Poet Edward Field still standing ‘After the Fall’


By Stephen Wolf

For a half century now poet Edward Field has wound around his Greenwich Village streets not as the relic portrayed in his self-effacing poem, “The Last Bohemians,” but rather as a productive, enduring treasure of an American poet with a clear and purposeful concern. Editor of “A Geography of Poets,” author of more than ten books of poetry, several novels in collaboration with Neal Derrick, and his recent, marvelous memoir of Village bohemia, “The Man Who Would Marry Susan Sontag,” Field has won prestigious awards for poetry including one for a lifetime achievement, though this man is very much still standing.

“After the Fall: Poems Old and New” is his most recent book from the University of Pittsburgh Press — a publisher crucial to the life of contemporary poetry. The book, whose cover features a photograph taken from Ground Zero looking upward to an empty sky, is composed of two parts: twenty of his most recent poems, including the haunting, epic title-piece “After the Fall,” and a retrospective of his past work, chosen by the poet with all the heart-felt faith and mind-ridden doubt inevitable from such choices. Like the best of poetry this collection is topical and timeless, particular and universal. As with all of Field’s work, the poems are written in a natural sounding, less literary style, where the language, he says, is “invisible.”

“Poetry is no different than newspapers,” Field vehemently declared over a beer at Café Riviera, not far from his home at Westbeth. “What you think about is what you should write about.” Evident from the scope and depth of even this single volume, Ed Field thinks about many things — today’s world, his own past, the city of New York, aging, love — but what has most influenced his poetry and what he sees missing in much contemporary poetry is politics. “What good is poetry,” he states in the first line of the first poem in this new collection, “if it doesn’t stand up/ against the lies of government.” Believing that poetry’s central purpose is “to save the world,” Field shakes his fist in the poem “What Poetry Is For?” and wonders “Why aren’t more poets shouting from the rooftops?” He warns us of a government “creating hatred wherever we go and dangerous enemies/ who can fly planes with breathtaking accuracy/ into our arrogant towers.” The book’s title piece “After the Fall” is a most haunting poem, and at over 200 lines and eight pages, one of the longest about the lingering heartache of our city’s great loss, expressing what many of us feel but only a poet can articulate, not only about that day but of now and into the future. “I don’t want to think of/ those inside the planes,” he writes in his characteristically clear, accessible voice, “I don’t want to think of those trapped on the high floors.” The poem is similar to the legend promising a kingdom if, for one minute, you do not think of a white horse; “After the Fall” conjures up by words alone the very images we try to suppress: “I don’t want to see/ the people jumping…I don’t want to see the firemen running up the stairs.” Aware that “the grit under my shoe soles” are “their pulverized bones,” the poet trudges his Downtown neighborhood uttering hopelessly to himself, “I don’t want any of this to happen/ but it plays over and over again.”

The remainder of this new collection is comprised of poems from previous books beginning with his first, published by Grove Press in 1963 titled “Stand Up, Friend, With Me.” That title — alluded to in this new collection’s first line when the poet denounces poetry that “doesn’t stand up” for what’s right — became a placard proclaiming openness and unity during early Gay Rights demonstrations.

Those same words appear again in a wonderfully playful, though quite different context in his poem “A Man and His Penis.” Having traveled far down the road now (“eighty I keep saying to myself” he writes in “Dead Man Walking”), the poet asks his “old acquaintance” (with which he’s “roamed the nights away” and “got into some pretty tight fixes” but now “In our golden years” it “make[s] few demands”) to “stand up, old friend, with me/ and take a bow.” Between that first collection in ’63 and this firm, recent tribute, Field writes with a tenderness and humor fired by his undefeated, uncompromised convictions. In “World War II” he recalls harrowing events as a navigator bombing Germany (as a second lieutenant in the Air Force, the poet flew 25 missions; shot down and ditched in the freezing Atlantic, he was soon put back in service with “dead crewmen replaced by living ones”). In the sexy, tender “Taking My Breath Away,” he writes of Neal Derrick, his companion for over forty years who “even at the age of seventy…takes my breath away.” Field raptures as lovingly of New York, “a people paradise” where “the big event here/ is the streets, which are full of love” though the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center “still scream[s] for the forest, like a wild animal who love[s] freedom and topple[s] to the saws of commerce.” In “Graffiti” he blesses “all the kids who improve the signs on the subways,” and in one of his most tender and ennobling poems “The Last Bohemians,” the poet looks back a half century at his past and the past of Greenwich Village.

Leftovers from the old Village, we spot each other

drifting through the ghostly

high-rental picturesque streets, ears echoing

with typewriters clacking and scales and arpeggios

heard no more, and meet fugitive in coffee shops,

partly out of friendship, but also, as we get shabbier and rarer,

from a sense of continuity like, hey! We’re historic!

and an appreciation, even if we never quite got there,

at what our generation set out to do.

Writing of this city and his era, Edward Field continues adding to his legacy of work with the political fire of Allen Ginsberg and, like Whitman, for the common man who now, unlike so few of our finest poets, has the perspective of age. These days he enjoys performing his poetry more than seeing it in print, for when he reads to others he knows each word will be understood. (“Besides,” he adds confidentially, “it’s good for people to see I’m very much alive.”) Still, as he writes in “Dead Man Walking,” each time he passes by the Village Nursing Home he imagines the voices saying to him “You think you’re so smart, Pops,/ you’ll soon be right here, with us.” Until then Ed Field has much still to do. With dark and lively eyes he whispered urgently, “At my age you don’t put things off,” and then returned, with loping, youthful strides, into the Village night.

Stephen Wolf is the editor of “I Speak of the City: Poems of New York” which includes Edward Field’s poems “New York” and “The Last Bohemians.”