Tag Archives: New York

Lily Brett’s Only in New York

Lily Brett, Only in New York (Hamish Hamilton 2014)


This book is not to be confused with Lily Brett’s similarly titled New York, published in 2001, even though both are collections of essays about New York. There are similarities of course, but whereas New York‘s essays were each exactly three pages long, and geared primarily to a German readership (they were first published as columns in the weekly newspaper Die Zeit, translated by Melanie Waltz), the essays here are much less constrained, ranging from two to 10 pages, and don’t have any sense of the deadline pressure that’s often found in newspaper columns (though at least one of them, ‘Falling in Love in Cologne’, has appeared in Die Zeit). Many of the essays read as if they were partly written in Lily Brett’s head as she went on long walks in Manhattan. Not that she’s a flâneuse, as her opening sentences make clear:

When I go for a walk in New York, I like to have a destination. Actually, I like to have a destination wherever I am when I go for a walk. I am not one of those aimless walkers, people who can stroll around from place to place without a plan.

Many of the essays start with naming a destination: Grand Central Station, Spandex House in the Garment District, Caffe Dante in Greenwich Village, her father’s apartment block. Occasionally, as when her eldest daughter is in labour, there’s no destination, but it’s still not aimless wandering, but walking ‘around and around the block, with increasing speed. For hours.’ Apart from the streets and people of Manhattan (the other boroughs don’t get a look in), the book returns to a number of subjects: Brett’s family – mother, father, husband, children – her Australian connections, her many neuroses and anxieties. Much of the book’s considerable charm comes from the way the essays veer off in unexpected directions – like a purposeful but totally distractable walker.

In an essay that starts out apparently about Brett’s incompetence at sewing, she confides that she  is ‘not the kind of person who can lounge around the house in a sweatshirt’, and goes on:

My mother was well dressed all the time. Even when she cleaned the house. She polished the floor and scrubbed the kitchen in a silk blouse, pleated skirt and high heels.

Then, without missing  a beat:

After her world cracked and splintered when the Nazis invaded Poland, my mother was never the same. She could never relax. She was always on guard. It was as though she needed to be prepared for any eventuality. And I have inherited that need.

We can enjoy the image of Brett’s mother’s eccentricity. But we’re not to trivialise her. And that’s true of the book as a whole. I laughed a lot. Brett’s nonagenarian father is very funny, but he is a triumph of the human spirit. New York is full of absurdities (customers are called ‘guests’, dogs wear shorts, psychics abound) but you never know what you’ll see if you keep your eyes open.

At a Sydney Writers’ Festival a couple of years ago Inga Clendinnen said that whereas a novelist plays Catch-Me-If-You-Can with the reader, an essayist invites the reader to come for a walk. She could have had this book in mind.


Only in New York is the ninth book I’ve read as part of the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge,

Sonnets 12 and 13

I couldn’t shoehorn this into 14 lines. It’s shoe-horned anyhow. It was a fabulous evening at the Lincoln Center.

On attending a performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor by the American Classical Orchestra

For me, once, Mass was sacramental,
the cosmic human sacrifice
made present. Hymns were incidental,
and often bad: almost a vice
for Credo, Kyrie or Sanctus
to stand apart. A concert yanked us
from colloquy with the divine
to savouring the prayers like wine.
Now, I’m among the non-believers,
see sacrament as metaphor,
know this world’s it, there’s nothing more.
I seek no Gods, not even divas,
yet there is more than taste to art:
some sacred music scruffs my heart.

Tonight, from start to Agnus Dei
seemed one long plea for mercy. Bach
was not a happy-clappy chap, the way he
Gloria’d – whistling in the dark –
and, in the Credo, crucifixion
overshadowed resurrection
(jauntiness to make you weep
at your life’s margins). Herd the sheep
of doubt into Faith’s fragile pen, or
face the raging storm outside!
‘Who takes away the world’s sin,’ cried
a solitary counter-tenor,
‘Have mercy.’ Then all plead as one:
‘Give peace!’ This prayer is never done.

Sonnet No 8: A tale from New York City

I’m writing this on my iPad in flight mode from New York. This is a true story, only genders and localities have been changed to fit the demands of the Onegin stanza. Both the curator who told us the story and the villager were women, and the conversation happened in an out-of-the-way part of Oaxaca in Mexico.

Sonnet No 8: A tale from New York City
 A New York Gallery curator
 in search of warmth, and needing rest,
 found more than both near the Equator.
 A villager (perhaps in jest)
 revealed to him her tribe's tradition
 (one day out in the jungle, fishin')
 that all that's living, all that is
 (forget about your Genesis)
 sprang forth from just one source, a river.
 'What river?' the curator cried.
 'What else but this one?' she replied.
 The art man's spine went all a-shiver.
 He said, 'That's not such crazy talk.
 We think the same way in New York.'

