove through a tunnel to a place they called “The City,” and on the way, they coached me in NYC 101: don’t make eye contact with other pedestrians, knock off the Midwest accent, leave the ratty old Cookie Monster hoodie in the car, etc. The evening was fun, as I pushed phrases like dontcha know, and they showed me how to order a caw-fee, regular.
Although I can only daydream about growing up in The City, there are some benefits to being an interloper. For one, I have a removed lens through which I can explore this iconic urban space and the art inspired by it, such as Tina Cane’s poetry collection, Once More with Feeling. I don’t know what East Coasters will make of my claim, but I’ll write it anyway: Tina Cane’s book is a collection of love poems to New York City. She opens her poem, “Trip to Now,” with what follows:
I was looking for something specific and perfect
but let’s not ruin this with words
New York you and I
In Once More with Feeling, you won’t find something singsong, nor will you drown in the sentimental. The reader will not be surrounded by remnants of the disaster that tends to come with early infatuation. Instead, we find a steady, certain love – and that gritty honesty that comes along with it.
Cane continues “Trip to Now” by addressing New York City: “My father died forty years eating your manic diesel fumes / cutting across East Broadway for a cup of Chinatown coffee.” This couplet illustrates a parallel and a juxtaposition, the relationship between that which keeps us going, like caffeine, and that which endangers our existence, like the regular inhalation of truck exhaust. Cane writes of teardrop tattoos, domestic altercations, and “a pornography of grief.” She doesn’t attempt to quiet the less-than-pretty parts of her first home.
“My dad drove a cab for forty years,” Cane writes; “he wrote me notes throughout the night on the margins of his fare sheet.” It often feels as if these poems, especially the longer, more fragmented pieces, like “The Fifth Thought,” might be told through the start-and-stop, the nonlinear and purposeful route, of a cabdriver. Cane’s roots in The City are deep, as Once More with Feeling transcends generations.
Cane was recently named Rhode Island’s Poet Laureate. She founded Rhode Island’s Writers-in-the-Schools program years ago, and she is greatly deserving of the Laureate title. In her collection’s closing poem, we move to “Prague’s heart,” “a red plastic radio”; visit “Kafka’s black cathedral” in Barcelona; and look for “something perfect in Paris.” Tina Cane is a poet of place, celebrating urban homes with a sincerity, managing not to romanticize.
Especially now, during this period of dogmatic unrest, Cane seems an ideal poet to serve the people. Perhaps for the better, her book does not take on the current political climate, but the skilled writer does seem to tell things like she sees them – honestly yet lovingly, patiently yet urgently. Cane is the type of leader who we need to be reading now, a writer who, with a powerful and eloquent tone, urges us to continue on in our lives – and to do so once more, with feeling.
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Heather Lang is the Associate Poetry Editor and Managing Online Editor of The Literary Review.