“The day turned into the city / and the city turned into the mind.” So Jessica Greenbaum begins her breathless, single-sentence poem “I Love You More Than All the Windows in New York City.” Often when we think of the kinds of landscapes that poets physically traverse and turn their minds to, we think not of the city but of the countryside. The conception of walking as a pastoral pastime to stimulate one’s creativity comes in large part from the legendary rural rambling of the Romantic poets: William Wordsworth wandering lonely as a cloud and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s week-long solo walking tour of the Cumbrian mountains. But Greenbaum’s poem participates in, and perhaps even helps define, an equally rich tradition of the poetry of urban wandering.
An aimless urban walk—no map, no GPS—can resemble the experience of flipping through a poetry collection: the turn you take on a given street or to a given page, the forms or structures you’re drawn to, the storefront or poem you pass in favor of another. Or as Michel de Certeau puts it in a chapter called “Walking in the City” in his landmark 1984 book, The Practice of Everyday Life, “There is a rhetoric of walking. The art of ‘turning’ phrases or ‘stylistic figures’ finds an equivalent in an art of composing a path.”
The sign is small, maybe a few inches by a few inches. A friendly-looking bear with his hand over his stomach sits next to a rhyming poem. “I have cystic fibrosis / so please be fair / your germs are more / than I can bear,” which hovers over an imperative: “Please DO NOT touch the baby.” For just under ten dollars, you can purchase this sign and fasten it to a stroller or carrier or wherever anyone nearing your baby might be called off. When I saw it a few weeks after my son was born, I thought it was the saddest thing I’d ever seen.
I’m always proud of myself when I don’t mention cystic fibrosis to people who ask about my son, especially fellow new mothers. Platitudes feel indulgent and not untrue: sleep training is heinous, pumping is a pain, parent groups seem to breed judgment. The omission is invigorating and makes me feel temporarily powerful, an eager participant in the fantasy of how ecstatically grateful I might be, if I had nothing more than five months of sleepless nights to report.
I have a dirty little secret about airline food. I love it. I know of other foodies who so loathe the whole business that they now travel with smug little hampers of goodies so they can wrap themselves in a pashmina, turn on the expensive headphones and bury themselves in a private world of airborne luxury. But I can’t go that way.
There’s always been something incredibly exciting about communal eating while mashed into a seat and surrounded by the detritus of inflatable neck cushions, headphone cables, magazines and books. Long, long before hipster chefs were selling meat that had been cooked fashionably low and slow, cabin crew with fireproof legs and plastic smiles were serving chicken-or-beef that had spent most of a day being cooked, sealed, transported and stored.
Set in a madhouse in an era when straitjackets and feeding tubes represented the cutting edge of psychiatric health care, “The Ballroom” is a provocative account of the brutal effects of industrialization, poverty, sexism and misguided social policy on the hearts and minds of working people, and on women in particular.
Semple’s novel is a life’s worth of events presented over the course of a single day. And in presenting that life, she also compellingly portrays the “hamster wheel” existence all of us are faced with from time to time – the feeling of running as hard as we can but getting nowhere. And sometimes the life events that “unstick” us are not always the most pleasant or welcome.