[A Save This Book feature from the Village Voice Literary Supplement (VLS) Number 16, April 1983. The piece was drafted in 1977 and finished, I’m quite sure, before I saw the January 1983 issue of the Quarterly Review of Literature devoted to Schubert. That, or I wanted to distinguish the real book—also edited by Theodore Weiss but beautifully and with the help of Schubert’s wife, Judith E. Kranes—from the hideous mélange of Works and Days (yes, why not drag Hesiod into it!). Can’t remember which.]
Initial A: A Book of Poems
Forays into a city of the mind that looks like a photograph by Berenice Abbott one minute and sounds like a song by Franz Schubert the next, these poems are the lifework of a man with a gift for dramatizing his discoveries of emotions presumed lost—discoveries as likely to take place on street corners as anywhere else—and a penchant for making delicate deals with himself, out loud but so nobody else in the rush-hour crowd can hear. David Schubert wrote this poetry in Manhattan and Brooklyn during the ’30s and early ’40s. Its pleasures are still keen, plentiful, and open to all, though Initial A will be appreciated most readily by students of the New York School’s Poetry Department, whose faculty members are Schubert’s direct descendants.
The John Ashbery fan will slip right into Schubert’s dream-induced logic: “Crying, you/Want to get off. But you know, you’ve/Just died. Indeed all the tears are/Counted, one by one, and safely filed away./Respectfully dried that were respectfully cried.” For readers of Kenneth Koch, there is prophetic playfulness: “Farewell, O zinnias, tall as teetotalers,/And thou, proud petunia, pastel windows of joy,/Also to you, noble tree trunks, by name/Elm . . .” And James Schuyler adepts will savor the fancy accuracy: “. . . cold/sky, the color of a quarrel. Premonitions of/disaster; of course, the month’s environment./Why do I keep thinking of you?”
But admirers of Frank O’Hara are in for the biggest surprise. Schubert’s elegiac spirit, nervous skill, and quick gusto anticipate eerily the poet of “Chez Jane,” “Music,” and “The Day Lady Died.” Eerily—and marvelously:
From the corner of a mood like Les Sylphides,
Impossible, romantic as certain moons
In certain atmospheres, then you called me
From the corner of the street.
—“The Happy Traveller”
. . . now I wait for her to speak
The meanings which I must negate before
I am admitted to the gayest person.
—“Victor Record Catalog”
No! On the vehicle, Tomorrow, I will see
That man, whose handshake was happiness.
Schubert was 33 when he died in 1946, 15 years before Initial A was published, and the book’s flaws are those of a young writer: a few poems stunted by syntactic hot-wiring (loneliness), an overabundance of literary allusions (insecurity), and the annoying habit of breaking lines in the middle of a word (“originality”). His strengths indicate that he would have outgrown his affectations—in any case, as with O’Hara, what’s right about Schubert is more interesting than what’s wrong. Both men sit on the capacious twill lap of the rightest and wrongest American poet of all, O’Hara jauntily, Schubert with passionate sweetness. And although the song in Initial A has shrunk to a “fleeting memory,” heroically attenuated like the figures in a cityscape by Giacometti, the best of these poems prove that the self is as strong as ever.