Jim Coppoc’s Manhattan Beatitude, 1997

A version of the following review will appear in the next issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics.

Manhattan Beatitude, 1997The first words that popped into my mind when I opened Jim Coppoc’s Manhattan Beatitude, 1997 (One Small Bird P, 2009) were, “A graphic poem?!? That’s a cool idea.” Manhattan Beatitude, 1997 is a long, illustrated, 16-sectioned poem. The editor’s note hints that this is one of the first graphic poems, and I say, “Why not have a graphic poem amid the myriad of other literary and graphical forms? And if you are going to be innovative like that, then why not conjure up the ghost of Allen Ginsberg while you do it?”

I didn’t know this was going to be a poem about the area and happenings surrounding Ginsberg when he died. I didn’t know it would be, in part, a reminiscence of Ginsberg, but as soon as I started reading the poem, I could hear Ginsberg being invoked. One, at first, may hear Whitman, but the rhythms are Ginsberg’s. They echo his chant-like tones.

On one level, Manhattan Beatitude, 1997 is a rhythmic allusion to Ginsberg. I don’t hear rhythmic allusions that much anymore, and when I do, which is really rare, it’s only for a line or two, so it’s a pleasure to hear a well-performed rhythmic allusion. At times, there are also literary allusions, such as to “Kaddish,” and sometimes the literary and rhythmic allusions happen together, such as in one of the opening stanzas.

blessed streetlights hard filtered through the urban haze on the
faces of the club kids and closet freaks winding their way
through Washington Square Park waiting for a hit. blessed the
man in the surplus fatigues calling cannabis cannabis
   cannabis. blessed the hidden transactions, the knowing glances
of chessmen as they con the tourist fortune in five dollar
increments.                                   (p 3-4)

For part of that I hear line 2 of Howl:

dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking
for an angry fix

But don’t think this book is filled with allusions. It’s not. It’s much smarter and better than that. The allusions are generally rhythmical, and the literary ones are subtle, like the above mentioned. The allusions won’t get in the way, and you won’t miss anything if you don’t see or hear them. The poem works way beyond that, as it is really concerned with Manhattan Square Park at the time of Ginsberg’s death.

GeezerBy page six, despite the rhythms and subtle allusions, we are sure this book is surrounding Ginsberg and his death, which happens at the same time as when we are introduced to the well-made character Geezer. A full character, Geezer, is created in only two lines and a drawing. Before I forget, Amy Dixon’s artwork really enhances the tone of the poem, especially the muscular “Amen” on pages 22-23. (I hope no one minds the reprint of Geezer here.)

We can also learn something about lines, tension, and line breaks from this poem. Here’s part of section VIII:

1997. Princess Diana is dead.
B.I.G. is dead. William S
Burroughs is dead. Denise
Levertov is dead. Red
Skelton is Dead. Heaven’s
Gate are dead. Gianni
Versace is dead. Deng
Xiaoping is dead. Mother
Teresa is dead. James
Michener is dead. Mike
Royko is dead. Colonel
Tom Parker is dead. Anton
LaVey, the immortal, is
dead. James Dickey is
dead. Jaques Cousteau is
dead. William Brennan is
dead. My grandfather is

1997. Allen Ginsberg is dead.

The section starts with the most-noted death of 1997 – Princess Diana. The line is a simple sentence, a statement.  And then another simple sentence. Then the line break on “S”. The next line starts with “Burroughs,” and it starts hard. A hard first syllable. It slams hard, so does each last name in lines 3 through 13. The “dead” that falls in the middle of each of those lines acts as a pivot connecting the former person with the upcoming person. The breath after “dead” also causes a respite. A moment of prayer and a moment of hope – maybe the next mentioned person won’t be dead. But the next mentioned person is dead. Then the pattern is broken in line 13. There’s still that hope after the “dead” in line 12, which carries over to line 13 and it is sustained when we read “the immortal, is.” Look at that line break. All the preceding lines have “dead,” but here we get “the immortal” and the verb of life, “is,” but life is taken away on line 14’s “dead.” In this manner, each person in lines 13 through 18 is alive for a line – “James Dickey is” for one line alive, but after the line break, he is “dead.”  (Interesting with James Dickey because he once said something like “Death is the easy part. It’s the dying that’s hard.”)

The working with the “dead” in the different locations in the lines and how it affects the lines’ tensions and rhythms is successful in the immediate line-by-line use, and it also creates the somber tone in “1997. Allen Ginsberg is dead.” A tiny bit of that is set up by mentioning the dead grandfather, since that creates a universal association we can all relate to. And I think most people will relate to this long poem and enjoy it.

I’m happy Manhattan Beatitude, 1997 exists. We need more good-spirited Ginsbergian energies out there. We need more good long poems like this.//

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