Views of the Hudson: A New York Book of Psalms by Angela Gardner
Shearsman Books, 2009
Angela Gardner's first collection of poetry, Parts of Speech, won the Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize for an unpublished manuscript in 2006 and was subsequently published a year later by University of Queensland Press. Views of the Hudson: A New York Book of Psalms is her second collection, although Gardner has published several books as a visual artist who also incorporates poetry with printmaking. Views from the Hudson was written during a visit to New York in 2008 as part of a Churchill Fellowship that aimed to investigate collaborations of poetry and printmaking for emerging practitioners.
Views from the Hudson contains sixty psalms that Gardner describes as sonnets although the majority of the work does not follow the traditional fourteen line structure of a sonnet. The poet explains at the beginning of the book that, ‘the poems are sonnets in that I count… the gaps as lines also.' There are only four instances where gaps do not appear and the full fourteen lines are used. The concept that the remaining pieces are sonnets does not hold the weight that it perhaps should in order to succeed. It would have been more valuable for Gardner to concentrate only on the premise that these poems are psalms about Manhattan.
Psalms are songs of worship. They encapsulate faith and were originally set to music for chanting. They are generally categorised into five sub-sections of the genre, namely hymns, laments, royal psalms, thanksgiving psalms and miscellaneous psalms that mix themselves up somewhere in the middle of several categories. The psalms of the New Testament are essentially celebrations about people and the struggle to live life under God. These psalms were not so much doctrinal statements, but rather pieces of work that acted as both poetry and prayer.
Gardner uses the basis of poetry as prayer to highlight her own worship of Manhattan, but her vision of New York has very little to do with a conventional view of God or the devout. In fact she portrays more or less a Godless society or one that is driven by money. It is a place where superficiality is celebrated and vanities come to the fore, a landscape that is warped by celebrity culture, consumerism and capitalism. It becomes more or less a place for the damned rather than something celestial.
The poet begins this journey with her own trip to New York, as the first psalm focuses on that most strange and ultra-aware state of travelling inside a plane. It is here that Gardner declares that ‘the world turns from us / not from our feelings'. From here the reader travels from arrival gate to a metropolis that glistens like modern Babylon and with just as much greed, narcissism and envy. Gardner makes known in Psalm ‘12' that Manhattan ‘is the place and everyone knows it / and I am here (do you detect triumphalism?)'
In a sense the poet gets wrapped up in the self-importance of this city. Her body reacts constantly to the white noise, to the ceaselessness of activity. Gardner's psalms therefore reach out for the solace of silence, for the preservation of individualism, but no such thing exists in a large city where all things effortlessly merge to become one living entity. In Psalm ‘39' Gardner declares that ‘if I lie down unable to get up / another will take my place.'
In many respects this vision is apocalyptic, although no great harm comes to the majority of humankind that lives there. Instead it appears that the inhabitants have somehow lost their souls to the endless shops, the overcrowding and the ‘slippage of values' (Psalm ‘38'). Such things appear to turn the cogs of this living organism that is Manhattan. In between dodgy characters, claustrophobia and the terrifying heights of skyscrapers in a post-9/11 age, the reader gets a sense that if you took away all the bells and whistles there wouldn't be anything underneath as so much is superficial and void of any true meaning. As Gardner implies, ‘emptiness is just emptiness' (Psalm ‘38').
In Psalm ‘29' Gardner comes very close to articulating a traditional psalm whereby she explains her own struggle in living under a manmade God:
the days remain unquiet
with the inequality of money
narrow passageways of loss or opportunity
Subdued in this metal box
a daily commute ends
an overwhelming vertical ascent
– not contemplative and slow
but fearful and enclosed
and with all the city below my feet
I am at my closest to prayer
It's an ambitious thing to incorporate worship and poetry into a modern collection. Such work requires a strong foundation, something that holds its own weight and is not afraid to shake things up at the same time. Unfortunately Views from the Hudson falters in this regard. When I picked this book up I wanted to go on a journey that was filled with insightful observation, but instead of this I was lead gingerly by the hand of a tourist that never quite went beyond being a wide-eyed outsider. I also wanted to read something that was deeply insightful, a commentary not only of Manhattan, but of how we live in the 21st Century. I craved something so much deeper than the shallowness of everyday media. Unfortunately I was left wanting.