Places are no more than memories of visions, smells and experiences, to be relived and reconstructed by individual minds. Therefore New York, London or the Grand Canyon will mean vastly different things to each who contemplates them.
Given these individual experiences, can we ever be connected by place?
I’m partial to E. B. White’s intimate portrait of his adopted city, though it is not my view of New York:
On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy. It is this largess that accounts for the presence within the city’s walls of a considerable section of the population; for the residents of Manhattan are to a large extent strangers who have pulled up stakes somewhere and come to town.
From Essays of E. B. White
Grace Paley (December 11, 1922 – August 22, 2007) spent her life in the Bronx and much later Vermont, and her memory of those places are the heart and soul of 1Begin Again, Collected Poems.
34th Street Song
With joy she showed the traveler Macy’sThat’s Macy’s there right by Korvette’sand Gimbel’s
Oh you were right not to get out at 14th Street
Macy’s is nice but Klein’s was the store
and it ended.
To elevate the arrival of Macy’s (an iconic place but still, a Macy’s), Paley is saying this thing here, this change – from Klein’s to Macy’s – this matters.
“To be rooted” argued French philosopher Simone Weil, “is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.” Echoing Graham Greene’s notion that “One’s future might have been prophesied from the shape of the houses” and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ formation of self on the streets of deprived Baltimore, in his words “another country, fraying at our seams.”
Paley nourishes her own roots with verse and shares them with us.
Having Arrived by Bike at Battery Park
I thought I wouldsit down at one of those park department tablesand write a poem honoringthe occasion which is May 25thEvelyn my best friend’s birthdayand Willy Langbauer’s birthday
Day! I love you for your delicacyin appearing after so many yearsas an afternoon in Battery Park righton the curved waterwhere Manhattan was beached
At once arrowsstraight as Broadway were driveninto the great Indian heart.
then we came from the east
seasick and safe the
white tormented people
grew fat in the
blood of that wound
The title of the poem suggests an act intimate to Paley – biking to a park, considering things only she would know. But she finishes with human displacement and alienation. In revisiting her own experience of Battery Park, Paley expands her empathy towards others’ experience.
It is hard to read Paley’s poetry without thinking of another New Yorker, Maira Kalman, a playful illustrator who recommends we sit down and quite literally put ourselves in others’ shoes.
As we connect to each other in our shared place, we can also connect ourselves to others in different places. Paley shows us how dust on a road and a bit of heat melt together two disparate locations.
Connections: Vermont Vietnam
Hot summer day
on the River Road
swimmers of the Ompompanoosuc
dust in my eyes
it is the hot wind from Laos
the girl in the Nhe An covers her face with a straw hat
as we pass she breathes through cloth
she stands between two piles of stone
the dust of National Highway 1 blinds
summertimeI drive through Vermont
my fist on the horn, barefootlike Ching
By now Londoners are attuned to the frequency of social distancing. I quite like it. Giving another person that two meters is an act of kindness. Share the air, the sidewalk, share my time, share my patience and my need to sit or stand, share my need to get to the counter or rush forward on the bus.
And you share the same with me.
At the BatteryI am standing on one footat the prow of great Manhattanleaning forwardprojecting a little into the bright harbor
If only a topographer in a helicopterwould pass over my shadowI might be imposed foreveron the maps of this city
I like the idea that Paley has left something for us to see and pick up. Even if we don’t agree with it.2
Perhaps we are less connected by place than how we feel about place. When Paley writes “I went out walking in the old neighborhood…” humans across time and space will nod vigorously, having had done the same.3
For a broader view of our connectedness to and within place, turn to these considered artists: John Steinbeck’s heartbreaking search for an America he once knew, Joseph Brodsky’s love letter to his beloved Venice, and Penelope Lively’s ruminations on the influence of a more intimate, creative space, her garden (and by that, all gardens and gardeners).