Series Reviews:

Poets Sherod Santos and Charles Wright at the "Y"

The Chelsea Hotel Tour (92nd St. Y)

Series Review:
Poets Sherod Santos and Charles Wright at the "Y"

Since its founding in 1939, The Unterberg Poetry Center at the 92nd Street Y has been a cultural bastion for those interested in the arts and the humanities. (In the early fifties, I attended a dress rehearsal of Under Milkwood there--with Dylan Thomas reading.) On the evening of Monday, January 8th, I was fortunate to attend a celebration of the poetry of Sherod Santos and Charles Wright. Each read from his own work.

In spite of the heavy downpour, the Buttenweiser Assembly Hall was full. It is a small auditorium with a ceiling full of painted symbols and a raised stage. The audience ranged from college students to the old and bent. The podium with the requisite microphone was stage center. Janet Polata, the Center's Managing Director, welcomed the audience and then introduced the poet Karl Kirchwey who, in turn, gave eloquent introductions, first for Sherod Santos, then for Charles Wright.

A soft-spoken native of Greenville, South Carolina, Santos is the author of four books of poetry, Accidental Weather (Doubleday, 1982), The Southern Reaches (Wesleyan, 1989), The City of Women (W. W. Norton, 1993), The Pilot Star Elegies (Norton, 1999, National Book Award finalist), and a collection of essays, Poetry of Two Minds (University of Georgia Press, 2000). Among other honors, he was appointed Robert Frost Poet at the Frost House in Franconia, New Hampshire (1984), and has received the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award and an award for literary excellence from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He is a professor of English at the University of Missouri in Columbia. [James Rother recently interviewed Santos for Contemporary Poetry Review. See www. cprw .com/Rother/santos.htm.]

Santos began by confiding that he felt both terrified and privileged to be on the same program as Charles Wright. He then warned us that the work he would read reflected a hodgepodge of styles. And so it did, starting with this new piece, distributed to audience members with the author's handwritten revisions:

It began as a sound in the nettle trees
That grew along the runoff ditches near the lake,
The whisper of a dry wind rattling the leaves,
The unsettling air adrift with ash.

It began as a sound, though hushed and small,
That in no time at all became a constant
And upwelling thing,
[ . . . ]
and coalesced into a plane
Of cirrus vanishings, an immense, chimeric
Seepage through some misweave in the weft
(from "The Perishing")

He read works about free-floating anxiety and about the theatre of the absurd, also known as contemporary society. In "Café Society," politics has its "passing fashion." A former dictator sits over coffee at a legendary Paris café and realizes that "no one wants him dead any more." "The Monument," about Tamerlane (1336? - 1405), a Mongol conqueror of immense, murderous cruelty, served as the model for tyrants who followed--Hitler and Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot--all of whom had the desire to kill and "build a wall of body parts / that can be seen from the moon."

"The Island" is a loving tribute to his wife: "The miracle of it, of you, my love, / will never again be lost by me." He writes of family, of the emotionally ill, the lost, the insensitive, the brutal, the almost lost, and of the perpetual conundrum we are to one another, the isolation of the self. Writing of his sister's suicide, he speaks of the elaborate, solitary tapestry of secret self-delusion upon which our society depends.

She was someone about whom people remarked:
She never found a life for herself. Or:
Her life was the story of a long collapse, its end
a dark, unlucky star she'd clung to hopefully,
for better or for worse.
(from "Elegy for My Sister," No. 20)

His writing is clear, direct, full of pain and insight. He read to rapt silence; when he completed his offerings, there was sustained applause. I feel privileged to have heard him read his work; the experience has added dimension to my reading of it on the page. To paraphrase Mr. Santos: The miracle of his work will never be lost by me.

Karl Kirchwey introduced Charles Wright, a slim, handsome man with greying hair who possesses a voice I can only describe as 'haunted.' [Others have described him as "America's most compelling practitioner of [Wallace] Stevens's right-brain metaphysics." (City Pages, Mpls.-St. Paul,]

Born in Pickwick Dam, Tennessee, Wright is a professor of English at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, and the author of a dozen collections of poetry. His Black Zodiac (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1997) won the Pulitzer Prize as well as the National Book Critics Circle Award (www. in 1998. In 1996, he received the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize for Chickamauga (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996). His newest book, a consolidation of new and previous works, is Negative Blue (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000).

Not to be confused with Keats's negative capability, Wright does not occupy from within. It appears too that the objects of William Carlos Williams do not contain all he needs.

Three years ago in the afternoons,
                                   I used to sit back here and try
To answer the simple arithmetic of my life,
But never could figure it--
This object and that object
Never contained the landscape
                                                nor all of its implications.
(from "Sitting Outside at the End of Autumn")

A persistently recurring theme is the brevity of life's journey and its destination.

Should we lament, in winter, our shadow's solitude,
Our names spelled out like snowflakes?
Where is it written, the season's decrease diminishes me?
[ . . . ]
The world is a handkerchief,
Today I spread it across my knees
Tomorrow they'll fold it into my breast pocket
                                                                      white on my dark suit.
(from "Under the Nine Trees in January")

How soon we come to road's end--
Failure, our two dimensional side-kick, flat dream-light,
Won't jump-start or burn us in
(from "Apología Pro Vita Sua")

Lost opportunities, what one should have done and did not, the inadequacy of words to explain and describe what is--all are favorite bugaboos.

