hanging loose press

Getting to Philadelphia: New and Selected Poems by Thomas Devaney

getting
.
By Charles Rammelkamp
.
In his Preface, Thomas Devaney references W.C. Fields’ snarky comment, “All things considered, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.” Urban legend has it that this is the epitaph on Fields’ gravestone, though that’s not actually so. But the comment highlights Devaney’s own relation to the City of Brotherly Love, where he grew up and currently lives (he teaches at Haverford College). In other words, “It’s complicated.” And yet, Getting to Philadelphia might easily be described as a love song to his native city. He writes in one of the new poems, “The Home Book”:
.
The Quaker City, City of Brotherly Love, Home of the Lenni-Lenape, City of
Neighborhoods, Bicentennial City, Death Headquarters, the Hidden City.
.
Not only a city of hard-luck and History, but how the heart and the fist
beat together as echoing impulse.
.
Five of the poems are new, The other thirty-eight come from five previous volumes. So this is truly a selection based on a lifetime, on an idea, on a theme.  What is that theme? Beyond a catchall “Philadelphia,” which might be a copout, the theme is no less “À la recherche du temps perdu” than is Marcel Proust’s masterwork.  Only, as the title one of the poems tells us, “Memory Corkscrews So You Can’t Remember It”: “Philly makes, Philly breaks.”  More generally, though, he notes in “The Blue Stoop,” “They say, Don’t forget where you’re from, /  but I don’t have to, I never left.” Not forgetting isn’t exactly the same as remembering, though, we learn.
.
So many of these poems take place in transit. The scenery flashes by , either from car or train or simply from the perspective of a Baudelairean flaneur strolling through the city. The title poem, from 1999’s The American Pragmatist Fell in Love, describes a train trip on Thanksgiving Day from New York to Philadelphia, the year a strong wind created havoc and caused injury during Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. From Penn Station to Trenton, Trenton to the SEPTA train, and
 .
Finally Aunt Sharon’s for dinner. Everyone there
and you say hello
and you say you were at the parade
and they ask, touching your arm, if you’re all right
because you’re told and will see footage
one of those gigantic balloons, Cat in the Hat, got loose
.
In other poems, the narrator is in a car, noticing: a “hobbled ’74 Pinto” in “Memory Corkscrews,” driving in circles; a Ford Focus in “OREGON AVE”; a Buick Special in “The Picture that Remains,” that “clicks, starts and goes.” In “Saturday Night Special” it’s a “’64 Caddie,” which may reappear in “Don Cook’s Brother’s Cadillac.” In “Rear Window” Devaney laments “The collapse of tenderness / and no place to park,” gazing through the rear window of his car.  In “River Song,” one of the new poems, the narrator is driving through New Jersey, which jumps past the window “like a hand-held film.”
 .
Other poems are from street view, the perspective of the flaneur strolling through the neighborhoods of his youth: “Algon Avenue,” “Mr. Uska and His Dog, 1973,” “That Old Block,” “Heads Up,” “Sessler’s or Hibberd’s Bookstore?” “The Legend of Cornbread,” one of the new poems, details the search for an elusive graffiti artist.
.
I remember most the piece between the Schuylkill Expressway and 30th Street
Station. A very tall, long-lettered piece. Who knows, a self-portrait? How the
flat red-fade and the dusty Krylon yellow disappear into each other.
.
In “The Home Book” we encounter Cornbread again.
.
Remembering a lunch cart at 19th and the Parkway. The guy ahead of me
says, “All right, Cornbread, see you tomorrow.” And there I am, next. Place
my order and work-up the courage, and, finally: “Are you Cornbread?”
“Yes I am,” he almost smiles. “That’s me,” he says. “Cornbread the writer?”
“Hell no,” Cornbread laughs. “That’s the North Philly Cornbread. I’m the
West Philly Cornbread!”
.
So many of Devaney’s lines and images seem like camera snapshots, and indeed, photography is an important element in his work. Not only are there photographs by Zoe Strauss, Will Brown and Léki Dago, but there’s also a poem entitled “Darkroom Diaries” (from Runaway Goat Cart), which we are told in a note was “found in a darkroom at Moore College of Art dated 1972. In “Pete Rose Meets Zoe Strauss” the poet talks baseball and the glory of the 1980 Phillies with his photographer friend.  Devaney collaborated with Will Brown on The Picture that Remains, his book of poems based on Brown’s photographs of Philadelphia in the 1970’s, from which nearly a dozen of these poems are collected.
.
Devaney gives a shout-out to a number of other Philadelphia poets and artists as well. In “The Home Book” he gives a nod to Kevin Varrone and his wife, Pattie McCarthy, prize-winning poets who teach at Temple University.  Getting to Philadelphia is dedicated to poet Francis Ryan.
.
In its detail, does Getting to Philadelphia succeed in recovering the past, corkscrewed though memory is?  The “wild marching band of memory” he mentions in “Morning in Runnemede”? The answer is, well, yes, I guess so, to the extent anybody ever can. As Devaney writes in “That Old Block,”
.
Everyone knows and nobody does.
Even back then it was far away;
Even to the blocks not far off,
It was another world. It always was.
 .
.
Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by Future Cycle Press.
.
.