April 2016

Patrick James Dunagan


The City Keeps: Selected and New Poems 1966-2014 by John Godfrey

John Godfrey's The City Keeps: Selected and New Poems 1966-2014 immediately caught my interest. I first came across mention of Godfrey when reading in and around the work of poet Ted Berrigan in books like Nice To See You: Homage to Ted Berrigan (Coffee House, 1991) a medley of fine tributes to Berrigan by a host of comrades, including Godfrey. I still wasn't very aware of Godfrey's own poetry until several years later a pal of my own showed me the slim, but ever sturdy collection Private Lemonade (Adventures in Poetry, 2003), handsomely printed in a small, perfect-for-the-coat-pocket size. Sometime shortly afterward, I was further impressed with Godfrey's poems when I came across them in an issue of the terrific magazine Shiny, now sadly no longer active. His poems were one of the definite highlights of the issue. Several months ago I then happened to come across a copy of Godfrey's mimeographed, stapled 8 x 11 collection Music of the Curbs (Adventures in Poetry, 1976), which I purchased based solely upon the title alone but found absolutely stellar.

As is similarly the case with his peer, the late, great poet Frank Lima, I've discovered that reading Godfrey's work inspires me to write poems in response. I filled an entire notebook, in fact, with a new manuscript while reading through Music of the Curbs last spring. His touch is at once light and heavy. He introduces an atmosphere that's moody yet serene. At-first-jarring word choices regularly interject an unusual and unexpected meaning or image, jostling against the more conventional phrase or set piece of "poetic" furniture, such as "angels" in the following:

The note that is played only by angels
kicks dirt in my face and strings red lights
to brassiere the soft, smooth matrons who
sit in my lap blowing smoke in my ear
They leave when my teeth fall out and the patch
drops from an empty eye into my grog
But it is summer, for laughs I go around feeling too much

There's the playful jest followed by the punch in the gut, and/or vice versa as the patterning continues. Even when Godfrey's lines appear swept up in splendor drenched within verbiage spewing forth from the heights of poetic wooziness ("the note that is played only by angels") he immediately turns things around ("kicks dirt in my face"). The construction of his poems, while deliberate and thoughtful, is yet always surprisingly offhand in presentation.

Godfrey is a city poet. It's not for nothing The City Keeps is "Dedicated to those who people the city of New York" where he's lived for decades and retired in 2011 after seventeen years working as a nurse within the HIV/AIDS patient community. His poems dazzle in description of physical interactions only the metropolitan environment allows: "Engage the sidewalk / as dance floor" ("Lip Read"). And while he captures the unreal real of New York, "I wait by the groaning avenue / Traffic invades the crosswalk / I think of children in their spacesuits"; he also announces cause for wariness "Do not be so moved by everything // that clings to the city for its shape" ("The City Keeps").

Reading through this selection that spans Godfrey's complete corpus, it becomes clear how substantially he has shifted direction through the years without ever quite losing his essential knack for earmarking lines with a unique and quirky sensibility. He remains always his own poet, never beholden to sounding like anybody else. In his later middle years he moves steadily away from the lyric forms of earlier work towards the dense, often nightmare enigmas of prose found in Push the Mule (The Figures, 2001):

In a city where the poets dine on bitter smoke, rivers taste of graves. A tall slim person names the skeleton of a mood, an impression heavy with bleach and the smell of modern parchment. She gets used to the thinness of the air and the heat that circles the lonely peak like a ring, or noose, discarded by heaven. A poet had better respond with stealth to some appetites. I forbid you to conceal winged creatures in unlit boxes. If you batter black air above your pillow, could be fated to travel endlessly on a very fast train. Music from a hideout could entice you to spend more than the fortune you started out with.

To then, in his most recent work, return to the lyric, turning out at a steady pace poems that have a natural ease about them, as when he bandies about an echo of the title of his previous collection, Where the Weather Suits My Clothes (Z press, 1984) into the middle of a poem found in Tiny Gold Press (Lunar Chandelier Press, 2012): "In this heat you've got a point / Outdoor weather suits your clothes" ("Despite Murder").

The comfortable, familiar tone carried throughout all Godfrey's work never slips into being too comfortable. There's an edge that he has never backed away from embracing. It marks the work as clearly poetry derived from not necessarily hard but nonetheless intense living. Godfrey's utter commitment to his chosen art has kept his work as pure as the roughest patch of any potholed back alley stretch. He knows poetry comes from the dregs of the city's abundance:

If one builds, with vivid sacrifice
bodies up into the skyline
he tastes all the licks and traces

all the dog-peed trails on gutters
through the pantheon cum lavatory
in which one's voice makes requiem

Godfrey has rather skirted along at the fringes of small press publishing for decades, all the while steadily amassing a significant body of work. While his poems indeed never sound anything other than truly original, his influence is clear upon many younger poets, especially those with some New York affiliation who no doubt came of age making their way through Godfrey's work. With this Selected and New, Godfrey's poems are assured to have an even broader lasting impact.

The City Keeps: Selected and New Poems 1966-2014 by John Godfrey
Wave Books
ISBN: 9781940696317
192 pages