Postcards from a Child of the New York School
from Hanging Loose, Issue 102 - 2013
All hearts should start to beat when Cho Fu's orchestra plays "Love"
And then all feet should start to move in the dance.
Kenneth Koch "Our Hearts"
There's a photograph of my mother, Janice, with her typical one-eyebrow-high look of ironic disengagement. She's sitting next to her bossy, talkative, and stylish mother-in-law, Lillian Koch, at an outdoor café high up in the mountains of Taormina, Sicily. It's April, 1957. Italy is poor, still getting over the war, and my mother is wearing some dark clothing, disappearing into herself. My mother and father and I are living in Florence for a year on a Fulbright grant my mother has gotten to study Italian literature at the university there.
In these color snapshots from Taormina, taken by my grandfather Stuart, my mother is 26, I'm almost two, and my father is 32.
From nearby Agrigento, there's another photograph from that trip, posed, in black and white, taken by a professional photographer. It shows my parents and me seated in front of the ruin of a Greek temple receding classically above and behind us. The photo evokes the grandeur of history; our little family looks like conquerors who, having taken the temple by storm, commissioned an artist to show us, majestic, before it.
It's different from a picture taken instantly with a camera or phone, one of an endless-seeming stream of photos from a trip.
We have to be set up by a photographer, who had to approach my parents first and offer his services. Once they've agreed to his terms, he proceeds to place us carefully, in a row, on a bench-sized-and-shaped fragment of ancient architecture. We are in our formal 1950s visiting-a-ruin clothes: my mother wearing a suit and heels, a white dress and white knee socks for me, and my father in a sport jacket, checked button-down shirt, and dark trousers. No one else is in the photo, except a shadowy man in the background; we are the main characters. The photographer uses a camera on a tripod, for which we have to sit still.
My mother, pretty with her hair tied back, holds my hand, facing me and smiling down at me. I'm in the middle, with a tear running down my cheek and a sulky look for the photographer—I am hating having my picture taken. My father, on my right, holds me by the crook of my arm, his other hand keeping a messy pile of clothing—a jacket or two—from falling off his knee. He's smiling in a slightly tight way, looking off to his left, into the distance, beyond my mother and me. He appears to be trying, under difficult circumstances, to be a poet at a Greek ruin.
* * *
We came home to New York City from Florence a year later, in 1958, after Easter, when my mother had almost died from a late miscarriage. My frantic father had searched the city for blood, for transfusions to save her life. This was during the holiest week of the Italian Catholic year, a week when practically nobody was at work, when businesses were closed. I remember my father telling me this when I was too young to know what a miscarriage was. I just knew it was something tragic for us. My mother was the center of the family. Something had happened to hurt her, and there was nothing I could do about it.
That summer, after I turned three, we went out to Water Mill, on the eastern end of Long Island about a hundred miles from the city. We stayed at a house we called Farmer Burnett's. Farmer Burnett himself lived in the house closer to the road, but he owned the house we were staying in. We were surrounded by his fields.
This is where my memories begin:
There's a bank of tall, brown velvet cattails right down beside Mecox Bay. It's across the road from Farmer Burnett's house, under the broad Long Island sky. This is where our little black dog Andrew jumps and splashes into the green water, swimming after a stick my father throws for him. "Atta boy!" My father shouts encouragingly, loving how funny that sounds, that almost meaningless combination of words.
Fifty years later, that's still what I see, when I'm driving down quiet, curving Flying Point Road, passing the bay on my left. I see the cattails and the gently rocking green water because it's the place where Andrew is catching a stick, in 1958, when I am three.
This is also where my language begins. My mother, maybe a bit snobbishly, told me I had become confused by hearing Italian so often, in Florence, when I was trying to learn to speak English. She said also that it had been hard for me to start talking because the adults around me talked so much—so confusingly, their irony incomprehensible to a two-year old. I was three when I really began to say things, and three when I began to remember.
