Bodies-cities part 2: James Schuyler's somatic urbanism

Clark Park, December 2017. Photo by the author.

I began this project a year ago to ask some questions about how queer spatial studies and city planning history each model cities and urban life, and how experimental poems further bring these models into conversation with one another. This set of essays is meant to be a beginning, the sort of beginning that, as Susan Landers writes, “is a place or a site.”[1] To the extent that the intervention of this project is in queer studies, it posits that part of what’s queer about queer theory now is its material urban context, and its need to contend with the affective and structural conditions of cities and their tranformation.

A queer reading of noncosmopolitan urban space does two very different kinds of work. First, it issues a corrective to the way queer people and spaces have been addressed by work in queer studies that has often equated queer urban life with the center of gay-themed commercial life, the gay district. In the introduction to her monograph on violence, risk, and queer grassroots and community movements, Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence (2013), Christina B. Hanhardt resists this pairing by arguing, “in mooring a dominant understanding of sexual identity to place, the promotion and protection of gay neighborhoods have reinforced the race and class stratification of postwar urban space.”[2] A focus on noncosmopolitan urban spaces seeks to counter this dominant understanding.

Reading noncosmopolitan urban spaces issues a corrective to narrow engagements with queer urbanism that have reproduced the privileging of race and class stratification as they have aimed to refuse heteronormative narratives of urban life. But these nondominant understandings of how queer identity and place interact (I’m expanding here from Hanhardt’s focus on sexual identity) also reframe other restrictive views of cities. Reading the queer behavior of noncosmopolitan urban space also corrects for an oversight that is a corollary to readings of gay districts that reinforce stratified narratives of race and class: a complex reading of race and class in many seminal works in urban planning history that has ignored the stratification of queer identities and non-normative kinship models. Thomas Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (1996) offers an example of this problem. In writing about the racially stratified effects of industrial decline, he notes, “[a]s the first line of family defense, women policed the boundaries of race and sex.”[3] As Hanhardt argues, models for reading queer urbanism that inadequately address racial and class-based inequality also fail to produce an accurate or adequately complex or comprehensive narrative of queer urban lives. This same critique of selective reading applies to narratives of urban space that, like Sugrue’s, have relied on heteronormative conceptions of family life to produce accurate and complex readings of race and class.

Producing a mode of reading that considers race, class, and queerness together is crucial to a viable engagement with the future of cities and the lives they contain. For each urban resident, most of a city is imagined most of the time. What you can see from your window, or what you move through on a quotidian scale requires you to construct an image of the rest of the city in order to produce a contextual narrative of where you are. Those narratives affect where urban residents go and whom they believe has a right to the city. Writing differently about cities can shift these narratives of who lives in cities, and offer models at various scales for how to consider the strange balance between imagination and built form against which city residents produce urban life.

I’d like to close this series with the reading I promised in its opening essay, of a couple of moments from James Schuyler’s A Few Days. The poem “Moon” ends:

And now the sun shines

down in silent brightness,

on me and my possessions,

which I have named,

New York.[4]


In these lines, the poem’s speaker decides that New York is a relationship between light and possessions. Schuyler very frequently writes about light and how it changes what he sees, within and outside the city. What is left opaque in these final lines is whether Schuyler considers as among his possessions the features of the built environment that he can see, or whether he is referring only to his domestic objects. If the sun is shining on him and these objects, it suggests that he is referring to those items that share a room with him, and which might be caught in the same spear of sunlight. But the same sun hits the city through his window, and so the ambiguity of whether the possessions are objects that he owns or an impulse to lay claim to New York articulates the complexity of being a part of a city. The slice of the city you can see from your window, what makes up “your view” offers belonging without ownership. For Schuyler, what’s visible from his window is a constitutive part of his domestic space. His domestic space is also part of his urban experience, resisting a mode of valuing the city that privileges rarefied access to the urban as an opposition to the domestic.

In another poem in A Few Days, “Faure’s Second Piano Quartet,” he writes,  

All this beauty in the

mess of this small apartment on

West Twentieth in Chelsea, New York.

Slowly the notes pour out, slowly,

more slowly still, fat rain falls.[5]


In this poem, Schuyler articulates another exchange between what’s happening outside the apartment and what’s happening inside, as he does in “Moon.” The pace of the rain is in dialogue with the pace of the music. In recognizing the parts of the city that permit a homology with his domestic environment, Schuyler finds a means of belonging to the city. He locates the exchange between rain and quartet by three geographic markers — the street, the neighborhood, and the city. While his intervention is on the scale of his apartment, the layered geographic markers situate the apartment within its urban context, the music and the rain encouraging one another’s slowness against the anticipated speed of the city.


In the book’s long title poem, geographic context continues to change somatic information. Early in “A Few Days” are the lines, “A walk in the / streets is not the same as a walk on the beach.”[6] In each of these three moments, here and in the two previous poems, Schuyler maps a quotidian somatic process (a walk, listening to a record, being in sunlight in a room) to its urban landscape (Chelsea, in the streets, West Twentieth, New York). His relationship with the city is most evident within the unit of the quotidian moment, often situated in domestic space and turned toward the city through the window. These moments are constitutive of an urban experience for which the poem is a technology of looking. Later in “A Few Days,” he writes, “People who come here say, ‘Oooh, you have a / balcony,’ as though I / spent my days out there surveying Twenty Third Street.”[7] In resisting the assumption that he spends his days “surveying Twenty Third Street,” Schuyler suggests that looking out at the city from the balcony is not his primary occupation. But Schuyler’s poems regularly document the city from his apartment, and provide an additional narrative of New York in the 1960s–1980s. Reading Schuyler’s New York offers an invitation to read an alternative to legible narratives about the divisions and procedural remaking of urban space in the enormous archive of experimental American poetry, an archive that shares its timeline with the large-scale restructuring of the cities in which a substantial portion of it was written.

A reframing of the decline, revitalization, and gentrification of postwar American cities through the archive of experimental poetry produces a structural critique from the view out Schuyler’s window, from Erica Hunt’s invocation of the twenty-four–hour shopping channel, from Elizabeth Willis’s conflation of the units of money and time, from Simone White’s rejection of innovative poetics that point their refusal solely toward the commoditization of language. Reading this work as a mode of urban critique produces strategies to destabilize the failures of queer studies to produce readings of urban change that usefully address the race and class stratification of American cities and speak from the vantage of non-normative kinship models to suggest the limitations of urban historical work that employs received ideas of kinship, gender, and sexuality. The slippage of the city, in the poems, between conceptual category and immediate somatic reality, between network of neighbors and staging ground for state power, between locus of personal history and archive of competing records of urban pasts, is a necessary part of recording what the city is, and what urban reading that accounts for that slippage is able to model and see.

1. Susan Landers, Franklinstein or, the Making of a Modern Neighborhood (New York: ROOF Books, 2016), 34.

2. Christina B. Hanhardt, Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013), 9.

3. Thomas Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 250.

4. James Schuyler, “Moon,” in A Few Days (New York: Random House, 1985), 21.

5. Schuyler, “Faure’s Second Piano Quartet,” in A Few Days, 30.

6. Schuyler, “A Few Days,” in A Few Days, 72.

7. Shuyler, “A Few Days,” 78–9.