The Hoboken School of Poetry

Here’s a classic tale from the dawn of Hoboken’s gentrification. In the early 1970s, Sada Fretz, a book critic at Kirkus Reviews, had tired of commuting on “the weary Erie railroad with its un-air-conditioned cars and unexplained long stops,” as she recounts in an essay in From Another Time: Hoboken in the 1970s. So she and her husband decided to check out the mile square city a PATH ride away from Manhattan. “Our suburban neighbor was not merely incredulous. He seemed downright offended. The man had grown up in Hoboken, and when Curly and I said yes, we were looking for a house there, he stood up from his perpetual lawn trimming and stabbed the air in our direction with his garden shears. ‘Do you know how long I had to save,’ he shouted, ‘to get out of Hoboken?’”

To walk around Hoboken today, you might never know that it spent half of the last century in decline. When I last saw Washington Street several years ago, I decided that the city’s basic services were now day spas, real estate offices, and wireless stores, plus bars and restaurants with outdoor tables busy with young Wall Streeters in good moods and good suits. The creative vagabonds of today, I realized, must be over in Brooklyn. But when I landed in Hoboken in 1981, fresh out of college in California where I’d basically majored in backpacking the High Sierras, I underwent cultural shock. Though I had a nice third floor apartment upstairs from the Clam Broth House, I seemed to hear everything down on the street: boom boxes blasting Grandmaster Flash, lovers’ quarrels in Spanish that spilled out of the bar, and one Sunday morning the three winos who lived on our stoop joining together to sing in their draino baritones the disco hit, “It’s fun to stay at the Y-M-C-A.” They were pathetic and hilarious, good natured and destitute, the perfect choir for those conflicted yet endearing times still fresh in my memory thirty years later. Love in the City of Grudges is my reply.

The one thing I didn’t do in ten years in Hoboken was go to a poetry reading. Maxwells to hear indie bands? Absolutely. The community hall to hear our local film making hero, John Sayles? Most definitely. But a poetry reading? Please. I had a life. Not until several years after moving into Manhattan did I catch the poetry bug. And not until I lived by a stream in a cottage in Woodstock did I begin writing about Hoboken. Which means that I never met Hoboken’s unofficial poet laureate, Joel Lewis, though the two of us must have passed each other on the Washington Street sidewalk. A tried and true New Jersey urbanite who has lived through many changes, Joel has published a handful of books plus an anthology. His 1992 collection, House Rent Boogie, describes the city I remember. Here’s one that gives the lay of the land.

Hoboken In Advance Of The Sunset

Needless and undefined dimensions
limn my walk, or jazz’s intuitive process
and the voluptuous latitudes that name a city.
The ancient air flails above my head,
& the menu of Washington Street seems a utopia
of muscular boys, aged young mothers,
and one old German bakery
still absorbing City Hall’s whale
in its strudel-full panes.

The quiet tension of massed isolation
plays against the slanting presence
of late afternoon light. The streetlights
change in chronic order and a blue Domino pizza wagon
burns rubber out towards the lowlands of Frank Sinatra Drive
as my thoughts swerve towards
my funhouse reflection in an owl woman’s glasses.
A mind sets up its scenery, memory dubs in the dialog,
the city goes outside its history, its soundtrack
within the radios of a teenage nation.

The resurfaced brownstowns are walls of origin
and entry. And behind their walls: a river—
organized water with one idea. Twilight creeps
above the Yardley’s neon, boosted
by Linden’s fierce petroleum sirocco. We
like it like that. I arrive to
listen. The reticent world’s sense of the fabulous.

Joel tells me that the bakery mentioned in this poem, which I remember as a pleasant but quiet place where I had my afternoon Chinese cookie and decaf, is now on a TLC show called “Cake Boss.” That’s Hoboken for you: rags to riches.

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The Hudson Valley Poetry Blog is produced by Will Nixon, author of My Late Mother as a Ruffed Grouse and Love in the City of Grudges.

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