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Thursday, 5 November 2009

Divine Dancers


Purple-throated Carib Hummingbird in its natural habitat, Morne Diablotins National Park, Dominica: photo by Charlesjsharp, 1 December 2010

for Edwin Denby

“The angels standing
two or three feet away
Edwin said

The Great Ones
when they sweep
across our sphere
of the universe

in a state of
presque vu --
almost seen

in the phantom
of a curtain
stirred by no breeze --

behind a screen
waiting there
to manifest themselves


Anonymous said...

the stones are gray
by the empty hearth
I am beckoned
to wed.

Bowie Hagan said...

please forgive,

TC said...


Nothing to forgive.

Edwin Denby was a wonderful poet and critic of the dance, a special friend.

His presence was all about lightness, agility, grace.

The poem begins with words from a letter he once wrote to me.

I understand that lifting oneself away from the leaden gravity of things is not always easy.

But when I think this, I am reminded of Edwin's work.

He saw angels on the streets of New York City (as, perhaps, Blake once saw angels in his garden).

Click on those wondrous hummingbirds and, if but for a moment, be in their world, take flight!

u.v.ray. said...

I didn't know of Edwin Denby. But the poem makes me think of those unique people who come into the world, perhaps even unappreciated, and then slip away; the ripples left behind in their departing stir us more than their presence. And we are left to lament. Throughout our lives, I think this happens too many times.

leigh tuplin said...

I enjoyed this very much,Tom. Understated elegance.

You also pointed in the direction of Edwin Denbys poems - thankyou.

TC said...

Ray, Leigh, many thanks.

Yes, it's curious how someone with an understated presence often leaves more of a mark in our memory than those who try too hard and are yet all too easily forgotten.

By "angels", of course, what Edwin meant was simply: lovely, instinctively graceful, unselfconscious young people, walking in the streets, going about their lives. That flowing dance which is life, let us say. By "terrify" I think what Edwin meant (to put it more prosaically) was "amaze, astonish, inspire awe."

Making the the angels/dancers into hummingbirds was strictly a matter of my exercising that copious sense of permission known as poetic license; which could not have been possible without the wondrous images of this great photographer. Capturing and freezing a moment of intense motion in a frame and handing it over to us may have to do with things like shutter speeds and lenses but to me it's something more than that, I can't really think of a better word for it than genius.

Anonymous said...

This is very beautiful, you. Yes, I am thinking in an understated way that you have with words and your relationship together.

'in the phantom motion of a curtain stirred by no breeze --' My absolute fav of the whole. Seems to sum up/cement your words together. I am thinking the main ingredient in cooking! Although using cement in cooking is actually not recommended for baking to eat!

Anonymous said...

PS I am liking the pictures too; muchly!

poetowen said...


Love that poem, also your comments on Denby. When I go to NYC I try to see the city through his eyes (and of course Frank's). Often I succeed--the power of poetry! So what if I just missed my subway stop, it's 100 (or minus 100) degrees, and I'm about to get mugged--I'm living in a Denby sonnet!

Annie said...

I first knew of Edwin Denby through his writings about dance, when I was a young dancer of few natural gifts, curious about what made someone great, not often able to see them in performance myself. Tucked inside a new box of shoes, a cross between a holy card and a baseball card featuring Suzanne Farrell included an excerpt by Denby that sent me to the source. Beyond the usual literal description, Denby conveyed a dancer or choreographer's essential qualities, the sensation of witnessing the underlying spirit of their presence played out in time and movement. Many years later, I learned that to better "lift [and hold] oneself away from leaden gravity," one had to simultaneously connect with its deep pull. To me, Denby's poems are like that, tensile, poised, ready. Thanks for capturing that and reminding me.

Elmo St. Rose said...

"Looking At The Dance"
In whatever endeavor something to
attain to. TC and Annie said it
very well. I remember reading
his book and wondered if I would
ever be able to possess his ease
of perception.

TC said...

Edwin was that rare thing, a self-effacing writer.

He was born in 1903 in China, the grandson of a US Ambassador to China; lived in Europe as a young man, became a dance critic in New York City in the 1930s. His great works of dance criticism are Looking at the Dance (1949) and Dancers, Buildings and People in the Streets (1965). These works are concerned not only with the dance but with human movement and urban life. His poetry, mainly in a compressed adaptation of the Shakespearean sonnet form, quietly influenced much of the poetry of younger New York School poets over the years. His master work in verse was In Public, In Private (1964).

"He sees and hears more clearly than anyone else I have ever known," the poet Frank O'Hara said of him.

Edwin was a wonderfully civilized and sweet person. His poems have a particular radiance, they are full of illuminations.

In his later years he often carried with him a copy of the Divine Comedy, always one of the final two volumes, the Purgatorio or the Paradiso, never the Inferno.

"New York is pure paradise," he told me in that 1968 letter I quote in the poem, "though the angels two or three feet away terrify."

Yes, Owen, one could do worse than wear a protective Edwin halo on the NYC subway.

Annie, "the underlying spirit of their presence played out in time and movement... tensile, poised, ready": these phrases beautifully capture what is so wonderful about Edwin's writings.

Elmo, I think there is a little bit of Edwin's perception in each of us who attended upon his work.

SarahA, thank you for the kind words. Thanks muchly also for the baking tip. Now I understand why my biscuits always turn out so... crunchy.

Here for those who are interested are some useful links:

Edwin Denby reads his poetry

Edwin Denby feature in Jacket 21

David Grove said...

Tom, your hummingbird-delicate poem reminds me of car-free, carefree days I loped about town with notebook in coat and tabula rasa in head. Sometimes the sublime terror aroused by the jamais vu beauty of passersby--youths like Rilkean angels moving dancingly and disdainfully--opened the floodgates of my word-cache, and I betook myself to a coffee shop to scrawl the thoughts inundating me. Paradise!

TC said...


Ou sont les anges d'antan?

David Grove said...

yeah, ubi oh ubi, he said, mawkishly blubbering on his Laura Nyro LP... I've been in an elegiac mood of late. But maybe I don't want to know; maybe they've molted their neigey plumage. Maybe I'll just let them cavort in the aviary of my memory.

Charlie Vermont said...

Dear Tom,
In addition to the hummingbirds and
the excellent lyric....The Penn
Sound recordings and the Jacket
content, in particular Anne Waldman's interview are like a lost
map to hidden treasure. I just bought an Edwin Denby book on
Amazon for 45 cents plus shipping.
See what I mean about hidden
treasure...the poets isolated by
their knowledge Yvor Winters did
say...the daughter of the radiologist who read my x-rays for
many years was a long time dance
partner of Baryshnikov...he had at one
time 3 children in the New York
City Ballet, from Hope, Arkansas...
That's almost as good as a President from the same place...
unlikely spot for hidden treasure

TC said...

Doctor Charlie,

Well you certainly have an eye for a bargain, Edwin would have got a chuckle out of that.

Sorry to be a bit slow getting back here, complicated times but I trust you'll have a proper letter from me soon.

You are a wise man and your existence on this earth is a constant quiet reminder to me that where there's life there's