Sonnet No 7: Three MoMA Guards

Not one, but three of the security staff at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) had me unsure where the art finished and the rest of life began. In two of the three cases I went back a second time, and saw that the exhibit was diminished by the absence of the guard who had been there the first time. I only visited the third room once, but the guard in question moved away and was replaced by someone who didn’t value-add in the same way.

Three Guards at MoMA: Gober, Gober, Dubuffet
Dolphin-sized, shaped from tobacco
sheafs, a fragile beached cheroot.
He’s on guard at its head. No whacko
Gets past his secret-service suit.
Wallpaper patterned with a lynching:
a thousand times a Black man hangs.
The guard is Black: without harangues
he sets us White art-lovers flinching.
Prints of dark beards, roots and gravel,
dig underground, compel, and revel
in earth, but then a high sweet tune
the guard hums lifts us to the moon.
Next day, there’s just an art brut star,
a pomo wall, a giant cigar.

The links will take you to images from the three environments referred to. (And yes, it hardly counts as a sonnet – can the volta ever come that late?)

Brooklyn Yawp, November poem No 4

Last night – 10 November here – I took the Subway to Brooklyn for an event that had caught my eye in Time Out New York: the Brooklyn Poets Yawp. (For the benefit of those who know even less about poetry than I do, Walt Whitman referred to his poetry as his ‘barbaric yawp’.)

The first hour of the Yawp is a poetry workshop led by Jason Koo, poet and poetry teacher who must be doing it for love because he only charges $5 at the door and various categories aren’t asked to pay at all. The second hour is an open mic.

Typically I piked on the open mic, but I stayed for the whole thing and had a great time.

In the workshop Jason invited us to try our hands at seduction poems. We read poems by Marvell, Donne and two modern ports, listened to a number of versions of ‘My Funny Valentine’ and scribbled for 15 minutes. Even though what I wrote wasn’t a sonnet, and believe it or not my November sonnets generally take a lot longer than 15 minutes to write, I was quite pleased with my seduction poem and now will inflict it on you.

But first, I ought to acknowledge how much I enjoyed the open mic hour, not least for the family feeling among the 30 or so people there and Jason’s smooth, genial, kind but not too kind MCing. Not necessarily the best poem but the most daring was a verbatim reading of the text of a Viagra ad currently showing on New York TV.

No 4: Seduction Poem
When did it happen,
this line on your face,
This deep straight line down your cheek?
Did it just appear one day when we weren’t watching?
Is it a line from some future poem?
An elegy?
Let me trace it with a finger
and my lips.
So much has happened when we weren’t watching,
so many messages from after all.
Lips now thinner, hair turned grey,
and where did the thin me go?

What will have happened next?

But should we care?
How does it happen that each time we touch
it’s all new?

Sonnet No 3: Slam night at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe

Running well behind schedule on the sonnets. Sorry, will do better. Meanwhile, I’m not making this up:

Sonnet No 3: Slam Night at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe
We’re in line with a White IT consultant
who boasts two Matisse cut-out tattoos.
Someone’s shot dead in a car – the resultant
crime scene tape, marks the zone for clues.
In the street cops with Glocks are scoping a murder.
In the line a featured spoken-worder
waits. A Black poet says it’s droll
cops are called when words get out of control
in minority mouths. But speak not lightly
of poets and law. Inside the cafe
with wit and charm and rage they say
unsayable things, and say them nightly.
This may be where a new world starts
as words like bullets pierce our hearts.

Bill Murray reads Emily Dickinson

Remember Paul Robeson singing to workers in the Sydney Opera House under construction? New York’s Poets’ House isn’t quite on that scale, but this coming together of Bill Murray, Emily Dickinson and a group of construction workers is beautiful to behold.

I usually tend not to like actors’ readings of poetry, but this is masterly, especially his apparently casual use of props and the way he modulates degrees of seriousness. Even the little bit of ‘New Yorkers are special’ rhetoric isn’t too vomitous.

Thanks to Harriet the Blog.

NY Post geography

On page 14 of today’s New York Post, Jane Campion is quoted: ‘I have a two-room hut in a remote part of New Zealand, the south island, an hour’s drive outside Queensland.’ She clearly drives a very fast amphibian vehicle.
Right! No more painful pseudo tweets from my phone. I get my fixed computer back any hour now.

