Vital Signs

Jennifer Krasinski on an Elastic City walk with Wayne Koestenbaum

Wayne Koestenbaum and walkers on an Elastic City tour of the East Village. (All photos: Kate Glicksberg)

SUMMER IN NEW YORK CITY, no matter how heavy the weather, performs its possibilities to those who stick it out. The wealthy vanish, at least on the weekends, and the college students go home, or wherever. The tourists somehow stay in their designated areas, and for these few months, for those or other more charitable reasons, the city feels as though it’s got something of its character back.

“Pardon my shtick,” Wayne Koestenbaum grinned to a dozen of us gathered one warm July evening in the East Village for “Marking Marks,” a walk the poet-painter-critic was leading in homage to Frank O’Hara’s 1953 poem “Second Avenue.” We were just a few steps west of 441 East Ninth Street, where O’Hara lived in a second-floor apartment from 1959 to 1963, the years during which he was, according to some, in fullest possession of his poetic powers. “I revere Frank O’Hara,” Koestenbaum explained, “and this might be my favorite of his poems.” Koestenbaum himself is revered as a vigilante on behalf of the glittering intellect. If John Ashbery once described “Second Avenue” as “such a difficult pleasure,” that evening, Koestenbaum praised it as “a poem big enough to contain [O’Hara’s] consciousness and the city’s consciousness as well.”

We were handed sketch pads, water-soluble markers, and pencils, and Koestenbaum explained that this evening’s walk would be punctuated by his prompts. “We will be on the lookout for events,” he said, “responding with linguistic marks or nonlinguistic marks”—meaning that our observations or ideas would be expressed within or without their sanctioned symbolic order. “Quantity, not quality,” Koestenbaum insisted. “We are working in the spirit of Frank O’Hara, who was always inspired.” Glancing at the graying sky, he added, “Let’s hope it doesn’t rain,” but thus far only the air conditioners seemed to be spitting on us.

Our first prompt: “Who should be on this street with us right now?” Koestenbaum asked. All us participants staked out room of our own on the sidewalk, making marks toward the missing. Taylor Mead came to mind, though he had lived further downtown, on Ludlow Street, for over three decades. I drew a shaky lineup of stick-figure cats in honor of the dozens of ferals he’d famously cared for in his tiny apartment. Other names too: Tally Brown, Ron Vawter, Ruth Maleczech.

Left and right: Wayne Koestenbaum and others make marks.

More prompts followed from Koestenbaum every few minutes:

“Find an event on the ground to respond to.”

“Bring to mind a shattered romance and make marks toward it.”

“Write something impermissible. Erase it, then reconstruct something from its erasure.”

“Are you guys in an art class?” two Hiltonesque blondes stopped to ask. I thought of how to explain, but decided I didn’t want to. “Yep,” I said. “Cool,” the taller one said. “I totally thought so.” And they walked away. “Population Generic,” I scribbled.

After working in our own sidewalk solitude, trying to mark the particular magic of the street and its grime, we all crossed Avenue A together into Tompkins Square Park, where Koestenbaum instructed us to walk as a group, looking for “omens that signify catalysts for our creative endeavors for the next year.”

“An oversize shirt,” one of the participants pointed to a man walking by. “There’s a toothbrush on the ground,” offered another, scribbling in his sketchpad. “It looks pretty clean too.” Koestenbaum pointed his pencil at a limp plastic bag, weighed down with what looked to be lunchtime garbage, hanging from the park’s iron fence. “Can I turn this into an omen,” he asked us, “or is it too disgusting?”

A rat running across our path. A good omen! A black sock in the dirt. Another one! Fireflies flickering in the descending dusk. The best omen! Someone said that a spray of purple blossoms was an omen because “it’s the time of night when purple disappears.”

“The disappearance of purple is a good thing,” Koestenbaum confirmed and made marks in his notepad.

Signs of our fortunes and futures were revealing themselves at a ravishing velocity, so much so that Koestenbaum announced, “I’m willing to go into the area of canned creativity.” Together, we walked toward a busking jazz quartet who’d been playing Dave Brubeck’s “Take 5” for well over fifteen minutes. Someone pointed to the female figure standing atop the Temperance Fountain, and we all looked up. Seconds later, we heard a loud clinking sound and looked down. A tap from a tap shoe lay on the ground.

Evidence of rhythms gone rogue, I wrote.

It was now time for an impromptu exhibition of our work. We tacked selections from our notepads onto the park fence, leaning in to admire each other’s marks. “Is there something about the arrangement of the work that’s an omen? Something about the v-ness of it?” Koestenbaum asked, and one of the participants raised his hand and said that he didn’t understand exactly what Koestenbaum meant by omen.

“An omen is a detail that we overinvest with meaning. We allow it predictive powers,” the writer explained, citing André Breton’s Nadja as an instance of an author “harvesting the city for signs on the trajectory of a visionary nature.” He paused for a moment, smiling. “People don’t talk credulously about omens anymore,” he said. Lesson: New Yorkers may rightly mourn the blanding of their city, but its possible witchcraft, its omens, have not vanished; it’s those who recognize and read them who are going, gone.

Mark-making selections on a fence in Tompkins Square Park.

In his 2010 essay “Frank O’Hara’s Excitement,” Koestenbaum writes that “Second Avenue” expressed—nearly erupted—with “a longing for simultaneity,” a desire for the past and the present to hook up hotly in carnal, eternal immediacy:

Candidly. The past, the sensations of the past. Now!

O’Hara died on July 25, 1966, at the age of forty, having been hit by a dune buggy on Fire Island the day before. It is sad and strange to think that as of this July, one whose poems continue to pulse and enrapt with such tender force will have been gone from the world for nine years longer than he was in it.

As the sky continued to darken, Koestenbaum waved for the group to gather in a circle below a park lamp. Handing each of us a section from “Second Avenue,” he asked that we choose a line or phrase or word to read aloud, round robin. We bowed our heads over our papers, angling them toward the glowing lamplight. In this, an unintended gratitude pose to O’Hara’s excitement, we performed a “Second Avenue” cut-up, pasting together a poem of our own.

which has lines, cuts, drops, aspirates, trembles with horror

your distinction is merely a quill at the bottom of the sea.

and I am a nun trembling before the microphone

kisses on the medulla oblongata of an inky clarity!

You will say I am supernatural.

As we read, the rain began: a parting omen, perhaps to be read as tears if you felt maudlin, a shower if you felt unclean, relief if burdened by the closeness of the heat. Or perhaps, to pull one last line from O’Hara, to be read against the combusting nowness of such enchantment

as a gasp of laughter at desire, and disorder, and dying.