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Astoria by Malena Mörling

BOOK REVIEW- Astoria by Malena Morling

When I conceived of the idea behind the name of this blog, it felt a bit cheeky- an inside joke with myself of a life lived en route. At the time, I found myself a tea-wallah, jettisoning from one end of the country to the other all in the name of flavonoids and theanine.

During the pinnacle of those traveling years, I found myself in New York often, getting to experience the city as an adult not as a pre-teen on a family trip. The city pulsated with energy from the street providing its own soundtrack to the veritable throng of people packed onto sidewalks moving forward. In New York, something ignited inside of me- you can’t help but be thrust into the fire. Its energy feeds your own. Anything can happen there and that sense of possibility can catapult you into the unexpected if you let it.

Once, after wrapping up a gift trade show and packing away our exhibit and teas, I hustled over to a reading across town celebrating Galway Kinnell’s birthday, hosted by other famed poets like Gerald Stern. I squeezed my way into the back of the lecture hall and waited in line four people behind actress Michelle Williams as she gushed her appreciation for his work before it was my turn to wish him a happy birthday and get my book signed.

Another time, after attending a Q&A chat between Eater founder Ben Leventhal and Frank Bruni, I learned Anthony Bourdain was signing books. Without thinking about it too much, I wormed my way into that line, getting a book signed for Olga, a big Bourdain fan.

The city lives in transit and somehow in my mind’s eye when I think of it now as I’m back in the city by the Bay, New York City waits awake and diligent in the night for the coming morning and the people that will polka dot its streets and subway channels.

The energy that made my pulse quicken while in New York City ripples through Malena Mörling’s collection “Astoria“. She references cars, trains, bicycles and walking. She is writing as if in transit and as you read her poems, you find yourself in transit too. But it doesn’t stop there. Her language is spare and evocative. It is full of questions that linger in the air. The destination is often unknown. The journey is heightened by the incidentals. It is in transit. In “If there is another world,” she posits “If there is another world, / I think you take a cab there- / or ride your old bicycle / down Junction Blvd.”

After selecting a graduate studies program for poetry, I found myself surrounded by poets I admired and whose work I respected including Malena Mörling. While we never had a chance to work together beyond a workshop or two, her easy and observant manner made her someone whose company I  enjoyed as we both shared  a love of travel, art and international poetry.

Many of her poems in “Astoria” are set in an urban landscape and where some might write an easy gritty backdrop, instead she finds beauty in unexpected places. From “131st Street”:

“Or it is possible you’ll glimpse in passing / a warm and loving exchange / between two strangers / reflected / for a single moment / in an ornate bureau mirror / traveling on a flatbed truck / stopped at a red light here on 131st Street-”

Underneath the everyday rubric are the metaphysical insights like this one from “Wallpaper” where she connects world to self: “On one hand, / the wallpaper / of the world / and the wallpaper / of the mind / are separate / layers of / what is seen / and unseen.

One of the reasons I suggest reading “Astoria” as part of my curated reading list during National Poetry Month is her ability to transform the mundane into the magical by entertaining wonder and curiosity. And aren’t we all in need of a bit of wonder and curiosity? I think it’s not something that is actively encouraged or cultivated enough as adults.

“It’s amazing / we’re not / more amazed. / The world / is here / but then it’s gone / like a wave / traveling toward / other waves.”

Categories
Journeys Tales from the MFA

A poet’s celebration

javits new york

Culminating a marathon week of back to back tradeshows, I found myself in New York righteously upsetting several union workers. Amidst their yells and screams of “lady, you can’t move that” my 5’2 stature heaved and shoved the largest of our crates waiting at the back of the Javits Center, the last vestige of our seven hours of waiting in plain sight. I yelled back as I pushed, “What, are you going to fine me?!” And then promptly came to my senses seeing our aisle blocked, running back to the booth, to my colleague Charlie and telling him the union workers were on yet another break. He and I scurried back to the crate, and as he waved at the foreman, he pushed and I guided the crate back to our booth space, giggling as I ran backwards.

The cause of this kerfuffle: Galway Kinnell’s 80th Birthday Celebration at Cooper Union. It started at 7 p.m. and I was now pushing 7:20, so as much as I respected the union workers’ rights to a 15 minute break, not on this leg of my watch… so we decidedly installed the bookcases, table and components into the crate and I sped off, haling a taxi in this great race against the clock.

My friend Sherry had called and recommended sneaking in straight through the basement since they had begun turning people away, which went off without a hitch. I walked quietly into the packed auditorium, seeing at least fifty standing in the back, reminiscent of the San Francisco opera. I walked in as Komunyakaa was reading. Kinnell, both a National Book Award recipient and Pulitzer Prize winner sat in the front row, as scores of poet friends read selected poems. The impressive list of readers included: E.L. Doctorow, Mark Doty, Cornelius Eady, Marie Howe, Yusef Komunyakaa, Anne Marie Macari (NEC prof), Sharon Olds, Grace Paley, Gerald Stern (NEC prof) and C.K. Williams.

C.K. Williams described Kinnell as not only one of the great poets of our time, but one of the great readers, as well. His poetry had people laughing and then just as quickly, cut off all noise, dousing it in silence. When Kinnell read some of his own work, I quickly warmed to Williams’ description of the great reader in Kinnell. Macari said she had been sick and stashed away with some of Kinnell’s poems finding in them great company and expressing honor to have them.

After the reading, we saw Anne Waldman walking in the throngs of people toward the front. Even after only a few weeks, it was like seeing a friend. She leaves for India soon to read some of her energetic poems at a festival. Sherry asked if we were working together this semester, and she said no, but that there was a connection between us (we both incorporate spirituality into our work and have an appreciation for South Asia). Afterwards, Sherry, her husband Sam and I wormed our way down to where Gerry and Anne-Marie were standing. She is on sabbatical from NEC right now, so we didn’t really know each other, but I hope I get to work with her during my time in school. Jan Heller-Levi was standing with them and broke out into a big grin when she saw us. They all wished us their best on our first semester’s homework. Sherry and I talked about our struggle of getting it all in, doing all the homework, so their best wishes we took with us. I also commented that in the U.S. where it seems most elderly people are not respected or appreciated as in Asian contexts, in poetry there is such a sense of homage and honor paid to these poets. They still have much to teach us before moving on toward Styx’s shore.

Later, in the lobby, Sherry and I stood in line waiting to have Galway Kinnell sign our books. Just in front of us, Michelle Williams, that’s right of “Brokeback Mountain / Dawson’s Creek” fame stood also waiting for his signature. I loved that she who gives autographs often (was approached while in line by a girl asking for her signature, gushing about what a great performance she gave in BM), was now in the position of getting one. When Kinnell was signing her book, he mentioned to her that he had accidentally left a card inside the theater and asked her to retrieve it, which she did without any air of inconvenience.

Gerry and Anne-Marie were leaving and as they passed by, he looked at us. In his sonorous voice, he told Sherry, “Remember you’re a poet.” Then almost as an afterthought, he looked at me and said, “And you too.” The thumped my nose with his index finger in an endearing way. He makes me laugh… Sam and Sherry drove me back to my hotel and I was so glad for this evening reading and time spent with friends in a city that one day could be lovely to call my own.