after a reading at city lights bookstore
Read in commemoration of Csaba Polony, founder, editor and publisher of Left Curve magazine, at The Emerald Tablet, North Beach, San Francisco, July 9, 2014.
Perhaps after all nothing does really happen, nothing of cosmic import that is, in a lifespan, but there are these moments. One April afternoon in the early 21st century there was a reading for Left Curve magazine in the Poetry Room at City Lights Bookstore, 60 years of San Francisco and who knows how many centuries of literary history crowded into every corner of that close-timbered attic, where it’s warm, even hot, and alive with the stolid friendly enduring presence of aging bohemians still making that history in word, image, song, still tenaciously keeping it going, a flashing stream through strip-malled acres of oily asphalt and cracked plastic, and big seagulls strut the alley rooftops outside framed against a slice of city sky fading like old jeans. The air is richer in there; you don’t have the psychic daily struggle to breathe. Like walking in a hushed, dense cathedral of redwood pillars up north once, dreaming life in the world where this shred of forest still stretched unbroken for five thousand miles. It changes nothing outward, you’ll still go home and stare at the TV chattering like a senile uncle that night, but first steal a moment with these vivid, close-pressing ghosts, and hold at bay the pervading ghostliness of life in this weirdly soft, vicious time. Robert Lowell said it in the toxic ‘50s when City Lights, to be their antithesis, was born, the words no doubt encased somewhere on the shelves in that room, but why must they still be true? – a savage servility slides by on grease. You won’t be at the necessary bar afterwards for the revels, but you will walk the twilight streets of North Beach as if they belonged to you for once, heads that sense the unforced happiness that’s possible in human life even turning in the sidewalk cafes, and with a dear companion have a meal at the U.S. Restaurant, where the food’s almost militantly average– the bread’s a bit stale and the wine is sour, but better so because the tourists and poseurs never go in there even though it’s right on the strip. It’ll be quiet, like the rest of the slide back into obscurity – but we’re all in such good company there anyway, and on the way home there’s one more moment to steal of time-bound but time-transcending beauty, a movie moment of gauzy San Francisco night at the top of Taylor Street, where below in the steep distance the empty prison looms upon the bay that glitters with electric phosphorescence in the darkened, mist-softened air, and to the east down Vallejo Street there’s the Bay Bridge all lit up with a mobile light show of its own like a cartoon of carnival organ pipes, cartoon fireflies of traffic clustering and swirling brightly at its feet, and equally illuminated and self-consciously iconic is Coit Tower that you no more than Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo ever thought you’d be grateful for, but now you are, that you no more than he or his ghostly lover ever had any part in creating, any of this – but now, the faintest trace, perhaps. Back into nothing we fade, but we were here. Suddenly a memory of Castro Street in the early 1990s, the years of pages-long special supplement obituaries, another ending time in the unending fin de siècle of endings, flickering out in the tarry flood of great imperial decline: free love, peace movements, revolutions – going, going, gone – and someone had wheat-pasted a poster on the wall at the corner of Castro and Market, outside that big-windowed bar a grim wag dubbed the “Glass Coffin,” the poster just a small black square with white lettering, the brave lone quote from Sappho:
someone, I tell you, in some future time, will think of us.