1929

by Bernard Henrie
The Waters
Second Place, August 2013
Judged by Robert Sward


I came to New York City a young, unpolished
South African diamond; handsome as David
Prince of Wales when first meeting Wallis;
debts of a sun god in shops along 5th Avenue.

Cheated a little on Wall Street — front running
for large banks against small banks, learned
enough French to pronounce parfums sprinkled
over dancing girls and somnambulant debutantes.

Sped in taxis yellow as South American bananas
and drank in Spanish Harlem; anonymous girls
with eyes black as storms kissed me, Tanqueray
and crushed ice on rouged lips.

Half-draped blond bodies, silver bodies beside
mauve tea lamps and RCA phonographs;
Brownstones along Lexington Avenue. Tarot
card readings and séance reconnections
with the lingering dead;

played poker like a maniac, bet the Yale-Harvard
game, sat ringside at Yankee Stadium
for the Sharkey vs. Tommy Loughran fight.

My mother visited and for five days I stopped
drinking.

Became engaged to Glenda Tilton, but she dived
off the pier at Far Rockaway Beach, they found her
three days later wrapped in sour green sea weed,
show girl legs albino white and nibbled at the edge.

I smoked all night above the East River, vodka
the color of snow I imagine at Moscow’s Bolshoi.

A margin call on US steel cleaned me out. Falling
wheat prices in Kansas made certain I was poor.

A Santa Fe took Glenda’s coffin to her parents,
the train stole away like a guest leaving a party.
I was too hung-over to recall the rhyme scheme
of a villanelle.

I wore white shoes. It was that long ago.


Second place goes to the gifted author of the poem "1929," which I like for its poet-musician's voice, its details, images that are at once "real" and that ring historically true. I like, too, the sense of the speaker whose voice grabs you right from the beginning, "I came to New York City a young, unpolished / South African diamond..." I personally find it hard not to want to read on... "Cheated a little on Wall Street---front running / for large banks against small banks."

I feel I should know who Glenda Tilton is ("became engaged to Glenda Tilton, but she dived/off the pier at Far Rockaway Beach..."). Is she the lover of a famous musician? I try Googling the name, Glenda Tilton, but that doesn't help in identifying her.

It's true: The more things change, the more they stay the same. There's that and the sense the author is writing "naturally," that is, in a particular dramatic voice, which the poet sustains throughout and does so without forcing the material, without artificially striving for effects.

Because the poem concerns a young man who came to New York in 1929, well, going by the title, one would imagine the poet is writing in the voice of a famous "personality," perhaps a jazz musician.

Just a hint of Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" in the speed, the conjuring up of New York City in a series of flashes ("Brownstones along Lexington Avenue. Tarot / card readings and seance reconnections / with the lingering dead..."

Love the energy of the poem, and only wish I knew more about the Glenda Tilton reference and how, dramatically, she figures into this poem beyond the facts and/or clues we are given.

--Robert Sward

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