Memories from age three or age five put on the costumes of dreams. Things were happening then just exactly the way they happen now, but those things seem to be rich with inner life and happy discovery, and a fuzzy sense of the world. The world was my mother, my father, Andrew, and then my parents' friends, and my friends. My parents' friends were more important to me than usual, I think, because I was an only child and they were artists, funny, doing interesting things. Things I almost understood, paintings most of all; and songs, plays, movies, dances. Poetry readings were hard, I was dragged to too many, but by age five or so I got it that the other poets were often using language like my father—to be playful, sometimes like a game or a dance—not language to do weird and boring adult things, but rather language to discover things—the way I did.
When we lived on Perry Street in Greenwich Village, where we moved after we got home from Florence, our phone number was CH 3-2589. This number now seems like some lost symbol of the soul, well, all of it does, the soft white fake fur coat with the broad dark collar that my mother wore, and let me wrap myself in; the wrought iron boot scraper on the bottom step of the stairs outside our brownstone building; my father's voice often light and funny, but you never knew when it would change. I could hear it a lot on the phone, talking to one friend or another—or singing Don Giovanni in the morning, "La ci darem la mano—Damn, it, Janice, where's my razor? La mi dirai di si—"
Voices surrounded me like home, John Ashbery, Jimmy Schuyler, Frank O'Hara, Jane Freilicher and Joe Hazan, Larry and Clarice Rivers, Arnold Weinstein, Harry Mathews, Kenward Elmslie, Bill Berkson, Fairfield and Anne Porter, Ned Rorem ... poets, artists, composers, enthusiastic voices, ambitious ones, soft ones; some with New York accents, some with patrician ones, others Midwestern; all laughing and many getting loud and emphatic. They seemed to promise art and ease, energy and glamor.
Another very early memory: I'm standing up in my bed on Perry Street, hearing some of those voices. They are getting softer and softer, as the people who'd come into my tiny bedroom to say hello walk further away through room after room of our floor-through apartment. The single large window that warms and lights up my room with the southern sun shows me specks dancing slowly in the air. I wonder about them. They seem as if they must be living beings tumbling and floating through the light. Later I find out that they are dust.
People lived in beautiful places, sometimes, Greenwich Village soft with bricks and trees, voices and lights at night. I miss it when I felt it was mine, spring nights carried along by perfumes and the noise of people in another white room, a white fur rug at Jane and Joe's, a garden in the back.
A candy cane. A dream of candy canes. The Nutcracker by Balanchine, the first ballet my parents took me to, when I was five, a dream of dancing all the time. Why wouldn't I dance all the time? An enormous fire curtain hid what I was sure was an enormous window, but which, confoundingly, turned out to be the stage. Voices of the excited audience while the orchestra tuned up, the New York City Ballet when it still played at City Center.
Meeting people smoking on steps, pouring out of lit-up lobbies. Velvet dresses with lace collars on girls (my competition). Grownups we knew dashing dashingly down the steps, Frank O'Hara, Edwin Denby, Morris Golde.
Foggy spheres of light, globe lamps as if we were in the Impressionists' Paris, and if you believed in my father's way of looking, we were—and we were in 18th century Venice listening to Vivaldi and his students, and in Renaissance Florence talking to Fra Lippo Lippi about his girlfriend Lucrezia, and in 17th century London happening in on a sermon by John Donne. It was all our life and we were its, in our castle on the Loire, buried in Westminster Abbey, drawing with Watteau. We were compelled to make music, write poetry, rule a small kingdom, paint, become so exhilarated by beauty and religion that we had to construct a cathedral—we needed to live in the Place Henri IV like Victor Hugo and write standing up, clipping and saving locks of our hair for future generations.
* * *
We were in a white house by the ocean, windows and a big, flowery Mary Abbott painting on the wall. Did this painting, full of abstracted color, make me want to be a painter, too? I used to think so. I was very young: there was this beauty spread across the wall. I was being carried in my father's arms during a party. This was the real thing. The rest was too hard to understand, until I saw that painting.
The people flowed into and out of one another's living rooms. John Gruen took thousands of photos of the gang, as Ellen Adler calls the group of which my parents were a part. When I think of John's photos, I see them taking place in Water Mill at the Gruens' house, or at the beach. The air was hovering softly, the ocean mildly roaring. Seaweed dry, bulbous, and black, smelled salty in the sun. Dunes were there to climb, though the tall grasses whipped your legs and stung. A lot of grownups were sitting together and standing on a beach. We would get out of the car into the sun with our towels and Bain de Soleil Orange Gelee suntan cream, and walk along the sand until we found them all, laughing, swimming, showing off.
