Rarely reliable are the blurbs on the back of a book. Gerrit Henry's posthumous Time of the Night (Groundwater Press) is the exception that proves that this poet rules. I know, I know; I couldn't resist.
Reading Henry's poems, John Yau is put in mind of "a roller coaster ride through hell (or is it Manhattan?), if only to see what illusions of bliss and tatters of happiness remain to be had."
Eileen Myles sees the "glitzy ease, high art, smart remarks and chattiness" associated with the New York school but observes that "there's so much else," lists some of the contradictory impulses to be found in his work, and concludes that The Time of the Night " is "a whole collection of poems written by Hamlet" -- a magnificent statement, though Henry is as likely to identify himself with Ophelia as with Hamlet: I quote from his poem "Ophelia": "The moon / beams down on me, has the face / of Hamlet, his dark body invisible, / but is not he, has not even read the play, / and lifts me warm and fesh / into a second life where I dance / with him in a field of flowers / whose names / I cannot remember."
Carter Ratcliff, the third blurbist, characterizes Henry's lines as "down-to-earth speech haunted by heavenly song. Thus he evokes the small pleasures and great terrors of a life haunted by heartbreaking intuitions of the ideal."
None of this is blurbery. This is first-rate critical analysis.
Animated by the spirit of romance, Gerrit Henry's poems chronicle the quest for happiness that is an American's birthright. Like the composers of the show tunes he loves, he mixes sadness and gaiety, self-deprecatory humor and tears at midnight, He has a gift for rhyme. "To entertain, and to console: / These are my only goal. / And, surely, to make myself sigh. / And, maybe, to make your time fly." Some of his rhymes aspire to be "suaver than Cary Grant" -- and worthy of a sobriquet for John Keats: "I want it understood: / The good we do is not just done for good, / But for all time, all perpetuity. / Doves would cry, you wrote so easily."
In addition to the aforementioned, Gerrit loves Bach, Mozart, Schubert, and Mahler; the dancers of Degas; the voices of Judy Garland and Dinah Shore, and the dancing feet of Adele Astaire (Fred's sister and orignal partner). Henry exhibits a connoisseur's taste and knowledge, so you can learn a lot from his poems. His wit reminds me that he once likened himself to "Cole Porter's son." Consider the opening of "My Affairs," one of his list poems:
My affair with Andy Warhol
Lasted fifteen minutes.
My affair with Deborah Kerr
Was an affair not to remember.
During my affair with Liz Taylor, or Elizabeth,
I put on seventy pounds.
An ensuing affair wih Richard Simmons
Took care of a lot of that.
There is plenty here to make you smile. But there is also a rich quality of pathos that shows us just how good a poet we lost when Henry died in 2003, aged 53. I think of him today in part because of his poem "The Easter Story," which begins "Easter is an animally lonely day."
Oh, I almost forgot. Alex Katz's rendering of Gerrit -- a detail from a 1977 group portrait -- graces the cover making this as attractively produced as any book of poems I have seen in years.. -- DL