Monday, May 21, 2007

2 Poets, 2 Assassins

Film theorist Phil Rosen (born in Paterson) suggested I read About Paterson: The Making and Unmaking of an American City (1974). The book starts like a noir thriller: “Main Street is paved in the torment of all roads that stretch between an unusable past and a future unfounded” (28); “Most revealing of Paterson’s character, the city has been home to two major American poets and two assassins. [Angelo Bresci and Talmadge Hayer] While there is no Bureau of Vital Statistics on Poets and Assassins in Washington, it seems safe to say that Paterson is the only American city with this distinction. Nor is it an accident. For Paterson is a prototypical American city, reflecting the fierce strains of hope and despair, of triumph and defeat, of myth and reality that are the enigmas of the American dream.”(13) The author Christopher Norwood seems a noir hero herself; yes, dude is a chick, and to see her photo on the back after reading the hard-nosed, brutal details inside is surreal (she was in 2005 nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her work with AIDS in the South Bronx). Even though she admits that Paterson is a sort of impossible object, “probably beyond description,” she gives deep detail of backroom deals, machine politics, mob control, and the city left behind (“sliced in half by the Passaic River, like a piece of old toast”—hey, I thought it was beyond description!). Placing Paterson in the sixties and seventies at the ass-end of a long history of urban neglect that goes back to a particular prejudice of the founding fathers for the rural, Norwood shows how Paterson is just the most extreme case of how the focus of money and resources in the suburbs, where there is less need of them, rots out the city and turns it into a human rights nightmare. Most interestingly, Norwood describes the accompanying problem of hysterical pride that has tended to blind people to the deep problems of the city, or is perhaps a calculatedly ideological blinder. She writes that between the Great Strike of 1913 and WWII, the only attempts to make the city a better place to live included absurd measures like the Women’s Republican Club vowing to knock the hats off of anybody who didn’t salute the flag (sound familiar?). When she starts to describe her contemporary moment, this almost rosy-noir past becomes tragic and ponderous, and we see Paterson as a trap; it may even be a black hole into which all of America has been sucked. Of course, I don’t know the gritty details of what’s happened in Paterson since 1974—I-80 did eventually get built through it and this long-awaited last link of the transcontinental interstate was supposed to be a deliverance.

In general, though, there is certainly a lot of hysterical hat knocking going on everywhere, the Sopranos have become pop cultural heros, and well, given that Paterson was home to the 9/11 assassins, I’m waiting for my quota of major Patersonian poets to even out the score once again. But if Norwood’s history is any guide to the future, don’t hold your breath. (Note: Bernard Kerik does not count.)

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Blogger Jonathan said...

"To knock the hat off someone." Is that a euphemism?

In French "un coup de chapeau" (literally "a blow to the hat") is a mark of respect for achievement.

Interesting idea that for every assassin born there is a great poet. Kind of makes sense.

5:00 PM, May 26, 2007  
Blogger Joe Milutis said...

They were literally going around and knocking the bowlers off supposed malcontents. And I don't think the phrase has any metaphorical significance in America. Maybe when people say "Hats off to you." But then, you are doing the doffing not some jazz-age Ann Coulter.

6:04 PM, May 26, 2007  

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