My father always loved the Long Island beaches, not so much the lying-down-and-getting-a-tan part, but plunging into the waves and swimming out until he reached the swells, to swim along the rocking water. They were big, stone-raising waves (whoosh, crunch), and he never stopped swimming in that particular ocean, even into his 70s.
Though Mary Abbott's painting made the world make sense, there were paintings I didn't like, the Larry Rivers paintings, dark and harsh, in our apartment on Perry Street. A big expressionistic one of blurry orange nudes in a shadowy room hung over our couch, in the practically windowless living room with the dull green wall-to-wall carpeting. I think Larry was thinking about the way Bonnard paints nudes, but his women looked blunt, defeated, obtuse—instead of lit up from within and gracefully inhabiting the colors of the space around them. One of them seemed to be looking out from a dark airshaft like the one in our apartment, where I heard a man yelling.
I loved other paintings by Larry, ones that were in galleries or museums, painted a little later than the big orange one in our apartment. I would impress my father when, at age five, I could see one of Larry's paintings on a wall somewhere and recognize his style. He had started making paintings that were partly drawing—he was an amazing draftsman—and full of delicate color. They were funny and so intelligent, too, which I almost got at the time, but what I reacted to was the meandering nature of the colors and lines, the beautiful, seemingly casual way he drew faces and bodies—loved how the color and the line played with one another and how it didn't have to make sense. He was using his materials the way the poets were using language, lightly, ironically.
My parents and their friends did have an ironic take on things. It was a relief for them to talk to each other, because they felt very little in common with regular American life. They lived la vie de boheme, some were gay when being gay was far from the public American mind, many were living in parts of the city no middle-class person would accept, living in tenements, living in lofts.
They were most often uninterested in charming or listening to a child. Not always, certainly, but often. They wouldn't tousle my hair or ask me fond questions about my life and my activities.
When people did focus on me, like my grandparents' friends, I mistrusted them.
I had no idea, then, how people naturally feel about children and grandchildren; couldn't feel the love and friendship people had for my grandparents beaming their way down onto me. There was no way for me to describe my ramshackle, bohemian life to Great Aunt Elsa or Regine Lustberg, to Olga Shott or Dr. Moss, the upper-middle-class Jewish community in Cincinnati my father came from.
The grown ups around me and my parents seemed so much more vivid, so much in control of their personae, their distant, abrupt, amused, witty, stern, wild, manic, flirtatious and, or, self-absorbed selves.
We had parties at our apartment on Perry Street which would fill up with people talking, smoking, and drinking; and eating the strange canned smoked oysters my mother always got for these occasions. She would bring out the Lenox white porcelain swans, presents from my parents' Midwestern wedding, designed for holding cigarettes. That was part of giving a party in 1960: Let's have a party and put cigarettes on the tables!
So, the friends would come over and there would be Kenward Elmslie, poet and lyricist, tall and handsome in a white suit—and on whom I had a terrible crush when I was five. "KENWARD!" I would shout, and race up to throw my arms around his knees.
Kenward was beautiful, lanky and thoughtful-looking. When I find a photograph from a bit later on in the 60s by John Gruen, I still feel a surprised thrill of happiness at seeing Kenward. The photo shows him talking to John's wife, Jane Wilson, a painter, also beautiful, and graceful. They are sitting across from one other on a couple of fences bordering a walkway to the ocean in Westhampton, their faces leaning towards each other.
Kenward was extremely generous to many people—for instance, he would lend us his fancy white 1930s convertible with its dark leather seats. His slender pale dog, his whippet, Whippoorwill, looked great sitting up in that car. It was a few steps up for us, from an awful dark green car we had had, like something out of an old comic strip, with large, rust-edged holes in the driver's-side door.
Kenward also lent us his house in Westhampton Beach, for a few weeks the summer I was nine, in 1964. I came out for a while, and my best friend Lizzie Porter—who lived in nearby Southampton with her parents, Fairfield and Anne, her sister Katie—and I played on the beach in the pools left by a raucous storm.
