Open Letter to Marshall Berman (1940-2013)
By Eric Darton
Spirit only becomes power only by looking the negative in the face and living with it. Living with it is the magic power that converts the negative into being.
—Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), quoted by Berman in his Lewis Mumford Lecture “Emerging from the Ruins,” delivered at The City College of New York, May 2, 2012.
In the months since you died, I’ve thought a good deal about our gemütlich conversations. And also about the difficult talk we never had: the one in which I called you out on your relentlessly positive view of the vicissitudes of our mutual city, an attitude that struck me as naïve to the point of being ahistorical.
Recently though, and for reasons I do not entirely understand, I am beginning to get where you were coming from. And also to understand how the particular flavor of Kool-Aid you drank, and espoused, permitted you to keep living, and working.
Though you were born only ten years before me, we seemed to have grown up in entirely different New Yorks. For one thing, you watched as your neighborhood was wrecked at the behest of Robert Moses, taking his expressway not to your heart, but across eight miles of the South Bronx. A decade later in Greenwich Village, a cadre of mostly female activists saved my block from the “meat ax” aimed at cutting a highway through to Lower Manhattan – though I did watch in wonder and fear as scores of buildings were leveled just across the street.
And then, inescapably, there is the tragedy that befell you in your early middle years – the heart wound of a father’s grief, which few could survive with their humanity intact, much less their reason. Yet, through some extraordinary depth of resources, you did.
So if you were here, I would no longer wish to contest your utopianism. Instead, I would ask you about All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, and whether you have any inkling of how important it is. Beyond the fact that it was born a classic. Beyond the celebrity it brought you, along, I hope, with a dose of nachas. Beyond its having remained in print since 1982, continuously in demand by myriad urban studies programs and countless everyday moderns like myself seeking clues as to how we got here. And translated into, what, fifty languages? More?
An easy answer, of course, is that your book is profoundly useful. No one has traced the lines leading to modernity, or described its conditions with greater apperception, imagination and accuracy than you. Which all by itself makes All That Is Solid a gift beyond value – a stone upon which civilization might be founded, should we somehow gather the courage to begin.
But to me, what makes All that Is Solid so solid, is its central thesis – one so radical and clearly posed it seems to have escaped critical notice. Which is why it is both astonishing and utterly “natural” that you, working-class son of an impossible, self-eviscerating city, recognized as no one else did, or could, how the literature of post-Enlightenment Europe acted as the great leavening agent of modernity – a force that served to word-sculpt the women and men who would populate this transfigured world down to our present day. When we stroll the length of the Nevsky Prospect with Gogol’s narrator – “How many metamorphoses it goes through in twenty-four hours!” – or sit with Baudelaire and his lover in the light of a harsh new brasserie as they confront the “eyes of the poor,” or witness a halo trampled by horses into the muck of a freshly-cut Haussmann boulevard soon to turn macadam, or accompany Jane Jacobs through the dangerously liberated Village caught between death and life, you guide us toward that great dance in the street – help me Martha! – that goes on within and without us, and for as long as the Bronx River shall run, and be beaver-dammed, for as long as cars shall flash by your borough-wide Cross Bronx Mural, capacious and thousand-hued.
If – distilled to elementary and elemental terms – your formula holds: city + literature = modernity, then it is our manifest language, parceled into our novels and stories, essays and manifestos, that makes us what and who we are. It is the literature of work and love and anomie and brutal strife that keeps us becoming – keeps us at the task of making new cities in and of ourselves – and, like City College, where you taught, raising university walls from the stone blasted out of the earth for cut-and-cover subway lines. For you, rabbi, the city and the book were one text and you shot your roots deep into this soil, and like the children of devastation who grow up in ruins yet refuse to be ruined, you climbed to your natural height amidst the canopy of your fellow cosmopolites, and lived there your allotted span. We who are born of your book, who drink of your book, have learned to ingest the poison of the city and shit out manna.
