Jacket 33 — July 2007        link Jacket 33 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage
   This piece is about 14 printed pages long.

Norman MacAfee

I Am Astro Place

 — for Bob Holman


I am Astro Place.

I am Mayday 1984.

I am a black teenage male
on the subway asking a black teenage
female, who is eating a pretzel,
“This go to Eight Street?”
I am that black teenage female and I
answer: “Astro Place.”

I am above ground. I am on
the island in the center of
Astro Place, a traffic-injected
square between Manhattan’s East
and West Villages.

I am Astro Place.

I am a white teenage boy in shabby clothes
talking to a middle-class middle-aged man
closing up an umbrella with initials on it:
“What’s that? Some kinda food additive?”
I am the man replying:
“Merchants Manhattan Bank.”
I am the boy and I say
fake-admiringly: “Oh, a banker.”
Inside my pocket, my hand strokes
a switchblade knife, which jiggles a nickle,
three dimes, and a quarter against my penis.

I am a man and woman in fur coats.
I am three delivery boys passing them.
I am a fourth, Manuel de Soto, and
I cut through muttering, punning,
“The rich should be put in inane
asylums till they recover.”

I am the three boys whipping out
aerosol paint cans, spraying the furs,
escaping into the afternoon crowd.

I am the mink couple screaming,
“They spraypainted our minks!”
I am Manuel, innocent bystander,
hurrying off, but not before
the couple snap my photo.

I am Astro Place.

I am a block south. I am a
thirty-year-old white anarchist actress
slash writer, Madonna Malina, and
a fifty-year-old writer, Gloria Friday,
walking down Lafayette Street.
“Lafayette’s being bought up by Italians,
probably post-ex-fascists or younger
mody-clothed neo-caps.”
“Probably they’ll reach our destination,
the Peace and Socialism Building,
then let the tenants stay at the old rent.
These are a more civilized people than
the Nazis were. Hitler would have killed
Gramsci.” “Like the Soviets or Americans do
with poets... the work camp, the university...’’
“Well...” “It sends them to universities
and that’s the end of them.” “Bye bye blues.”

I am Astro Place.

I am the Peace and Socialism Building,
I am its three floors: inside, I am
dozens of plants struggling against
the many windows. I am its
director, Daniel McPherson—
forty-five, somewhat worn-down-seeming—
I am speaking to an audience of about twenty:
“...tolerance finally of communists.
There is no greater joy than loving those
whom those who hate you hate.
These early generations of socialists are
young and full of the new energies of their
new thought, their sacrifice, their philosophy.
We must teach the U.S., which suddenly
finds itself expressing a mechanical decadence
as its main discourse, tolerance of the new,
just as old people, if they are also wise,
try to accept the new life around them,
however different from their own.
The evil is industrialism, corporatism...”

I am Astro Place.

I am nearby, in the Public Theatre
complex. I am Manuel, carrying several bags
of dinners. I am entering a small theater.
I am Peter Monroe, a white writer slash
director, talking to a black actor:
“It’s a film about a Martin Luther King who
escaped assassination and is elected the first
black socialist president in 2001.
He transforms the U.S. into a
pacifist demo-socialist republic.
We see his Farewell Address to
the nation from Cooper Union on
Astor (renamed Astro) Place.
To make all this work, I’ve invented a
new style I call ‘socialist surrealism,’ in which
we write our own self-fulfilling prophecies.
I’m fighting what Sartre calls ‘the American virus,
which is pessimism of the intellectuals.’
There’s a second film in the package, loosely
based on Rossellini’s Europa ‘51, about
the world’s richest woman, very beautiful
(Ingrid Bergman in the original) who
suddenly starts giving everything away
to the poor. She is assassinated, of course,
and becomes an Evita-like saint.”
I am Monroe winking at Manuel. I am Manuel
hearing Monroe say to me:
“Everything is propaganda for something,
after all, don’t you think?”

I am Astro Place.

I am the evening.
I am Manuel exiting the Public Theatre.
A black limousine is parked, with
two people inside, on Lafayette Street.
I am crossing the street as the car
starts up without its lights and hits me
and speeds off. I am Manuel de Soto.
I get up. I collapse. I am
three people dressed in newspapers
dancing by to Alban Berg’s Chamber Concerto.
I am Daniel McPherson walking along
7th Street. I am saying to myself,
“Lighten up...this terrible loss,
emptiness, no one to talk to, hold
on to, lighten up, free.”
I am Manuel stumbling across
Bowery to 7th Street and falling onto
the steps of the Ukrainian Church
and resting, gazing up into the murals
of peasants and Christ, whose face is
replaced by McPherson’s looking down.
I am Manuel whispering,
“O Jesus. So beautiful. Jesus.”