My father and some of his friends got together there at Kenward's, cool blue sand and ocean air-and cut up my comic books to make their own comics collages. I was horrified—my father had asked if they could borrow my comics, but hadn't asked if they could cut them to pieces. He happily showed me the somewhat Surrealist collages—and was shocked when I burst into tears. I had imagined beforehand how impressed the poets and artists would be by my comics collection.
Kenward had records of Shirley Temple songs, sentimental favorites of the 1930s.
They were sung by a little girl nothing like me or anyone I knew, but I was used to suspending my disbelief. My father and I would sing the songs together, particularly one called "Baby, Take A Bow"; first, the lyrics for Daddy:
Ev'rybody wants to know
Who's that great big handsome Romeo?
I'm presenting you right now,
Daddy, take a bow!. ..
Then Kenneth would teasingly sing the insulting lyrics for Baby to me:
Ev'rybody's asking me
Who's that bunch of poison-ality?
With a figure like a cow
Baby, take a bow! ...
I think my father felt a combination of competitiveness—he had to "win" at everything; the lyrics clearly present a situation in which Daddy wins and Baby loses—and embarrassment at actually singing about loving me (other verses, unsung by him, praise Baby). He also couldn't resist keeping the focus on himself.
Two minutes later, though, I might be teasing him, teasing being one of the ways our family communicated, along with irony.
* * *
John Ashbery wrote a postcard to my mother in Rome, in 1955, when she was about seven months pregnant with me. From the turn of the twentieth century, the card shows a slim-waisted woman wearing a huge hat, beating away—with her parasol—a giant stork, from whose neck hangs a baby in a sling. "And The Villain Still Pursues Her," runs the caption at the bottom. The stork looks as though he's about to pierce her parasol with his long beak. It's hard to imagine what someone would have been thinking, in the early part of the century, to send this card. Would it have been addressed to a man? A woman? With what purpose? The idea seems to be that this slender woman can't stop getting pregnant, or can't keep herself from having a baby.
"Unusually unreliable sources here have it that you're about to favor us with a poet," writes John on the other side, "I hope it's true. Suggest you make me the child's Aristotle ... P.S. If it's a girl, I suggest "Hava" as a nice first name."
Old postcards—late nineteenth- to early twentieth-century—were collected by my father and his friends—then by me. The cards, strange, beautiful, and often silly, were ripe for parody—parody, which my father would define as part irony and part love.
For my father's generation postcards would have had the added zing which comes from unearthing things one's parents' culture took for granted, which had seemed like part of everyday life but are later revealed to have a distinct style belonging to a certain era.
The postcards could be tinted black and white photographs—or they could be full-color reproductions of engravings, cartoons, or paintings—sometimes festooned with glitter, lace, tiny flowers, pop-up doves or hearts. Among the tinted photos were the especially-prized French "cent bebes," the hundred babies: crowded photo-collages of babies' faces, sailing down a stream on little boats, peeking out the windows of a big house, making up the centers of flowers, or arrayed in the shapes of letters to make up a word, FATHER.
At junk shops and at flea markets you could find hundreds of them. There were photo-postcards of deserted Main Streets, factories, orange groves; and joke vacation postcards showing giant pieces of fruit being moved on freight cars, young men grabbing kisses. There would be holiday postcards with flowers in bas-relief, gilt-edged Christmas wishes, a boy in green sequins raising his hat to wish you a happy St. Patrick's Day. There were the sentiments expressed by a winter scene, a snowstorm, two sweet girls in furs; swoony, mythic depictions of women and children advertising soap and department stores.
The poet Jimmy Schuyler, another lover of old postcards, would send me packets of them, some with his own captions. One showed two women in Gibson-Girl-like outfits, waving their arms, one holding a bouquet—Jimmy wrote beneath the picture, "Gesticulating Pears, or the Girl With the Brown Violets." He knew that Pears were what Lizzie Porter and I called each other—we would make up cartoon adventures of ourselves as the Pears—and the violets were brown because their purple color had faded over 60 years.
I never asked where the grownups' irony and parody, their playing with popular culture, came from. I just soaked up how they spoke and thought in that defended yet enthusiastic way.
