Peter Gizzi reads and discusses James Schuyler's "February"
A chimney, breathing a little smoke. The sun, I can't see making a bit of pink I can't quite see in the blue. The pink of five tulips at five p.m. on the day before March first. The green of the tulip stems and leaves like something I can't remember, finding a jack-in-the-pulpit a long time ago and far away. Why it was December then and the sun was on the sea by the temples we'd gone to see. One green wave moved in the violet sea like the UN Building on big evenings, green and wet while the sky turns violet. A few almond trees had a few flowers, like a few snowflakes out of the blue looking pink in the light. A gray hush in which the boxy trucks roll up Second Avenue into the sky. They're just going over the hill. The green leaves of the tulips on my desk like grass light on flesh, and a green-copper steeple and streaks of cloud beginning to glow. I can't get over how it all works in together like a woman who just came to her window and stands there filling it jogging her baby in her arms. She's so far off. Is it the light that makes the baby pink? I can see the little fists and the rocking-horse motion of her breasts. It's getting grayer and gold and chilly. Two dog-size lions face each other at the corners of a roof. It's the yellow dust inside the tulips. It's the shape of a tulip. It's the water in the drinking glass the tulips are in. It's a day like any other.
James Schuyler, "February" from Collected Poems.
Copyright © 1993 by James Schuyler.
Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
I love James Schuyler’s poetry—its effortlessness and grace, its sound, its thick (and at times gnarly) descriptions. A palpable sense of irreality is everywhere present in it; his poems combine the attention of an ethnographic account with the charm of a great dinner guest. Add to this a private reading of the physical world imprinted on his nervous system. In his hyper-real descriptions, colors shift. The words shimmer. The “violet sea” verges on the violent. There’s a deeper cold behind the “gold and chilly” weather as he chronicles a major American city from his window. We see beauty and power twinned, the UN building on big evenings, and the green leaves of the tulips on my desk like grass light on flesh.
In one sense “February” is composed as a painstakingly specific catalog of discrete images. Each line is a surprise, delighting in the pleasures of coincidence, like “the pink of five tulips/ at five p.m.” Gradually we progress through the New York City day to the dust inside the tulip, to the shape of the tulip, the container the tulip is in (a glass), and the container the glass is in (this day).
“February” is not a tranquil Romantic recollection; it is active observation that creates the effect of recollection. Schuyler exchanges a syntax of memory and judgment for a syntax of simultaneity. He uncouples his sentences so that the electric spark must jump from noun to noun, and from event to event, no matter how disparate or seemingly unrelated. The gaps between his lines give us the experience of the passage of time, a verbal time-lapse photography, kind of. Schuyler is a watcher. If you look out the window long enough you can actually “see” time pass as the light and colors of the world shift. John Ashbery wrote “Everything has a schedule, if you can find out what it is,” and one might say that in this poem, “February,” Schuyler does the work to disclose this invisible schedule, revealing the seemingly random syntax of the physical world.
This world as he presents it is both reassuring and unstable. The “day before March 1st” is not always February 28th and by not naming it—but naming what is next to it—he draws attention to this hinge of seasonal, temporal change, this “leap.” The poem is partly about this passage, getting over the hump of winter, as the truck disappears over the hump of the hill, or the speaker “can’t get over” his latest observation. And in this simple gesture nature, commerce, and human reason are intertwined. It is this interconnectedness that makes Schuyler’s poems reassuring in spite of the instability of their surface. One has the sense of events and words being brought together out of necessity, to conduct a vision, giving the apparent randomness of living a sense of coherence and even inevitability.
I'm just visiting this voice I’m just visiting the molecular structures that say what I am saying I am just visiting the world at this moment and it's on fire It's always been on fire I'm saying this and it's saying me That's how it works, seesaw like The archive in the mouth and the archive is on fire That's the story The sun and the body and the body in the sun It was like this just like this The world that’s coming toward me And the world around me Around me are words saying this saying fire Saying something or all of it
Peter Gizzi (1959- ) was born in Alma, Michigan. He studied at New York University, Brown University, and the State University of New York at Buffalo. He is the author of several collections of poetry, including Archeophonics (2016), which was a finalist for the National Book Award. He has served as poetry editor for The Nation, and his honors include the Peter I.B. Lavan Younger Poet Award from the Academy of American Poets, as well as fellowships from the Howard Foundation, the Rex Foundation, the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation. He currently teaches in the MFA Program for Poets and Writers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
James Schuyler (1923-1991) was born in Chicago, Illinois. He attended Bethany College, and afterward joined the U.S. Navy. He is the author of several poetry collections, including The Morning of the Poem (1980), winner of the Pulitzer Prize. He also wrote several plays, novels, and art critiques. His honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the American Academy of Poets, as well as the Longview Foundation Award and a Frank O’Hara Prize for Poetry.