I am rooms in a tenement. I am McPherson
laying Manuel down on the bed and running
the bath and putting him into it and
washing him off and cleaning the abrasions
on his legs and putting him to bed.

I am Astro Place.

I am Manuel dreaming I’m waiting on
a subway platform. Unseen, I am
Gwyneth Jones and a children’s chorus
singing Mahler’s setting of the last lines
in the heavens of Goethe’s Faust.
I am a huge athlete with neck-length
blond hair staring at Manuel. I am
Manuel moving toward him. I am the other,
looking back at Manuel, turning and walking down
the long platform into the darker area.
I am Manuel following him.
We pass a newsstand displaying
Pravda, L’Unità, Le Monde. Behind
it is a professional wrestling ring
with two obese ugly wrestlers: I am the one
in gray flannel tights, I am the other
in olive drab ones. I am Manuel and I
follow my guide. I am Manuel wearing
pink trunks and wrestling boots. I am
the angel wearing red trunks and boots.
We enter the ring and begin a tagteam match
where our opponents are fighting dirty.

I am Astro Place.

I am New Year’s Eve, 1984.

I am Manuel opening the living room
window of the apartment I share with
McPherson. I am Manuel de Soto,
naked, crouched, leaning my crossed
forearms on the sill. I look down the block
to Cooper Union lit in the night by snow.
I write in a notebook, and speak as I jot:
“It is snowing...
“Astro Place...
“The Village...
“Manhattan...
“New York...
“North America...
“The New World...
“The World...
“It is snowing.”
I am Manuel looking into the deep
clear sky at a bright star. I am
Manuel writing and saying,
as though I have absorbed the power
of these places and space:
“...Astro Place...
“...the universe...”
I am McPherson entering the room.

I am Manuel saying: “Let me
tell you a story, Dan. I was fifteen,
in Puerto Rico. Some boys and I
were playing in the river, in Puerto Rico.
Thirty boys, fourteen to eighteen years old.
We were swimming. Naked.
We saw some men come up on horses,
and they tied the horses by the river
and went up to the factory. There were
enough horses for all of us, so we
got on them. Naked, and we rode
through the foam of the river,
the wind...refreshing. Naked.
My body holding the horse’s body.”

I am Manuel laughing and in
my laughter can be heard all my
laughs (and many of my groans
and tears) laughed in all my twenty years
back past an infant splashing in
sunny cool water with a dozen other kids.

I am Astro Place.

I am Peter Monroe, I am an
African-American poet in her forties,
Grace James, I am Daniel
McPherson, and I am Gloria Friday
eating at a restaurant.
I am Monroe saying:
“I spent forty years being a son.
Now I want a son who’s also my lover.”
I am Gloria Friday nodding sympathetically.
I am Gloria saying, “Kids are great....
But ... One hopes they will solve all
the problems of the world. One knows
they won’t. Tragic.” I am Monroe,
and I say: “Tragedy increasing in
bourgeoisie. Comedy outside on streets.
I want to have a son-like boy not necessarily
to have sex with all the time only
but to groom him properly for
the journey of life. I want to
massage him, heal his bruised flesh,
we take baths together! I must
install that shower!” I am Monroe
jotting that in a note pad. I am
Daniel McPherson and I say:
“What would he be like?”
I am Monroe replying, “Muscular.
Not Republican, or not for long.
Someone who’ll be a turn-on for
twenty years of monogamous safe sex.”
I am Grace James and I say,
“And after twenty years?” I am Monroe
replying: “I don’t think more than
four five-year plans in advance.”
I am the handsome waiter and I
come over to McPherson.
I am Monroe saying, “I’m having more
and more flirtations this summer.
It’s the best summer of my life.
I’m free. It’s a new epoch in my life.
I’m no longer a son. Sons and lovers
keep appearing before my eyes.”
I am the handsome waiter moving on
to Grace James. I am Peter Monroe saying,
“For an evening or afternoon we work out
at the gym, one of my sons slash lovers
and I. I lay numerous traps for their
delight, always, of course, safe sex.
Health, art, intimacy, politics, the smell
of the handsome unemployed actor’s
crotch slung two inches above my
nose, as he ‘spots’ me while I
bench-press, flat on my back.
Or I spend a night out with another
of the boys, my favorite, we come back
shit-faced, I puke—” I am Gloria Friday
and I object: “Please I’m drinking.” I am
Peter Monroe drunkenly apologizing:
“Sorry. Gross you out. Obsessional safe sex.”
I am the handsome waiter, and I come to
Monroe. I am Gloria Friday saying,
“Daniel’s silent because—”
I am Gloria, Grace, and Peter
all looking enviously at Daniel McPherson
and saying, “Ah Manuel...”
I am Monroe and the waiter
exchanging phone numbers.
I am Grace James saying pointedly
to Gloria Friday, “Consumerism is
fascism with a plastic face.”