Now I see that it's an outsider point of view, with humor and dismay about, and some unrequited love for, an American way of life. Young Kenneth was trying to get away from Cincinnati and his family, Mrs. Lustberg, the un-poetic culture of his youth. He was probably reacting also with some panic to his awful and never-referred-to years in World War II, in the Philippines. Most, if not all, of the other men we knew had been in the war as well.
My parents and their friends, laughing about the things that happened around them, commenting on events in an oblique way, found it natural to talk using what they'd learned—and been passionate about—about literature, music, art. They were all so happy not to be talking to Mrs. Lustberg anymore! Or to the drill sergeant! They said things that otherwise would seem daring, or impolite; but that were so witty, you laughed instead of being offended, most of the time. Sometimes it was a way for a shy person to test the waters, a way of trying out closeness with someone without wanting to be intrusive.
I remember being so used to this ironic attitude that I wondered why most people didn't have it; this way of noticing something, and immediately making something else out of it, this way of using words unusual enough to make you think twice, unlikely combinations of unlikely words.
Let's see if I can do it. Being here in this green landscape outside Woodstock, New York, in 2012, could be an "insect-ridden pastorale." You would recognize the references, sometimes (like pastorale, "a piece of music suggestive of idyllic rural life"), laugh at the contrast of "insect-ridden" and "pastorale," or just enjoy the way the comment was said.
* * *
When John wrote that postcard to my mother, almost everything he wrote was a silly way to say something serious: "unusually unreliable sources" a play on the language of reportage; calling the baby-to-be a poet; suggesting naming her "Hava" (Koch, "Have A Coke!") if she were a girl; asking my mother to make him the new poet's Aristotle—to whom he could teach poetics. John was thrilled that Kenneth and Janice were going to have a baby, and wanted to have some kind of relationship with him or her.
Sometime later on he ironically told me I could call him "Tonton Jean," "Unka John" in French. It couldn't be a straightforward, call me Uncle John; but a sideways approach—not only removing it from English into a language redolent of sophistication, but giving it that extra twist, an amusingly childish variation. "Tonton Jean" rhymes, sounds good when you say it. All this could remove John from any accusation of being sentimental. In fact, it's hard to know if John wanted me to call him anything at all. I have a feeling he thought it was a funny sort of thing to say.
I think the only adult around me then who didn't have difficulty expressing love was Anne Porter, Fairfield's wife, a poet; who could be stunningly ironic herself, and, also, wonderfully sensitive.
Anne told me about death when I was four. One summer day I asked her about what seemed like a pile of newspapers on the floor of their empty, unused sun porch. As we looked in through the french doors of the living room, she put her kind hands in her pockets, leaned down to me, and told me gently that that was Coffee. Coffee, their fluffy brown poodle, had died suddenly, very young. I knew then that he wouldn't be around anymore, and it gave me a kind of feeling that I had been hit in my chest. She told me Coffee had had a good life, though, playing, and rolling around in the grass of their broad, sloping lawn with their white poodle, Jenny.
Anne's mastery of irony may have come from her talent for acute observation and her surprisingly strong opinions, masked by her wish to be giving and forgiving. She was also conscious of being an outsider, especially in the tiny resort village that Southampton, Long Island was in those days, and that gave her a kind of freedom to say what she felt, as one smart and sophisticated person to others like her.
"It seems as if the influence of the New York School is spreading!" my father once said to her, not entirely seriously; she nodded and said in her sweet voice, also not entirely seriously, "Oh yes, like DDT." She thought Kenneth could take it. He could. It hurt his feelings for a while, but he was the one, laughing and laughing, who told me about it.
* * *
About the Author
Katherine Koch, Brooklyn, New York, is a painter by trade. This is her first published writing, a memoir of growing up in Greenwich Village with her father, Kenneth, and the circle of New York School poets and painters—John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, Fairfield Porter, James Schuyler, among others—of which he was a key member. She wishes to thank Kate Farrell, Mark Statman, Katherine Umsted and Lauren Yaffe for their help. Hanging Loose hopes to publish future installments.
Brooklyn, New York
Editors: Robert Hershon, Dick Lourie, Mark Pawlak, Ron Schreiber (1934-2004)
Associate Editors: Donna Brook, Marie Carter