You asked: What is this freedom that the city air gifts its children – this dangerous liberty skirting the edge of nowheresville? You told us we could read the book of ourselves and come to grips with our soul-dispersion, our rootlessness – alchemically transformed into a lineage: Goethe, Dostoevsky, Wharton, Benjamin, Joyce, Paley! And to dance – O dance of improbable bodies: Sly, Patti, Grandmaster Flash – get behind me Moses! – to shake ourselves down to the real – to inhabit, replete at last, the freedom – O immanence! – bursting from the boombox of the street: Don’t push me ‘cause I’m close to the edge – like air into matter into air into being. Like breath, Marshall. Like breath.
* * *
The Politics of Authenticity: Radical Individualism and the Emergence of Modern Society. (First published 1970). New York: Verso, 2009.
All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982.
Adventures in Marxism. New York: Verso, 2001.
On the Town: One Hundred Years of Spectacle in Times Square. New York: Random House, 2006.
New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg (co-edited with Brian Berger). London: Reaktion Books, 2007.
The Communist Manifesto (introduction) by Carl Marx and Friedrich Engles. New York: Penguin Classics, 2011.
Tato Laviera, the Poet Who Wrote in English, in Spanish, in Spanglish, and in “Mixturao”
By Marithelma Costa
Translated by Judith Page-Sarfati
Tupelo Quarterly has asked me to write about Tato Laviera. About the elegant Tato Laviera. About the fun-loving and generous Tato Laviera. About the poet and playwright who celebrated Puerto Rican, Afro-Caribbean and New York culture. About the writer who dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s both in English and Spanish. He published La Carreta Made a U-Turn, AmeRícan, Enclave, Mainstream Ethics-Etica Corriente, and Mixturao and Other Poems between 1979 and 2009, and recently adapted to theatre his masterly poem on social injustice, “Latero Story (Can Pickers).” In its opening lines, his poetic voice distills its powerful message:
i am a twentieth-century welfare recipient
moonlighting in the sun as a latero
a job invented by national state laws
designed to re-cycle aluminum cans
to return to consumers acid laden
gastric inflammation pituitary glands
coca diet rites low cal godsons
of artificially flavored malignant
indigestions somewhere down the line
of a cancerous cell
i am a twentieth-century welfare recipient
moonlighting in the day as a latero
making it big in america
Tato and I met during the summer of 1988, when we scattered the ashes of the playwright Miguel Piñero over the empty lots of the Lower East Side. From that time on we would meet in the street, at poetry readings in the Nuyorican Poets’ Café. And like the people of Villa Palermas, his neighborhood, he always had a warm word and a smile. His joking nature was his way.
In those times in Puerto Rico, the Nuyoricans were not very well received. I still don’t know how I managed to have him invited to read his poetry at the University of Puerto Rico. It goes without saying that he won the audience over right away. As of that time, I adopted his “Graduation Discourse” as my own philosophy:
i think in spanish
i write in english
i want to go back to puerto rico,
but i wonder if my kink could live
in ponce, mayagüez and carolina
tengo las venas aculturadas [my veins are acculturated]
escribo in spanglish [I write in Spanglish]
abraham in español
abraham in english
tato in spanish
“taro” in english
tonto [dummy] in both languages
how are you?
i don’t know if i’m coming
or si me fui ya [or if I already left]
si me dicen barranquitas [if they tell me Barranquitas*], yo reply,
“¿con qué se come eso?” [what do you eat with that?]
si me dicen caviar, i digo, [if they say caviar, I say]
“a new pair of converse sneakers.”
ahí supe que estoy jodío [then I knew I was fucked]
ahí supe que estamos jodíos [then I knew we were all fucked]
english or spanish
spanish or english
now, dig this: hablo lo inglés matao [I speak the English, butchered]
hablo lo español matao [I speak the Spanish, butchered]
no sé leer ninguno bien [I don’t know how to read either well]
so it is, spanglish to matao [butchered]
what i digo [say]
¡ay, virgen, yo no sé hablar! [Oh, Virgin Mother, I don’t have a language!]
