“I was about to speak to her/ but hesitated when I realized/ she was browsing through/ the Self-Help section,” writes Barry Gifford in his poem “In a Used Bookstore.” Appearing mid-way through his latest poetry collection New York, 1960, “In a Used Bookstore” revises a noir trope: the femme fatale reproaches the speaker for staring at her. “Can I help you?” she asks. I loved this flip in the conversation. She doesn’t need saving, because she can help herself.
Most of the poems in New York, 1960, are similar– a recollection of a brief interaction that sparkles with irony. The poems seem to be written at different times in Gifford’s life and settings vary between New York, Italy, Spain, California, and a more rural or at least suburban U.S. The collection reads like Gifford cleaned out a drawer of poems that didn’t quite fit in past collections but were worthy of publishing. There are lines that remind me of William Carlos Williams– elegant sparsity and attention to the physical.
Gifford is primarily known for writing noir. He’s the author of Wild at Heart and Perdita Durango, which were both were made into movies. He has Chicago ties, born on the Near North Side at the Seneca Hotel in 1946. There’s still a Seneca Hotel today in the Gold Coast. (Maybe some hotel guest is lucky enough to be staying in the very room in which Barry Gifford was birthed.) His father was a racketeer, and that meant moving around frequently. He spent much of his childhood living out of hotel rooms in South Florida, Havana and other places, and he finally returned to Chicago for high school. A prolific poet, author, and playwright, he’s written more than 40 books, and the Chicagoist regularly publishes some of his new stories.
In a departure from his crime fiction, New York, 1960 is tender nostalgia. It’s overrun with women, his mother, daughter, granddaughter, women in photographs, women from parties, women who waited on him at restaurants and women he lusted after. My favorite poem in the collection “The Unconquered Flame” is printed a few pages before “In a Used Bookstore” and it works through similar themes though it seems to recall an earlier time in Gifford’s life. He talks about his mother, “She was relieved, she said, to not/ have to bear the burden of being/ looked at. “I was frightened/ by the thought of others wanting/ to possess and destroy me.”/ Nevertheless, she never stopped/ asking those closest to her/ how she looked.” Gifford compares this quote from his mother to conversations with fading movie actresses and stories he’s heard about celebrated beauties. “The Unconquered Flame” is a good representation of the collection as a whole, a dialogue-driven reflection on moments, people and places Gifford, a wizened writer, has known.
New York, 1960 is published by Chicago press Curbside Splendor. It’s on sale for $10.