CA Conrad & Frank Sherlock
The City Real & Imagined
reviewed by Steven Karl
The City Real & Imagined by CA Conrad & Frank Sherlock (Factory School, 2010)
Philadelphia. For poets CA Conrad and Frank Sherlock, it is both a geographic location and a state of being. The City Real & Imagined finds two of Philly's finest strolling around the city, exchanging poems of inspiration and desperation. Conrad writes, "when will I/vanish at/ all my/ want/ dear/ impatient/ city I/ Love? / SHERLOCK: (reading graffiti) What's NFG? / Me: New Found Glory!" Conrad professes his love for a city that is impatient. What does Conrad mean by impatient? Is he referring to the impatience of the police that decided to firebomb MOVE members* back in 1985 or the impatience of activists as Mumia Abu-Jamal** remains on death row? Or is it a city impatient with growth and expansion? The tension of the poor becoming poorer while the rich become more elite and prominent in a city whose identity has always been that of underdogs (think Rocky) and blue-collars. For Conrad, New Found Glory doesn't mean a rock band from Florida; it symbolizes his eternal optimism and hope for the direction this city is to take.
The City Real & Imagined confronts politics and religion head-on:
my friend says she'd rather see state-imposed atheism than state-imposed theism but I'd rather see the state disappear
It is as if Conrad's friend is stuck thinking in an Althusserian mode, yet Conrad immediately discards of all state apparatus and instead suggest the disappearance of the "state." The poet asks, "can't we/ imagine our/ hands on/ one another/ instead? Question/ our extent/ of warmth/ LOVE was/ a tomb for/ awhile/ between borders." Anyone familiar with Conrad's poetry will realize that "love" is perhaps fittingly a major theme in a book about the city of "brotherly love," yet the tension mounts when people have the inability or refuse to gravitate towards love:
NO TRESPASSING! Robert Indiana LOVE Park Barricaded No bongos today Skateboarders peer through fence quietly skate Off ASSHOLE IN SUIT: (laughs) Guess they closed your LOOOOOOVE Park huh?" ME: (sitting on police barricade) IT'S YOUR PARK TOO ASSHOLE!
Love Park throughout Philly's mired history has been a consistent battle between skaters and musicians and the police. So the question remains, why not shake off the shackles of class distinctions?
Conrad's poems are often thin, tight, and concrete, whereas, Sherlock's fan about the page and often capture the "imagined" Philadelphia:
This is pure hell or the punk rock origins of a city Another day in the life of a spider
Sherlock seamlessly incorporates images of spiders to coffin-risers which works as an effective quilt of both imaginary and real such as the section below where his camera-eye captures Philadelphia nightlife:
Out of the coffin & into the nightlife faux robotic figures blink the future dance floor baby blue Weirdly elegant
"Weirdly elegant," could be the best description for Sherlock's poetry. Few poets use and manipulate white space better than him. "Weirdly elegant" also works to describe the interplay between Sherlock & Conrad. Either poet will use a word like "tomb" or "deviance" then the other picks up riffing off of the same word which reminds me of the city's history of jazz and my grandmother telling me stories of Coltrane standing on bar ledges perched above the audience and trading horn salutes with some of Philadelphia's local horn blowers. And whether the poets are capturing a city real or the image of the city and/or life which exists in their heads, as they manage to capture the pulse and breath of Philadelphia— this book is, in fact, a tribute to the fact that the underdogs do come out on top and that one way to harness Benjamin Franklin's electricity is to read The City Real & Imagined.
* MOVE was a Philadelphia-based organization founded by John Africa. The organization mostly consisted of African-Americans and preached a back-to-nature lifestyle. They were primarily against technology, which caused serious confrontations between the members and the city, especially in their refusal to take their sick children to hospitals. The city responded to their perceived inhumanness, with a dose of inhumanity by firebombing an entire block where Move members lived. I got out of school early that day.
** Mumia Abu-Jamal is a journalist from Philadelphia who has been in prison since 1981 and on death row since 1983 for allegedly shooting Philadelphia police officer, Daniel Faulkner.
—Reviewed by Steven Karl