Ten men on a postcard clinging to the cables
of Brooklyn Bridge they look one can’t help it
like insects glued to the struts of some unspeakable web
I found so much in this poem, both breadth and depth, language and emotion; so I thought, this must be what good poetry does, brings it all together like this. Then again, I’m a poetic neophyte, not a scholar, so I may have missed the most fundamental point. Does it matter? Can I love a poem for all the wrong reasons?
I’m assuming the image referred to in the poem is Eugene de Salignac’s 1914 photo of painters on the Brooklyn Bridge, shown above. I think of the photo as part of the poem, so I’ll start there: these men are painters, so why are they wearing suits? Is that typical for workers of the time (other photos show other painters also in suits), or did they dress up in their Sunday best for a posed photograph? Were they nervous, hanging on the cables like that? What did they tell their families that night?
Of course, all of those painters would be dead now. Kurt Brown is dead now, as well, adding another layer to the poem. Did he know, at the time he wrote this single line, italicized set off from the couplets, repeated twice in this poem:
what matters is that we have been here at all
So this hovers over any reading of the poem. But there is still the poem itself. I’m on a subject/object kick these days, so forgive me if I’m extending that into an area in which it has no business (and one in which I am no expert, but only an interested inquirer), but it seems to me the subject shifts constantly: from the painters, to the bridge, to the water below, to the readers’ contemplation of self through the metaphor of flies stuck on flypaper, the image of people from the past who are no longer, and what matters is that we have been here at all, finally leaving us at the end with:
so they say but what does the wind say
after the men are gone blowing through those empty cables
Shifting subjectivity: to the wind and the cables, and the very gone-ness of the men. It takes a minute to read the lines, to get the connection straight around the insert. Does the wind say anything? Does it remember, or does it just blow anew each day, each minute, through the empty cables that remain?
The visual of the text plays with subjectivity as well. I see again the first stanza, phrases separated by gaps, the lines of poetry like the cables of the bridge, the gaps perhaps the spaces where the men, now gone, are. What is not there is central to the poem. And again, given Brown’s death – still in the thick of an illustrious career, yet at about 70, neither much too young nor anywhere near old enough to die – becomes the subject. Absence as presence.
By the way: if you tilt your head to the left as you look at the photo, you might notice the men are arranged in the general shape of a question mark. I wonder if that was by accident…
In addition to the italicization of the line mentioned above, a phrase in the first stanza, quoted above, is so marked. How does it read? “They look one can’t help it / Like insects….” Is the “one” who can’t help it, is this “one” the general reader, “one” as the indefinite subject, this impersonal voice – that is, as we look, we can’t help but think of – or is one of the painters the pronoun referent – one of the painters, who can’t help but look – but, look at what? At the gap between him and the ground? At the camera, and thus the viewer? Can both be subjects at the same time? Does this ambiguity connect us, the readers as subjects, with the painters as subject, through the lens of de Salignac’s camera, and the lens of Brown’s poem?
Focus keeps shifting in the poem, as the focus of de Salignac’s camera shifted over his career, from bridges to trains to buildings to the people who work on them, work in them, use them, live in them. In the poem there’s a shift from these painters, this specific scene, to the more metaphorical sense of us all hanging on cables over an abyss (one can’t help but think of it), to the abyss itself, and then, unintentionally, perhaps, just because of circumstances, back to the poet. The subject, all-encompassing.
Empty cables. Absence as presence.