“First Warm Morning, Amsterdam Avenue” was first published in the September 2, 2013 issue of The New Yorker. Please click here for the website, though it is available only for subcribers.
“First Warm Morning, Amsterdam Avenue,” by Marcus Jackson, shows courage.
First of all, Jackson is writing in a completely accessible style, not necessarily the most fashionable mode of poetry at the moment. His subject is celebration, his attitude is affectionate, and he means this poem to sound great when it’s said aloud. None of these are necessarily a la mode, either.
The sound first: the repeating mmm’s in the title set the stage: this poem intends to have a soothing effect on the ear and on the spirit. It’s as if he’s singing us a lullaby for waking: women walk, he says in the opening phrase, and then echoes with rows of rubies, a river to the west, return from furlough and wide wheel. Just say these words, and you have to purse your lips toward the shape of a kiss. When the poem shifts and intensifies in the tenth line, Jackson reminds us of how mothers wake their children with “tender tones.”
Plosive t’s and k’s, b’s and d’s give the poem a little bite: the delivery man stacks boxes/ of blueberries; we are on the sidewalk outside the market; carrots are complete, and bananas are tied-together canoes. The poem pleases us with this rhythm of repeating sounds.
The poem’s images appeal to the senses, and most of all I enjoy its sense of motion: women walking, the boxes being stacked, the motion of the trees, the breeze moving across our skin, the driver leaning into his wheel.
His city scene is a gentle place: a dog enjoys this First Warm Morning with his nose and tongue; children wake to their mothers’ tender tones; the ash trees speak; the river almost breathes over the city with its breezes.
Courage, I think. The poem is marked by its own bravery: spring feels lovely, women are beautiful, mothers are tender, dogs are lovable. The city provides. Amid all our bad news, Jackson reminds us that some mornings, life is good. Jackson echoes the spirit of Whitman, his sounds and his lists, and that takes nerve these days.
I really enjoy a poem when it makes a little shift. Like a sonnet, this poem makes a little pivot part way through, when it suggests that spring is not just lovely in itself, but also lovely because when it arrives we can have a respite and a lull from the hard winter, as when mothers wake their children from troublesome sleep.
The clarity of this poem is what makes it a tight-wire act for the poet. The clarity gives him no place to hide.
Being both clear and fresh is not easy; it’s just not as easy as it looks. Most of us think in kaleidoscopes of emotions and ideas, and split-second waterfalls of images. To put any of that into words requires a kind of translation. Although we do it all the time, the act of translating into words what we experience as thought gives most of us a lot of trouble. A poem’s clarity can be its most pleasurable thing. And yet poems that are acts of clarity are in a way death-defying, given our terrible doubts that things that sound good might be wrong, might be propaganda.
Jackson not only brings the scene to life, he risks bringing this idea to life: that a proper function of poetry is to wake us from our troubled sleep. He makes a momentary celebration that he’s alive, no guilt, no apology, no subterfuge.
All of what Jackson does in this poem takes courage. Poetry should take many forms, and this should be one of them. This is a rich poem, and I look forward to hearing some other takes on the experience this poem provides.