Travel despatch 2

I know I should be telling about my travels — how there are almost as many psychics awnings out on the streets of Manhattan as there are Starbucks, and that’s a hell of a lot, how I’ve met three women (an Australian, a Scot and an Englishwoman) who go to Las Vegas once a year or so, how Paris is fabulous, not least for its peches plates — but my time on my host’s computer is limited, and as soon as I sit at her keyboard my mind goes to my computer troubles.

There was a splendid moment of hope when the CEO of MacMD (or similarly named enterprise, tucked away on the 12th floor of a building on West 35th Street Manhattan) told me he could replace my screen for only $450 US, and do it in time for me to catch my plane. That hope was dashed when I turned up four hours later: he hadn’t realised it had to be an LED screen. He could still do it, for £600, but not before I had to leave. So I reclaimed my poor damaged ordinateur, and pretty much as soon as I arrived in Paris (where free WiFi seems to be ubiquitous) took it to a promising place in the Marais.

‘Parlez-vous anglais?’ I asked. ‘Pas du tout,’ said the jeune homme behind the counter, then added when I showed him my screen, now even more alarming than the image I posted the other day, ‘But I don’t need to speak English to understand what your problem is.’ He said that in French, but I caught his drift with complete confidence. He told me it would cost €1050.

I protested, in what seems to have been comprehensible French, that the guy in New York had said he could do it for 600 dollars, less than a third of the price. In civil and unmistakable French he gave the universal response to such protests: ‘Well, take it there then.’ And you know, even though it means relying on the kindness of friends and the availability of cybercafes for the whole month we’re in France, that’s what I intend to do.

Speaking of the availability of cybercafes, would you believe there are no internet kiosks in the International Terminal at JFK? Not even paid ones! I asked and was told I could join something called the Galileo Club at $50 a day, which would enable me to log on. Yet the poor oppressed people of the United States continue to believe that they have the highest standard of living in the world.

Paris is beautiful. My attempts to speak French have been laughed at, but not in a nasty way. Many people are away for the summer, so the streets are comfortably uncrowded. It’s our second day and we’ve already been to two museums, eaten excellent Israeli kebabs, and figured out what to say in order to get coffee that’s up to Sydney standards (that’s not for me, but for my addicted companion). Soon I’ll have grieved sufficiently over my laptop to be able to give you proper traveller’s tales. Au revoir for now

Travel Despatch 1

I’ve been in the US for five days, and here I am at three in the morning wide awake . The conference was so busy, my hours there were so odd, and I got so little ultraviolet on the back of my knees that there seems to have been no impact on my jetlag at all. I arrived in Manhattan yesterday at six in the evening, had checked into a (relatively) cheap hotel room on West 45th Street by eight, went to a nearby food outlet where I paid by the pound for some rice and chicken and watched a nice man on CNN  saying that racism exists in the US and is being deployed vigorously in the healthcare debate, and came back to the hotel expecting to sleep like a stone for 10 hours. At 12.30 I snapped awake, my body saying things like, ‘It’s two in the afternoon, you lazy sod, let’s walk the dog!’ If only I’d been this lively at 8.30 I might have gone to see some largely naked actors reciting Leaves of Grass or done something similarly appropriate.

I don’t now what to tell you. There are squirrels in Connecticut, though I didn’t get out in the warm summer sun to see them until the end of the conference. An old friend there told me there was a TV ad for an insurance company that always reminded him of me — and lo, just before the nice anti-racist man came on CNN last night, there was the ad in question. The insurance company is called something like Geico, and the ad features a talking gecko. I couldn’t hear what he was saying (the anti-racist man had subtitles), but I was shocked to see what my old friend meant: apart from the Australian accent, and leaving aside the cute voice, the lizard attributes and the Jiminy Cricket gestures, the little green creature was unnervingly like me when I’m enjoying a bit of craic.

Apart from that little moment, everything here seems just a little bigger than necessary, and the Theatre Theater  District is dazzling: the Scottish restaurant on 42nd Street would have done a Busby Berkeley premiere proud.

My Mac’s screen is broken. I dropped it and next time I turned it on, there was a beautiful abstract design obscuring two thirds of the screen. I can still ue it, but there are ominous signs that even that remaining third is about to die. When daylight comes I’ll set out on what I expect to be a fruitless search for someone who will repair it before I have to  fly to Paris at 5 pm. Wish me luck!

OK, back to bed and Anna Karenina. Sadly it’s far too interesting so far to be a reliable soporific — I’m at the two thirds point, Anna and Vronsky are in Venice where things aren’t looking too good, and Levin and Kitty are discovering that the joys of marriage are quite other than they’d imagined. The fact that I’m reading it after the Book Group discussion only intensifies the weird sense that I’m reading for the first time something that I’ve known reasonably well for years — like meeting a good friend’s old friend.

Next time I write I expect I’ll be  France. It’s not a hard life.