The following essay by Emily Warn on Anne Winters’s “The Key to the City,” a 1986 finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award in poetry, is part of the NBCC’s “In Retrospect” series on Critical Mass, in which critics and writers revisit NBCC award winners and finalists from previous years.
Anne Winters works Manhattan’s streets in The Key to the City, her first book and a National Book Critics Circle finalist for poetry in 1986, using methods similar to New York City homicide cops. Her poems condense the dizzying complexity of Manhattan into miniature scale models in order to detect the unfair social conditions that can lead to crimped lives and calamitous events. Manhattan’s indifferent intelligence haunts the poems in The Key to the City. As a complex system, Manhattan follows the same rules governing ant colonies, online multiplayer games, slime mold colonies, and literary blogs. Such systems appear to be intelligent, to have a coherent personality, because they are composed of an infinite number of agents whose interactions create higher-level patterns that evolve over time. In her poem-laboratories, Winters studies points in time that in complexity theory are defined as “strange attractors.” The science writer James Gleick explains that these are single instants in time when the “complete state of knowledge about a dynamical system . . . collapses to a point” and so serve as a means to understand the system.
Winters aesthetically studies points in time to map the social and economic conditions of capitalism, allowing us to better understand how it shapes human lives. Her poems reconstitute moments on the stoop or street, among the spires or tenements, to an astonishingly fine degree of linguistic nuance and social-psychological observations. By magnifying them, she allows us to discern how the system shapes people’s choices and, for those of a certain class, determines them. The choices, whether wittingly or unwittingly, not only become people’s identity and fate, but are the means by which the city persists, outlasting them. (We are the ants who live for a year, while the colony survives for 15.)
In one of her rare religious poems, “Prayer for Peace,” Winters asks, “My Lord, whom are we addressing? The answer is clear: the “communal creation” of the incomprehensible presence of New York. “Like language,” she writes, it is “made through a history” and represents “worlds / of invested labor.” In her ode “To New York” earlier in the book, she addresses the city as god and muse:
Always to arrive in this city
smoking estuaries boatloads of dead tongues
Manhattan backlands darkened with fluttering cloth
with your fire escapes mute childhoods street-vendors
behind all the faceless
and falling masonry of this quarter
again and again your deep voice
breaks into its crabbed white script
The poet as person and the city as system are always arriving, continually emerging. Though its inhabitants have polluted its estuaries and assimilated its “boatloads of dead tongues,” though the city is impersonal and fueled by economic capital (“behind all the faceless and falling masonry of this quarter”), the city breathes, animate and animated by language; its “deep voice / breaks into its crabbed white script.” The poet, who survived a mute childhood, returns as a pilgrim to transcribe that script.
Fathoming New York is possible if she can register its forces, the energy of economic and social exchange that, though invisible, is contained within the city’s physical lineaments—that which is unfixed and flowing moves through the “walledup canals.” It’s not just water that is moving but the shadow of the wall, the immaterial imprint of a material (the poem as emulation) that flows forward yet is also physically contained in time and by the material:
Invisible city hidden skyline flowing away
like the shadow of walledup canals (yet with
what tenderness, what sadness, Ninth Avenue—
dark moraine— Tenth Avenue.
You are with the fled sounds of sidewalks latches and waterways
in our murmurs in a tide of footfalls
in the Thieves’ Alley enormous eyes pressed to windows—
Just as the canal bounds the water, the poem bounds the intelligence informing it. A poem’s prosodic and syntactic arrangements create its structure just as differences of class and race create a social structure. The patterns that emerge over time cannot be perfectly predicted or controlled. Difference functions within poem and system as that which motivates change. When there is little external pressure and stable, long-term relationships are present, there will be little change to patterns within the system. When difference is introduced, movement becomes possible and necessary.
The pattern-making interactions—the exchanges of energy, money, and material—among players within Manhattan registered in the poet’s psyche during her childhood. In the title poem of the book The Key to the City, Winters recounts a rite of passage, sometime during the late 1940s or early 1950s, when adolescents were sent to the health department to be x-rayed—whether to detect tuberculosis or some other malady, the poem doesn’t say. What the poem x-rays or detects are differences among classes and the poet’s place and role within them.
The poem records a conversation among girls while they wait to be called, about how they plan on gaming the system. One plans to escape by working in her uncle’s diner. The others warn her not to drop out, that it’s impossible to escape the city’s deterministic order:
What are you talking? Don’t you know the city
keeps like an eye we don’t get overworked?
Yeah, and your Social Security number, that’s
for life, girl, that ain’t worth something to you?
The quiet girl, the poet, associates the adolescent rite of smoking with “some museum mummy, / amber-fingered, fishhook collar bones”—in short, something the system fixes and preserves.
