City of Corners by John Godfrey
The landscape of John Godfrey’s latest collection of poetry, City of Corners, is easy to imagine. The poems inhabit an urban environment, somewhere between sleep and consciousness or daydreams and nightmares. People -- friends, lovers, strangers -- move in and out of the poems ghostlike, standing in doorways and occupying corners and streetlight. Associated with the New York School of poetry and being a long time resident of Manhattan’s East Village, Godfrey is a master of writing city poems. In this collection, he captures fleeting moments of life in the city often emanating from its grittier side; beauty is then a matter of how things are framed as the final lines of “Bones,” the last poem in the collection, suggests: “By streetlight as by moonlight // An example is diamonds, or bones.”
The 82 poems that make up City of Corners are mostly short with only a few poems stretching onto a second page and the longest poem “The Particles” clocking in at a total of 58 lines. Tight, lyric poems marked by concise language, each word carries the weight of careful consideration. A lack of punctuation allows for the lines to flow into and brush up against each other in different ways, creating tension between the paradoxical meanings that sometimes arise.
Often occupying dark places, both physical and metaphysical, Godfrey writes through moments of “tedium perfused with lewd streets” breaking through “daylight without zing to it” to occasionally find moments that do zing, as in the poem “Across the Way” in which a street scene of a musician playing for donations transforms into something else entirely:
Place donation in shade
Across the way, braids glow
in unmarked doorway
in steamy daylight
The opening poem “Waiting There” watches the poet’s swagger down remote sidewalks past buildings “old and half blind” transform into a holy dance facing the moon and also ends in life affirmation:
With an enemy
like daylight who needs
the psychology dime
Hips do the work
and I cross the world
This action of the hips doing the work seems to be a springboard for most of the collection where the act of walking around the city -- connecting the corners -- is the impetus for many of the poems. Sometimes these walks lead to unexpected places and take surreal turns. In “Into the Mural,” the end of the poem finds the speaker holding a copy of the self in hand and finally slipping into a mural to weep.
The poems often contain fragments and it isn’t always clear what is happening though it is generally possible to pick up the tone. The characters that appear seem more like impressions than actual people, as if the camera is slightly out of focus. But this vagueness adds a level of intrigue. It is another layer that keeps the chase going. In the title poem, Godfrey expresses “love / for a city of corners / you disappear around.” The shifting of hips across the city, the shifting of meaning through line breaks and punctuation, and the perpetual turning of corners create gaps in comprehension. In reading City of Corners, we walk with Godfrey but also feel two steps behind -- and it's this constant feeling of walking next to him yet needing to catch up, the tension of intimate distance, that keeps us engaged.
City of Corners by John Godfrey