I am Astro Place.

I am Manuel saying, “You’re a wimp,
Daniel! You never complete anything!”
I am Daniel saying, “What I’m living to do
and doing as best I can—”
I am Manuel and I say, “Bullshit!”
I am Daniel continuing, “What I’m doing
is helping ease the passage of this world
into a new one, through a socialist phase,
a necessary period of de-greeding, then to
an anarchist world. The first of these
may well be accomplished in my lifetime,
but the second, most probably not.”
I am Manuel saying, “I don’t know.
Violence!” I am Manuel pushing
McPherson on the shoulder. “Hey!”
I am Daniel backing away. “I don’t
have medical insurance! I’m
a poor man! Lay off!” I am Manuel
leaving, slamming the door,
walking around the block. I am
Manuel and I come back but
am silent for two weeks, during which,
in my imagination, I live in a house
where my twenty ideal women
and I make love round the clock.
Then everything resumes where it left off.
I am Manuel and I say, “I still like girls
but I dig you, Daniel.” I am
Daniel saying, “Proletarian slash intellectual
solidarity, Manuel. Though I have
believed in love, I never believed it
would come to me. When it did, I fled.
Why is that? Why am I talking as though
it’s over? I am having some trouble
breathing.” I am Manuel and I say
to my Daniel, “Breathe.”

I am Astro Place.

I am Grace James gesturing toward
a map of the continental United States
behind me and I say, “Let’s break you up
into seven sections.” I am Grace and
I point to Florida-Mississippi.
“We could call you the Black Belt
Socialist Republic, for indigenous soil type.”

I am Astro Place.

I am Daniel McPherson on the phone:
“There’s nothing to stop us having
a revolution. Of course as a pacifist
I’m in a terrible position vis-à-vis
armed struggle. Jefferson and/or
Mao believed there should be a new
revolution every twenty years...” I am
someone unseen talking to Daniel.
I am Daniel, replying, “Well yes I
would be one of the first targets,
but if you fear death, those who are
without love will defeat you,
according to Siegfried Alberich.
Armed struggle. The rich are always
going to be murderously greedy and
legislate their interests into law.
Reagan believes (or it is, anyway,
his dis-informational position) that
FDR wanted to institute state fascism....
If they have their way, Hitler’s
only trespass will become anti-Semitism...”

I am a man on the street outside
Daniel and Manuel’s apartment,
I raise a rifle toward Daniel, who in his
pacing conversation moves out of sight.

I am Daniel saying into the phone,
“Thanks... I know I should get
some new clothes, be a presentable
charismatic narcissistic leader.”

I am outside, I am the assassin,
I am hit by a sanitation truck
backing up. I fall into the grinder
disappearing forever.

I am Daniel talking on the phone:
“I will tomorrow. All right, we’ll meet at
Macy’s, a real working-class store, right?
And, thanks for the check.” I am Daniel,
and I hang up and immediately rant,
“I hate going uptown. I hate wearing
makeup on TV. I hate shaving.”
I am Manuel and I hand him shaving cream
and razor and I say: “To quote Barthes:
‘The middle of my life is when I
discovered death as real.’ Anyway,
you’re only a figurehead like
everybody else. Everything is
propaganda for something, right?”

I am Astro Place.

I am Mayday 1985

I am Manuel entering a rehearsal hall
in the Public Theatre with a delivery
of lunches. I am a production number
being rehearsed. I am two platinum blondes
singing. I am the Count Basie-type band
behind them. I am the blondes dropping
minks and jewels till they’re down to
simple dresses, singing:

“We’re giving our money away.
We don’t want it no more.
We’re giving it to the poor.
We’re giving our money away.

