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Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Up in the Air: Lewis W. Hine / Frank O'Hara


Older structural worker on a framework of the Empire State Building, with Chrysler Building beyond: photo by Lewis Wickes Hine, 1931 (New York Public Library; image by Durova, 2007)

515 Madison Avenue
door to heaven? portal
stopped realities and eternal licentiousness
or at least the jungle of impossible eagerness
your marble is bronze and your lianas elevator cables
swinging from the myth of ascending
I would join
or declining the challenge of racial attractions
they zing on (into the lynch, dear friends)
while everywhere love is breathing draftily
like a doorway linking 53rd with 54th
the east-bound with the west-bound traffic by 8,000,000s
o midtown tunnels and the tunnels, too, of Holland

where is the summit where all aims are clear
the pin-point light upon a fear of lust
as agony’s needlework grows up around the unicorn
and fences him for milk- and yoghurt-work
when I see Gianni I know he’s thinking of John Ericson
playing the Rachmaninoff 2nd or Elizabeth Taylor
taking sleeping-pills and Jane thinks of Manderley
and Irkutsk while I cough lightly in the smog of desire
and my eyes water achingly imitating the true blue

a sight of Manahatta in the towering needle
multi-faceted insight of the fly in the stringless labyrinth
Canada plans a higher place than the Empire State Building
I am getting into a cab at 9th Street and 1st Avenue
and the Negro driver tells me about a $120 apartment
“where you can’t walk across the floor after 10 at night
not even to pee, cause it keeps them awake downstairs”
no, I don’t like that “well, I didn’t take it”
perfect in the hot humid morning on my way to work
a little supper-club conversation for the mill of the gods

you were there always and you know all about these things
as indifferent as an encyclopedia with your calm brown eyes
it isn’t enough to smile when you run the gauntlet
you’ve got to spit like Niagara Falls on everybody or
Victoria Falls or at least the beautiful urban fountains of Madrid
as the Niger joins the Gulf of Guinea near the Menemsha Bar
that is what you learn in the early morning passing Madison Avenue
where you’ve never spent any time and stores eat up light

I have always wanted to be near it
though the day is long (and I don’t mean Madison Avenue)
lying in a hammock on St. Mark’s Place sorting my poems
in the rancid nourishment of this mountainous island
they are coming and we holy ones must go
is Tibet historically a part of China? as I historically
belong to the enormous bliss of American death

Connecting the beams

Connecting the beams, Empire State Building: photo by Lewis Wickes Hine, 1931 (New York Public Library Digital Collection)

Worker on Empire State building, signaling the hookman

Worker on Empire State Building, signaling the hookman: photo by Lewis Wickes Hine, 1931 (New York Public Library Digital Collection)

Icarus, high up on Empire State

Icarus, high up on the Empire State: photo by Lewis Wickes Hine, 1931 (New York Public Library Digital Collection)

Lunch time and Smoke

Lunch time and smoke, Empire State Building: photo by Lewis Wickes Hine, 1931 (George Eastman House)

This post dedicated to Bill Berkson and to Angelica (Light that behaves like a hand/Lifting us up)

Frank O’Hara: Rhapsody, 1959, from Lunch Poems, 1964


TC said...

Some further Lewis Hine work, from the ground:

Lewis W. Hine: Cotton ("She jess works fer pleasure")

Lewis W. Hine: Exposure ("get father a watch")

Lewis W. Hine: Junk Gatherers (Just Kids)

Lewis W. Hine: Truant Newsboys, Oklahoma City ("didn't know his name")

Anonymous said...

That's Maxim Gorky again, in the first picture. He really got around.


tpw said...

Tom: Great poem, great photos. Thanks, as always. Hine was pretty amazing. We used one of his best-known photos when I was at the Indian museum on the assumption that some of these guys had to be Mohawk.

TC said...

With that top photo, Hine's captioning data suggests he wanted to make the point that a fair percentage of these "high steel" workers were well along in years, and though being young, spry and nimble were obviously useful advantages in such work, the skill and courage of the veterans was also a significant resource.

(Maxim Gorky, despite his formidable genius, had never before scaled such heights...)

Terry, it was famously told that many of these workers-in-the sky came from the Indian tribes of the Northeast, and said that they "knew no fear" even at such dizzying, vertiginous heights... but looking at these photos, the racial/ethnic makeup of the cast seems just about as various as would be found in almost any mix of individuals from the working (as opposed to the WASP exec and country-club) classes.

TC said...

Digging a bit further, Terry, one learns that the Mohawk and Iroquois workers in the perilous sky-rise construction jobs at the Empire State and other skyscrapers and bridges were offered "special contracts," entailing lower than average wages and limited union membership. (Now there's a surprise.)

An interesting National Film Board of Canada doc on the Native American "tradition" in that dangerous profession:

Don Owen: High Steel (1965).

Robb said...

Thank for introducing me to this wonderful poem. And I never get enough of the photos of high steel workers.


Anonymous said...

Neither do I, Robb.

I notice that TC hasn't said anything about his vertigo. It's a remarkable person who wouldn't be concerned about these heights. The first time, you must have to literally work your way up; start by building the ground floor and climb one storey higher every week.

TC said...

I had to hold my hands over my eyes while making this post so as not to pass out.

It was a case of "daring oneself to do it".

Almost as legendary as my vertigo is my mania for enlargement (wait, this is sounding like the dialogue in a male enhancement commercial...).

It caused me to initially make the top photo, of Maxim Gorky out on that ultimate limb high over the tallest skyscrapers on earth, so large that it dwarfed the body of the computer, and, even while the post remained resting quietly on the runway, threatened to tip the universe, now become terrifyingly precarious, entirely out of its orbit.

But someone caught me at it, just in time.

TC said...

Robb, how can I have neglected to mention that your new website is a source of many wonders?

Highly recommended, and a worthy compliment to its ~otto~man-empire doppelgänger, upon which, as you will note, it now looks down (though not from a very great height) in my humble marginal links column.

Curtis Faville said...

The thing about these Hine photos is that the daring and risk needed to make them put the photographer on a par with his subjects'. Given the kind of equipment he would have been using, the miracle isn't that these men were working this way, at this height, but that a photographer had been able to make these images at all.

We have our Galen Rowells holding little 35's while clinging to a scaling rope on sheer rock faces, but Hine's magic was a parallel jeopardy. And then there are the guys who make videos while sky-diving.


Robb said...

Thank you very kindly, Tom. It is an an honor and a jinglisi.

TC said...

A jinglisi is a good thing to have on a high wire if you've dropped your balancing pole, I hear.

Curtis, of all the terrifying aspects of these images, the most terrifying of all, for me, is the thought of Lewis Hine's role up there in the sky; and when I consider that, an even stronger feeling comes over me, the sense of wonder I feel when I grasp the concentration that must have been required on his part.