Not so many years ago, this avenue of glass-fronted elegant buildings was no avenue at all, but a lonely area at the edge of the city, usually completely deserted at night. But in the here and now, an annual benefit for Poets House was held on River Terrace, with guests gathering at the expansive Poet’s House library then moving on to a dinner a few blocks away at Danny Meyer’s North End Grill. It was to be “an evening of friendship-in-poetry celebrating the sumptuous art of fine dining with poets Frank Bidart, Eleanor Chai, Daniel Halpern, Sharon Olds, former US Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, and Kevin Young.”
I remember an artists bar near Poets House, a place where we’d topple out the door at four in the morning whose neon light was the only one for many blocks around. We’d walk with a sense of overdone fun along the cobblestone streets, heading west through endless tired industrial buildings to watch the sun rise over the river. The end of our walks could well have been right at the very spot Poets House stands today.
It was good for a while, that bar, but then the bikers arrived and trouble began. The streets held that implied promise of imminent shift from safety to danger, from shooting pool and dancing to the juke box followed in the next second by the leather-clad arm of a huge biker rising up then down to slam a beer bottle against the bar – then moving with an angled shove forward to pull the shattered amber edge across the throat of the nice-guy artist who’d just made the mistake of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, in the space of a few seconds slicing open the throat of a man who’d used his days with pen, ink and paint describing beauty.
As I thought of that time and place past in what’s now a completely different space in that same geography, I wondered whether there’s any distinct answer as to precisely how friendship (as opposed to its alter-ego) actually happens.
Poets House itself is a welcoming space – open, with high ceilings, glass along one side with windows suspending an airy view over the Hudson, endless shelves of books with bright-colored bindings sliding along the long wall facing the windows.
At the door I’d expected to meet one person named Suzanne. Instead, in one of those moments that make life feel like Wind in the Willows, there were three lovely Suzannes, each of them welcoming guests to the party.
Upstairs the evening began with champagne or Italian sodas at the bar. The guests mingled – most of them seemed to know each other fairly well. The feeling was warm camaraderie. The poets were there. The people who created Poets House were there. Others were there. They wore suits, ties, silk flowing dresses, tweed and jodphurs. There was no one style. There was no one age, either.
There were speeches by hosts and poets to introduce the evening, then we were invited to move to the main repast of poetry readings/paired with fine wine/paired with fine dining, and we all wandered – rather congenially, considering the weather, through the icy wind the few blocks to the North End Grill.
There were poems. Poems . . . such that the servers standing at their assigned stations were quiet, rapt, staring, immersed. There was wine, offered as a sort of love potion by Neal Rosenthal, a man of wine, a friend of poets. There was food, perfect and subtle. As Daniel Halpern’s white fluffy mane, (leonine?) rose over the microphone, his voice – quiet for so large a man, an internal-looking voice, spoke of poets lost. Eulogies, which were needed. Friendship, which is what it was all about. On our heavy china plates, the char-grilled octopus offered its plump tentacles, aromatic, lemon-tinged.
There was a sense in this room not often seen – it was a belief in each other. A willingness, even an eagerness, to expound and to listen, to hear, to accept.
We heard of summer houses in Umbria, of sherbert-colored sweaters, of wine that has to be worked at for all twelve months, of profundity, of how the term “dessert wine” can be a farce. The words were song. We listed to elegy as the damp fresh salty anchovies listed sideways on the plate deliciously, and it’s certain we all wanted more.
I remember the word “abide”. The phrase “the candles and the tables laugh again”. There was transfixion and transfiguration. Well, this was an evening of friendship. There was laughter, goodwill, “seagulls” spoken at the exact moment flesh of soft silvered seabass was forked toward my mouth to be devoured dripping with as much beurre blanc as it could carry.
How to sum the evening up? This phrase went spinning by in the air over our heads as we sat breathlessly watching the poets – “If money can buy such nice ankles . . .”
Money can’t buy such nice ankles, of course, but sharp intelligence and love, determination, persistence and long years of steady, tenacious work by the arts administrators who form the Board of Poets House have made this living place for words come alive, and to grow Possibility.
“Friendship-in-Poetry”, as a concept, as a theme, at the Poets House benefit dinner showed New York City at its best, with poetry at its richest.
Ink runs from the corners of my mouth. / There is no happiness like mine. / I have been eating poetry. (Mark Strand)
To find out more about Poets House, go here.
You can find Karen Resta’s writing at The Danforth Review, The Best American Poetry Blog, The Christian Science Monitor, The Inquisitive Eater, The Red Rose Review, One Million Stories, Serious Eats, eGullet, The Gilded Fork as well as at her own blogs foodwritingencyclo, foodgeekology, and Postcards From the Dinner Table. She lives in a part of Brooklyn nobody ever talks about.