Day after day, I become of less use to myself.
Like this mockingbird,
                                   I flit from one thing to the next.
What do I have to look forward to at fifty-four?
Tomorrow is dark.
                        Day-after-tomorrow is darker still.
[ . . . ]
Into the world's tumult, into the chaos of every day.
Go quietly, quietly.
(from "After Reading Tu Fu, I Go Outside to the Dwarf Orchard")

His poems play brilliantly on the instruments of mind and heart.

Like a grain of sand added to time,
Like an inch of air added to space,
                                                          or a half-inch,
We scribble our little sentences.
[ . . . ]
Sad word wands, desperate alphabet.

Still, there's been no alternative
Since language fell from the sky.
[ . . . ]
Our mouths are incapable, white violets cover the earth.
(from "When You're Lost in Juarez, in the Rain, and It's Eastertime Too" [after the song title by Bob Dylan])

The poem title, "Thinking of Winter at the Beginning of Summer," seems an apt résumé of Wright's attitude toward life. Preoccupied with dying and death, he tastes the acid bitterness of every day and invites us to drink with him. To see through to joy, the mind must be empty of preconceptions. The poet is so fixated on the end, he loses the now. Meanwhile, he does not experience the red of red, the blue of blue. It is all grey. Melancholic though it is, the writing is so sensitive, clear and beautiful that it draws many into his world. He too won sustained applause from an enraptured audience.

The reading was followed by a reception. One table was dotted with small glasses of red and white wine and Perrier, the other neatly stacked with the poets' books awaiting sale. The line of buyers was long. Wright and Santos signed books for all who asked and mingled freely. It was cozy. It was exciting. The whole evening was a wonder. I had no wish to leave.

Elena Kondracki

Associate Editor

(The 92nd Street Y is located at 1395 Lexington Avenue (91st/92nd), NYC 10128. Call (212) 415-5500 for program information or consult the web site at

Series Review:
Chelsea Hotel Tour (92nd St. Y)

One Small Source of It
by Diana Manister

Life and learning in New York City are considerably enriched by the lively schedule of events offered by the 92nd Street Y. Like the famous Cooper Union Forum, where everyone from Abe Lincoln to George Balanchine has appeared, the Y has featured its share of major cultural icons. When I saw e.e. cummings read there, he ended by throwing kisses to the audience which responded with many thunderous curtain calls.

The Y has tours for every interest, from a Frank Lloyd Wright weekend at Falling Water to a tour of Brooklyn’s Greenwood Cemetery, resting place of composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein and the screen actress Lola Montez. Its January 14th tour of the Chelsea Hotel (222 West 23rd Street) provided a peek inside the Victorian landmark which The New York Times once celebrated, saying:

It was probably not by accident that Stuart Cloete had the hero of his science fiction novelette, "The Blast," find refuge in the Chelsea after atomic bombs destroyed New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art might have a more culturally prestigious address but the Chelsea, as one small source of the creativity that produces art, was a more human one.

O. Henry stayed at the Chelsea in 1907. It housed Titanic survivors in 1912. Dylan Thomas collapsed in his Chelsea room in 1953 and died at nearby St. Vincent’s Hospital. Arthur Miller lived there for six years, as did as the American Ashcan School painter John Sloan. A plaque in the lobby notes that Mark Twain was a resident, and that Thomas Wolfe had a corner suite. Other Chelsea dwellers included Eugene O’Neill, Virgil Thompson, Tennessee Williams, William Burroughs, Robert Mapplethorpe, Patti Smith, Janis Joplin, and Andy Warhol’s pal Viva.

The hotel has 250 units of one to four rooms. Three-quarters of the units are home to long-term residents, while the others are for visitors passing through. Purple-haired, nose-ringed residents mingle amiably with 3-child families and their dogs, and a Hercule Poirot look-alike in black bowler hat and overcoat, with a patiently waxed moustache.

The tour was conducted by the Chelsea’s assistant manager Jerry Weinstein, whose knowledge of the hotel is broad and deep. We visited the residences or studios of six artists, including that of Rita Fecher, who has lived and worked there for 26 years! And who wouldn't? Ceilings in the Chelsea’s apartments are so high that some residents have divided their spaces horizontally, adding a second level with headroom. Sunlight streams in through cathedral windows; working fireplaces with marble mantels provide Victorian ambience.

A highlight of the tour was the rare glimpse it provided of the open-air pleasure of the hotel’s roof gardens. A few lucky residents with access rights enjoy peaceful country homes overlooking Midtown. Mr. Weinstein led us through outdoor patios, complete with tricycles and barbecue grills, a forest of potted trees, fountains, grapevines and spectacular river views.

No Victorian hotel would be complete without an aspect of Gothic horror and, again, the Chelsea could not disappoint. On October 12, 1978, Sid Vicious, self-proclaimed nihilist and 21-year-old bass player for the Sex Pistols, murdered lover Nancy Spungen with a hunting knife in Room 100. (He killed himself four months later.) After fans made its doorframe into a permanent shrine with candles and flowers, the management merged the crime-and-shrine scene of 100 out of existence, though--like the 13th-floor button on an elevator panel--never out of consciousness. The sights and sounds of that crimson pre-dawn are probably still right here, every detail recorded on canvas--or under that black bowler hat.