He would travel, holding poetry workshops throughout the United States. And we used to talk on the phone. He would tell me about his diabetes, about his blindness, and about dialysis. Sometimes we would talk while he was hooked up to the machine that cleaned out his blood. We would laugh even though he was going through a rough time. When my publisher asked me to prepare the critical edition of René Marqués’ La Carreta, I accepted so I could write about Tato’s work and his proposal that migrants accept and celebrate life in New York as “New Rumbón [Party],” as opposed to the prevalent romantic notion of a return to the homeland.
In one of our conversations we realized that we had been born in the same hospital in El Condado, and that both his father and mine were Nationalists and kept firearms hidden at home. My father, the light-skinned one from Miramar, and his father, the dark-skinned one from Santurce, both hoped for the independence of the country. At the age of nine, he was sent to live in New York.
Here Tato was received by his aunt Haidé, who, upon his descent from the airplane stairs after a six-hour flight, told him “Don’t get mixed up with the Blacks, little black one.” In the poem “Negrito” from his book of poems AmeRícan (I am a Rican) or “I am a Puerto Rican,” he describes the encounter:
el negrito [the little black one]
came to new york
in his eyes
his aunty asked him
for a hug and told him:
“don’t get mixed up with
los prietos [dark-skinned people], negrito.”
el negrito scratched at his lice
and said to her:
“but aunty, aunty,
The prietos are negritos.
looked down at his hands
and said to her
“but aunty, aunty,
this isn’t puerto rico.”
his aunty asked him
for a little kiss, and said to him:
“if the cocolos [African-Americans] bother you,
run for it; if they catch you, dance.”
In one of our last conversations I called him from Piñones, the area of Black population, whose Black militia earned their land – a strip in the northern coast between San Juan and Loíza – when they protected Puerto Rico from the British invasion in XVIIIth century. I don’t remember if he was hooked up to the dialysis machine at that time, but I do remember that he was extremely moved because I was speaking to him from the land of free Blacks that he used to visit on Sundays with his father. In 1979 he dedicated to the region a yet-unedited play titled, “Piñones.”
The life of Tato Laviera was an attempt to harmoniously combine Puerto Rican culture with that of the streets of the Lower East Side of New York. And he accomplished it richly. His death leaves a vacuum much like the one left by another great Nuyorican poet, Pedro Pietri. A hole that will be difficult to fill.
His joy, his elegance, and his wisdom will be irreplaceable. In his lecture at Calvin College in 1998, Tato pointed to two basic principles in reading poetry: 1) every word is a universe and 2) the weight of pronunciation. He explained: “You have to say it correctly. By saying it correctly, you feel it. By you stretching it out, the poem becomes stronger. By you dancing it, the poem, the lines, take a life of its poem. By you putting form to it, the poem is yours and you live it.” (Jamie Martínez Wood, “Latino Writers and Journalists.” New York: Facts on File, 2007, p. 131).
For many months he was in a coma at Mount Sinai Hospital. He waited until November 1st, All Saints’ Day, to pass. New York is in mourning. The Day of the Dead has been extended in his honor. We all are in need of Tato, and only his verses, the words to which he gave life, can console us.
* A town in central Puerto Rico.
* * *
La Carreta Made a U-Turn. Houston: Arte Público Press, 1979.
AmeRícan. Houston: Arte Público Press, 1985.
Enclave. Houston: Arte Público Press, 1985.
Mainstream Ethics-Etica Corriente. Houston: Arte Público Press, 1988.
Mixturao and Other Poems. Houston: Arte Público Press, 2008–09.
Marithelma Costa was born in Puerto Rico, and has been living in New York since 1978. She is the author of three poetry collections, the novel Era el fin del mundo, and several books of interviews and studies of Spanish Literature. Her works have appeared recently on Revista de Occidente, 80 Grados, Frontera D, and American Letters & Commentary. She is a professor of Spanish Literature at Hunter College.