Notes on a Sanctuary in New York City

New York City Narrative
by Robert Hirschfield Apr 27, 2011

Photo by Mark Woods.

Robert Hirschfield reflects on Poets House, his sanctuary in New York City.

I WALK THERE every day, south through Soho, and west to the river. I walk fast, knowing I will soon be wrapped in slowness. I am going to Poets House. No apostrophe. The space between the t and the s is worth a story. Maybe even a national debate on what can and can’t be owned.

I like to think I enter Poets House through the t and the s. I sign the visitor’s book at the desk. My signature marks a border crossing. I am entering a country whose only permanent resident are books of poetry. Fifty thousand of them. It sometimes feels odd to be sitting in silence amidst the rise of alphabetized voices speaking inside their bindings. The incantations of Whitman and Neruda, the inner room whisperings of Jean Valentine, the sculpted nocturnes of Mark Strand, Daisy Fried’s rowdy pilgrimage of womanhood. Voices without end.

Poets House staffers move quietly along the narrow path between the stacks and the tables by the big glass windows, where we sit and write and read and look out at the river.

As a regular, I am sometimes graced with a smile, a wave, a tap on the shoulder. Even a state-of-the-art refuge with curved glass that took millions to build needs its fanatics.

Photo by Mark Woods.

Only when I found Poets House did I realize I’d been looking for it. Raised in the delirium of perpetual motion that is New York City, there was always a stubborn breakaway republic inside me that sought autonomy in quiet parks and churches.

Poets House was on that continuum, but also off it. Parks are built for leisure and churches for worship. Poetry is built to the precise specifications of life. It rises out of silence and returns to silence.

If it is a gray, desolate spring day, as it is today, when I found myself at home thinking, “Why go anywhere?”, and I pluck from the stacks Yehuda Amichai’s book, Amen, I realize that Poets House is, among other things, a clinic that dispenses literary herbs.

Amichai’s poem, “My Soul,” had been waiting for me all morning:

There is a great battle raging, for my mouth

not to harden and for my jaws

not to become like heavy doors

of an iron safe, so that my life

may not be called pre-death.

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