Behind the scenes of the city and the writer

Messy and fraught with flashes of beauty

Photo of Cometbus (left) by Chrissy Piper.

Last Supper 

Last Supper 

Aaron Cometbus

ARP Books 2014, 96 pages, $11.95 ISBN 978-1894037596

In Aaron Cometbus’s first poetry collection, Last Supper, flashes of the city and one of its writers carouse side-by-side in all their messiness and fragmented beauty like blurry snapshots that tell the truth in the fuzziness. Which is fitting, given the film stills by experimental film documentarian Jem Cohen that grace the book’s covers. Improbable seeming scenes present themselves in freeform stanzas, sometimes with gallows rhyme that often showcases pained or hard-won honesty. Cometbus, the author of the eponymous zine (since 1981), chronicles both a changing and fading city, and is also a writer ruminating on aging. There are moments that stand out in plaintive speech spiked with poetic wisdom; that make you fold the book, set it down, look out the window, and then pick it up again. For those who have followed his zine, it’s intriguing to see what Cometbus has chosen to render in poetic form.

When Cometbus proclaims he “gave directions to every single person on the train / and gave them correctly for a change,”[1] New Yorkers will understand; he nails the only-in-New-York experiences without being cliché. How many times have we given directions only to realize we gave biking directions for driving or driving directions for the train? In the opening poem “Three Bridges,” those who have seen this scene will immediately recognize it — but had you ever really stopped to remember it? That’s what Cometbus does, bringing the unlikely memories to light that we haven’t bothered to remember:

At the foot of the bridge number one
is a tiny shop crammed with socks
The sun doesn’t shine there
It’s so subterranean that the store serves as a foundation
for the ramp that carries bikes and cars
away from the island (9)

Cometbus is observant of all the things we might miss on the streets — the kinds of things astute nonfiction filmmakers like Jem Cohen notice; shortly after the above poem we encounter:      

An only in New York
warning note
taped to a trash bag
on the street
“Books inside
all in Chinese!” (12)

Given that Cometbus is an avid cyclist in the city, what he sees are things we miss because walking is too slow and driving is too fast. In between these snapshots of a city not always seen, we see the analogy of the life of a writer, behind the scenes, also not always seen. New York is the famed stereotype of the glamorous “writer”; Cometbus cuts an imposing figure if you’ve seen him in his bands or at his haunts like the Poetry Project marathon (which is also the partial subject of a poem). Alongside all of this, Cometbus tells of what goes on in a real writer’s apartment in the height of summer in New York. I’m sure any regular NYC writer can agree:

In a quiet apartment in Brooklyn, peace reigns
boneless cats lie snoring in the heat
one an inkblot, the other a scoop of melted ice cream
Now I sit with a cold can of pabst
and a hot double espresso
Perched and poised to strike
and return to work on my novel for another night (15)

These two narratives, the lesser-known story of the city and the not always seen story of the writer — of the real writers of this city, not the NYT bestseller list ones — show how cities and writers actually live, and this is what makes this book come alive. As Cometbus says:

I found his book
on that […] dollar rack
where all the best things in life
reside (14)

Cometbus tells one hilarious convoluted story (of many), not so funny when it happened, of when he needed a dollar to catch his train to the airport:

I found an unmarked
building on 41st St
where Travelers Aid was supposed to be
I filled out the forms and
anxiously awaited
The social worker was half way
through the interview when she glanced at the bottom of the page
“A dollar — that’s all you need? Why didn’t you say so before?” (35)

For all the stereotypes about this city and “punks,” the poem speaks volumes about the simultaneous qualities that make New York, New York, and the pluckiness of its residents. Cometbus has a gift for rendering these moments that say poetically all that needs to be said in a seemingly — but deceptively — simple and pithy moment.

The city, like Cometbus acknowledges about himself throughout the book, isn’t what it once was:

Even a relatively recent arrival
like me has their old NY that’s gone:
The coffeeshop at the UN
with chipped china and paint peeling off the walls
Does anyone know a good bike mechanic
now that Peter Pizza has sold his shop?
The new owner wants to put my address into his computer
but I don’t even like to give my name (41)

What is an equally humorous and sobering story to read is his devotion to his typewriter and typewriter repairman Li Quan:

“Ah Panasonic KX,” he says fondly
when I barge into his store in a cloud of dust
“You still haven’t given it up”
“Never!” I vow, “Not as long as you’re here”
To which he replies: “Six months” (41)

Like typewriters that always seem to fade from use, but never do, Cometbus devotes an entire section to “Living in Bookstores”; bookstores always seem on the verge of extinction, even in NYC, but have never really died like we thought they would. Cometbus has had his share of time in them:          

I’ve spent a lot of long, dragging days
manning the counter in struggling little bookstores
where failure hangs in the air (54)

What Cometbus has a gift for showing is those bits of loneliness in the clutter of community; that’s NY and its trademark, so much of what E. B. White famously said in “Here is New York” about the city giving the “gift” of loneliness and privacy. Many of Cometbus’s poems can be said to be actual examples of White’s observational theories on the city. Cometbus (like White) shares stories of places in NYC that popular culture usually doesn’t acknowledge when hyping up stereotypical New York events, as Cometbus writes in “Holidays”:

Instead of watching the ball drop in Times Square
I go to the Chassidic district
where you can hear a pin drop
It’s not their New Year (67)

As he continues to try to live with authenticity and community in this city, Cometbus gets a sharp awakening about how much he has not changed in “Modern World” when dealing with workers in a punk bike shop:            

“Cool sticker, dude” they said
then returned grim
“For insurance reasons
we’re unable to work on this
It’s unsafe to ride
Those are the rules” (74)

Cometbus continues to watch the city change around him, and it’s a kind of change those of us who are not the uber-wealthy millionaires, stock brokers, out-of-state students will recognize; the real city is not lasting any longer — it is indeed disappearing. As he writes in “The City Disappears”:           

Until the day comes when you ride the train
and look around to realize
that everyone and everything is new
besides the train
and you (92)

The writer that Cometbus is, a writer that sits behind the book counter, is behind all the changes and challenges of living in the city:

The greatest writers on earth keep me company
though the real work begins at closing time
sitting behind the counter
writing more books
that no one will buy (55)

I hope that this ending of “Living in Bookstores” does not become true, because I look forward to Cometbus’s next book of poetry. How Cometbus parses life, not into one of his zine narratives, but into poetic yarns of wisdom, is fascinating in and of itself. Cometbus captures the city like those faded 1970s photos with the white border around them, or the ’80s Polaroids just blurry enough to let both mystique and true colors shine through — a missing vision of your world suddenly appears and disappears just as quietly. Last Supper is a must read if you care about how the city’s authenticity seems to be under constant siege, if you were part of a punk and squat scene, if you value true human interaction, if you’ve forgotten what it means to be a true, alive member (not virtual) of the community that is NYC — or perhaps any city.

1. Aaron Cometbus, Last Supper (Winnipeg: ARP Books, 2014), 70.