Two Poems by Edward Field

Gather ‘round, kids!  It’s obscure poet time!

Maybe you’ve heard of Edward Field, maybe you haven’t.  He wrote the narration for an Academy Award winning documentary, which seems to be his greatest claim to fame.  His existence and work as a poet, though, seems to have gone largely unnoticed, despite the fact that he has published many books and won numerous awards.  (I have come to the conclusion that he is obscure because the Poetry Foundation, my favorite site when I feel like browsing for poems, does not have a single poem of his in their vast online collection.)

Field (with whom I immediately identified simply due to the fact that we both have last names that are nature nouns) was born on June 7th, 1924 in Brooklyn.  His family is Jewish, and much of his poetry grapples with his relationship with his father, the difficulties he encountered as growing up Jewish in New York City, and the city itself.  He left New York when he joined the Air Force during World War II, flying 25 missions as a navigator.  He began writing during the war, and returned to New York briefly to study at NYU before returning to Europe to begin a serious career as a writer.  His poems appeared in magazines such as Botteghe Obscure, Evergreen Review, The New York Review of Books, Wormwood Review, Exquisite Corpse, and American Poetry Review, before his first book, Stand Up, Friend, With Me, won the Lamont Award in 1962 and later won a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Prix de Rome, and the Shelley Memorial Award.  The film, To Be Alive, for which he wrote the narration, won an Academy Award for best documentary short subject in 1966, and his collection of poetry, Counting Myself Lucky (which my awesome girlfriend found in a used bookstore and gave to me), was honored with a Lambada Award in 1992.  He has also edited numerous poetry anthologies and written several novels in collaboration with his partner and fellow writer, Neil Derrick.  According to the obviously infallible expertise of the internet, he and Derrick live in New York, the city that, despite his professed need to travel to foreign places, Field finds impossible to ever leave completely.

A previous owner of my copy of Counting Myself Lucky went to the trouble of listing the things he/she likes about Edward Field:
What I Love About Edward Field
-his ability to show his vulnerability + insecurity in an honest and playful way
-his idiosyncratic imagination
-his lack of fear about using humor, subtle humor at that
-he needs to write in order to survive
-his honesty
-his embracing of his neuroses and how that makes him quirky and gives him character
-he confronts real + difficult life experiences, and also details about life
-he is humble

Of all the qualities that my anonymous predecessor listed next to the table of contents, the one that struck me in all of Field’s work was his simple honesty.  There is never a question that when Field writes, he is writing about himself.  I knew that I was not reading a fabricated tale, but being given the opportunity to spy, in a way, on another person’s life.   And the life to which I was made privy was strikingly like my own – his constant reflection on how he is like and unlike his parents, his need for poetry coupled with his questioning of that very pursuit, his preoccupation with foreign places, his understated yet clear homosexuality.  His style of writing is very different from mine, but there is no denying our similarities.  And though I have labeled him as obscure, I dream of reaching his level of poetic accomplishment.

Though I cannot share with you the entire collection (and truly, the poems should be read as a collection, for when they are, they are a window into Field’s struggles, joys, and life as a whole – they are a biography, and indeed, one of the poems is titled “Bio”), but I will share two poems that particularly struck me and that, I think, go well together:

Song: Trop Tard pour Paris

Returning to France after years
I can only feel regret
for a life I never lived.
Too late now, I say,
trop tard pour Paris.

But maybe a part of me didn’t leave
in the long ago of my youth
when, broke, I signed on the freighter home,
but stayed behind as a kind of ghost
to live a parallel life to mine.

Here, in the so-familiar Parisian air
is still the suspicion of a ghostly me,
skinny as ever, unchangeably stubborn and young,
who never got on that boat, and unlike me,
didn’t need any money or a job to stay.

And while I lived out my New York life
analysts, transient loves, the years –
my Other went on floating through the chill mists
of the city he could never bear to leave,
the only place he could ever feel at home.

And yet, by giving up Paris, I gained
the rest of the world, it’s true, though I know
it’s here I should have lived my life.
Now it’s too late, too late for me,
trop tard pour Paris.

New York

I live in a beautiful place, a city
people claim to be astonished
when you say you live there.
They talk of junkies, muggings, dirt, and noise,
missing the point completely.

I tell them where they live it is hell,
a land of frozen people.
They never think of people.

Home, I am astonished by this environment
that is also a form of nature
like those paradises of trees and grass

but this is a people paradise
where we are the creatures mostly,
though thank God for dogs, cats, sparrows, and roaches.

This vertical place is no more an accident
than the HImalayas are.
The city needs all those tall buildings
to contain the tremendous energy here.
The landscape is in a state of balance.
We do God’s will whether we know it or not:
where I live the streets end in a river of sunlight.

Nowhere else in the country do people
show just what they feel –
we don’t put on any act.
Look at the way New Yorkers
walk down the street.  It says,
I don’t care.  What nerve,
to dare to live their dreams, or nightmares,
and no one bothers to look.

True, you have to be an expert to live here.
Part of the trick is not to go anywhere, lounge about,
go slowly in the midst of the rush for novelty.
Anyway, besides the eats the big event here
is the streets, which are full of love –
we jug and kiss a lot.  You can’t say that
for anywhere else around.  For some
it’s a carnival of sex –
there’s all the opportunity in the world.
For me it is no different:
out walking, my soul seeks its food.
It knows what it wants.
Instantly it recognizes its mate, our eyes meet,
and our beings exchange a vital energy,
the universe goes on Charge
and we pass by without holding.


Biography of Edward Field in Counting Myself Lucky, Black Sparrow Press, Santa Rosa, 1992.


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