The others trade advice about how to survive and thrive but then resign themselves:
‘Listen. Listen. They get you coming and going’.
Now each girl tilts her face down, contemplating
her own unseen choices, real
tips, the solitary and common
square foot of imaginary chance. . . . Outside, the rain
was letting up. The city, like a graph
of its own mountainous causes, climbed in a mist
across our window. And then the matron came, calling
our locker numbers, one by one, for the X-rays
The system is vast and predictable; the class differences sketched by their stories and dialects reduce and strip the girls (they are half-bare to the waist) to “locker numbers.” One swings the locker key and sarcastically calls it “key to the city,” the same one that the mayor had offered the week before “to some visiting queen.” Their chances, their plans for wealth and romance, of a happy life, are “imaginary,” adolescent dream-fabrications that cannot outmaneuver the “mountainous causes.”
Suddenly, one girl turns to the poet to ask why she hasn’t spoken. “What’s up girl? Goose step on your grave?” Younger than the rest (“homesick among the near- / women’s breasts and hair, . . . of menstrual fust”), she blurts out, “Guess what I saw coming down? A street / called Anne Street.”—“So What”—“So my name is Anne.” Her fate is to name the grid, to be a sensitive linguistic instrument that registers the city’s being in its languages and as language, the key to unlocking their fixed fates.
Detecting difference motivates the speaker not to change the system so much as to play out the choice that it offers her. Her fate, after all, is as fixed as theirs. Another coming-of-age poem, “The Street,” opens with the speaker watching her sister watching herself in a “tilting compact mirror.”
A round eclipse, a pool-like dot of light
on my little sister’s glasses, bangs, her dome-cheeked, solemn face
play-powdered in a tilting compact mirror.
Her sister is making herself up, inventing an adult self. The poet, on the other hand, is inventing herself as documentarian, mirroring events to understand what she sees. The playful freedom and predictable order and perspective of their childhood will soon be eclipsed by forces unleashed in the street. Out the window, where the two sisters knew “every crevice and lip of our stoopball, stickball street,” the unexpected happens: they witness the aftermath of a horrific murder of a “girl” from “the one brownstone, catty cornered across: / a ‘house’,” which is different than the other brownstones.
Winters records the crime with the accuracy of a crime lab technician’s high-powered lenses. The violence casts a harsh light and amplifies the fixed pattern out of which it emerged, indelibly altering the speaker’s perception of self and system of which she is a part. Time collapses to a point. The precipitating event in this and many other poems is often the result of crossing a class line. What had been human and orderly becomes bestial and Kafkaesque.
On the sidewalk across / a girl from the house, in stockingfeet, dark silk suit
slit and ribboned by knife thrusts, was pulling herself
through the arcs and dribbles and splashes of her blood.
Her fingertips’ carmine meshed on the concrete, her elbows strained
over the wet, working shoulder blades (one still hooked
through her purse strap) and somehow her bluish felt
hat and hatpin, rolled to the curb, made me think she was pinned
to the street—pinned and moving.
The bleeding victim becomes an insect in an exhibit; the severing of her connection from the human gives the poem its disturbing urgency, mirroring its lack in the scene itself:
And last thing
before we were hauled from the window seat, we saw her
raise one terrible red-nailed arm
and wave to them, sign them to come down to her.
Winters could have ended the poem here, setting herself up as witness to a failure to respond to a desperate summons. The poem would have served as reminder and prod to change the system by helping us see its injustice. She could have signed off with this ultimate of human horror—that even murder fails to help us recognize the “other” as human. But that would not be true to the facts of New York. The unexpected emerges out of it, amplifies the system as a whole, and then settles back into its pattern. In the last two stanzas, a cop cranks closed the hydrant he’d opened to wash the blood.
Much later, and late for school, when we were sent down
onto the stoop, my sister’s face still reddish
lost and bereft behind her round of glasses
the opposite walk was clear if we’d had to cross there,
only a dark calligraphy beneath a sheen of water,
one lingering cop to crank the hydrant closed.
The beauty of “The Street” is in the way its perspectives shift and collide—from the “pool-like dot of light” in her sister’s glasses to the “terrible red-nailed arm” waving at the two girls. These shifts also occur among poems in the book—from an overheard conversation in an all-night laundromat to the view from a plane gliding above Manhattan skyscrapers. Winters’s faceted forms are comparable to the stunning images produced when mathematicians invented fractal geometry to describe the irregular regularity of shapes such as twisting coastlines or turbulent water. Before the invention of fractal geometry, the dimensions and characteristics of these forms were unknown. Similarly, in exactly rendering events, Winters abstracts essential information about New York, fathoming its unfathomable dimensions.
First appeared on poetryfoundation.org