Monday, 20 September 2010

Poetry, New York and Ground Zero 2010

We went to New York this summer to stay with my husband's brother, the sculptor Oded Halahmy. Oded has a loft in SoHo. In the past decade he has set up The Pomegranate Gallery and his Foundation for Art, promoting peace across the Middle East. Oded and all of his family were born in Baghdad and went into exile with almost the entire Jewish community in 1950. But Oded had never forgotten his roots. His gallery provides a venue for artists from Iraq, Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East

The main piece above and the sculpture in the foreground are Oded's more recent work, expressing his desire for peace in Iraq and protesting against plans to split the country apart.

This is UNTITLED, 2003-05, collage on book cover, by Qasim Sabti, a Baghdad artist, who rescued damaged books from the Academy of Fine Art after the lootings in the Iraq war. Sabti collected the covers of the ruined books and worked on them to create his collages. "These books challenged me to bring them back to life from their graveyard floor," says Sabti. "These works of art are my attempt to gain victory over the destruction surrounding us in Baghdad."
We have one of these wonderful collages in our London home, a piece of Baghdad  from where my children's father was born on the eastern side of the Tigris river.  The Babylonian Jews were exiled from Israel 2000 years ago and were the oldest Jewish community in the diaspora. 

As soon as we arrived Oded announced we were going to Smalls in Greenwich Village to read our poetry! Fortunately he had copies of my collection, Cutting Pomegranate, in his loft.   Smalls is one of the oldest venues for jazz and poetry in New York and they loved my English accent!
This is the second time I have read my poetry in New York. The first time was at Oded's major retrospective in 2003. I read a poem about his life and work and it was translated into Hebrew this year and published in a literary magazine in Jerusalem.

We were also in New York at the time of the US Open. I've blogged about how I find the perseverance of our great tennis players an inspiration in the marathon of writing a novel.We went to the grounds on Open Sunday and had the amazing good luck to see Jimmy Connors and John MacEnroe warming up.

The temperatures that week rose to 110F but even though we nearly died we had tickets to see Nadal play his opening game. He was stunning. Come on Rafa!

I have been visiting New York since 1976, before I met my husband and his large and entertaining family.   I always rode the Staten Island ferry from the bottom of Manhatten Island, past the Statue of Liberty. I have written poems about my visits to New York which have been published in magazines and my own collections. One of the poems ( see below) was commended by Fleur Adcock in a poetry competition.

Riding the ferry always gave the best view of the 'apple' effect of New York and also of the Twin Towers before 9/11. In 1999 I took both my children to the top of the Towers to the outdoors viewing platform. It was spectacular.
In 9/11 Oded watched the Towers fall from the windows of his loft. The dust reached his street. He had many friends who ran to his home to take shelter and stay over.

I returned to New York in 2002, one year later, on the day they stopped all searches in the ruins. The city was quiet, subdued. My taxi driver told me how he had been near Ground Zero on that dreadful day. "Ain't something I'm gonna ever forget," he said quietly. When I rode the ferry and looked back it was like there was a huge bruise in the sky in the gap where the Towers had once stood.

The Big Apple
one year later

Silver layers of the Chrysler building
glint beneath a May blue sky
edged with cirrus, the ferry engine burrs.
We lean on the end chain

yards from skimming water
fix our eyes on the gap.
New Yorkers under siege;
Check your mobile, don’t step on cracks.

A maggot wired for mayhem
blew its cover,  sprawled its belly
twenty blocks over pretzel stands
subway booths, ten thousand panes of glass.

You say, ‘My friend got out, 85th floor
her dad escaped the Nazis
they don’t give in so easy.’
I gulp sea air; feel brick dust in my lungs.

At Ground Zero strings of paper cranes
dangle from church rails.
Each Japanese schoolchild
folded one hundred and fifty
for peace.

But Ground Zero is changing. New towers and a memorial centre are being built. And the mosque? The mayor stated in the New York Times the week that we were there, "It wasn't Muslims who brought down the Towers, it was Al Qaida."

Of course no trip to New York would be complete without some writing time in a coffee bar. This was favourite place, Aroma, corner of Green Street and  Houston. ( Gosh, I even sound New Yorkan.)

And this is my baristo - Sergio, originally from Mexico City. He's been in NY for seven years, but he's quite homesick. Hopefully he'll go back and open his own coffee bar one day.

Another of our favourite places to hang out is The Olive Tree on McDougal Street. Its right next door to Cafe Wha where Dylan played in the 60s. The Olive Tree shows Chaplin films on a continuous loop and they have slates for table tops and pots of chalk. Artists go there to draw. 

But I'm a poet so I dashed off a few lines.

New York New York. Truly a city which never sleeps. 

Roller boot disco dancing in Washington Square.

The view from Oded's fire escape, 5.00am on a hot morning.

The West Village where all the writers used to hang out.