reviewed by Karl Saffran
Starting at Broadway Bridge and winding down all the way to the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, Andy Fitch's Island is a 240+ block walk through Manhattan. Much longer than the sixty minute, sixty sentence walks that make up his previous book Ten Walks / Two Talks (with Jon Cotner, out last year from Ugly Duckling Presse), this walk fits perfectly into a smaller format and, as such, is the fifteenth release from The Song Cave. This Massachusetts-based press publishes chapbooks from an eclectic range of poets in small signed and numbered editions with simple yet uniform covers. The Song Cave's focus is, refreshingly, on self-contained, chapbook-length projects presented in a non-decorative, work-first manner. Fittingly, Fitch presents this particular walk in a stripped down, real-time style, with a series of paragraphed fragments transcribed from the tape recording of his thoughts and observations during the trek through the city.
From 215th Street stairs climb someplace I can't see…six tiers…very San Francisco…Halfway up daffodils…soft cream- colored ones (not with obvious egg yolk inside) below gnarled tree roots and a garbage stench…Followed by the smell that you're in sun…From fifth flight cannot tell what's water to the east…or highway"
While Island certainly follows the trail laid by several projects that came before it, excerpts like the one above show how Fitch is able to blend personality with reportage to create his own approach. Although he writes "Sometimes I stay quiet as people pass…especially groups of kids," on this walk Fitch is a man talking to himself while ambling down the street--an activity that has much more effect on the world he's attempting to describe than if he were writing silently on a train, for example. This leads to procedural difficulties ("The window in which I'd planned to check my mic turned out to be a door with a sensor that beeped") and tense exchanges ("that guy wanted (though he paused when I passed the microphone) "all women locked up who mention the word 'rape'""). For the project, Fitch is never able to be either fully engaged with or completely detached from his surroundings, a fact that becomes most obvious in the rare scenes of conversation. The first, a relatively whimsical discussion with a health food store cashier about the chicken alternative Quorn, is funny because it is obvious throughout that, as is later admitted, "I'd just wanted to mention that label…Quorn…" A subsequent encounter has the opposite effect and is rather jarring. In the middle of a meditation on the economic status of tour bus recruitment boys, Fitch is barred from taking a familiar route to a post office in the Empire State Building. Despite a polite exchange, his feelings are explicitly clear: "I didn't want to become obnoxious…Obviously that guy didn't make the rule…Though fuck the Empire State Building". Unlike the previous exchange in which Fitch is able to slightly ham it up for the microphone, here the recording makes it impossible to mask the frustration and embarrassment of being turned away. These emotions are shared, then, by the reader, who has just spent perhaps a hundred blocks in the narrator's mind. In most cases, however, Fitch's awareness of the awkwardness his method creates is clear and used to create some of the most memorable moments in the book:
[…]There's…well I can't describe this yet…I'll wait behind a woman…let's say 65..stout…matronly…black cloth tied to the back of her head…almost a yarmulke…yet means she's a nun…She grins…kind of laughs relating to a girl…carries the Times business section…Then I step on some sticker…and (I'm not trying to create dynamic juxtapositions) it presents an oiled couple fucking above a phone number…New Golden Empire Delicious Good Take-Out…[…]"
More than anything Island is a book about New York. It is a celebration, even if the tone never reaches celebratory. There are phrases, certainly, like "Cooing pigeons lounge about seated," so beautifully worded that it is hard to believe they are spontaneous observations, yet just as often Fitch manages to create images both comical and profound through more plain thought/speech: "Hey cardinal I'm right under you…Each time you chirp your jowls jiggle…" Focusing on the aspects of the city that are astoundingly normal, such as commercial neighborhoods ("The next 40 blocks may be medical groups" & "This whole block looks devoted to…not wallpaper…contact paper?") and accidental encounters ("A cop spits in my mouth’s corner just as I enter Chelsea…which always feels friendly…like being outside but also in a bakery"), Fitch's tone remains, like a stereotypically true New Yorker, unflustered, yet fully aware of the irrepressible vibrancy the city emanates from every block.