“We two ex-Miss Americas say,
‘America give dat money away.
You got too much. Your heart
it’s in the wrong place.’

“We’re giving our money away.
We’re giving our money away.
Oh it feels so good
Oh it feels so good

“We’re giving our money away
to folks who never had it before.
Oh they work centuries. Now
their hands’ll get some scratch.”

I am Manuel smiling at the front of the stage.

“And look at them smile. Why
it makes me smile to see them
smile when they get our
money free. It’s worth all
the money in the world to see
that smile that smile that smile.

“We’re giving our money away
to folks who never had it before.
Oh they work centuries. Now
their hands’ll get some scratch.”

I am one of the blondes saying to Manuel:
“Hey po’ man, here’s ten.” She hands him a bill.
He takes it in left and extends right
hand for a handslap: “Gimme five!”

“We’re giving our money away.
We don’t want it no more.
We’re giving it to the poor.
We’re giving our money away.”

I am Astro Place.

I am Manuel and Monroe passing Cooper Union.
I am Manuel saying: “The poor
litter so as to create street-cleaning jobs.”
I am Monroe saying: “The world’s biggest
memorial service after Karl Marx died
was here. Lincoln, Emma Goldman, Allen
Ginsberg, Mark Twain, Pierre Boulez,
have all appeared here.” I am
Karl Marx. I am Abraham Lincoln.
I am Emma Goldman, I am Allen
Ginsberg, I am Mark Twain, I am
Pierre Boulez. I am Manuel
and I say: “Red Cloud, too.” I am Manuel and
I pause then add, “I’m part Indian.”
I am Peter Monroe and I say
part-mock-seductively: “Which part?”
I am Manuel, saying, “The spiritual ...
We’re just Spanish-speaking Indians
come back for our land.”

I am Astro Place.

Later that night. I am Manuel
and McPherson in bed. I am
McPherson saying: “Monroe wants me
to play Lincoln in a scene he’s shooting
at Cooper Union.” I am Manuel
exclaiming, “A Socialist playing
a Republican! Do it!” I am
McPherson replying, “Such a
Republican,” then a little
sadly, “such a Socialist.”

I am Astro Place.

I am Peter Monroe at my desk, with
my watercolor pencils, sketches,
computer, video camera.
I am Ralph Vaughan Williams’s
Sea Symphony on the stereo.
I am Manuel and I enter
with a delivery, I put it down.
I am Monroe opening it and saying,
“Didn’t I order coffee, Coke, chocolate cake,
and a hot dog?” I am Manuel saying,
“Peppermint tea, apple jweece,
jogurt, cheese salad, bananas.”
I am a soprano singing, “O we can wait
no longer,/We too take ship, O soul...”
I am Peter saying, “What are you
trying to do to me, Manuel? Make me
healthy?” I am Manuel saying,
“I want my friends to live forever.”
I am Monroe chanting, “Your name is
Foolish Love. You come from Rogopag.”
I am Manuel chanting, “Fashion Moda
dressed me, the Young Lords be
my Shepherd, Kids of Survival my
eyes.” I am Monroe, astounded
as always, and I say, “Why
are you still a delivery boy, Manuel?
You’re so fucking gifted. You should be
a labor organizer or an actor or a
pro wrassler.” I am Manuel saying,
“It’s not an ideal society. I’m not
eighteen anymore. I’m not twenty-eight
anymore.” I am a baritone and
soprano singing: “Thoughts, silent
thoughts, of Time and Space and
Death, like water flowing.”
I am Monroe saying, “The prime of life.
Time for a change.” I am Manuel saying,
“And I still like women, too.” I am a
soprano and chorus singing,
“I and my soul to range and range in thee.”
I am Manuel asking, “What’s that music?”
I am Monroe answering, “Vaughan Williams’
Sea Symphony.” I am Monroe
looking downward and saying,
“Please let me see it.”
I am Manuel replying, “That’s my own business.”
I am Monroe pleading, “Oh come on.
I won’t kill myself, but it’s the thing
I most want to see in all the world.
That and the reverse.” I am Manuel
blushing but flattered saying:
“Peter, I had no idea. You should
have asked before.” I am Manuel stepping
out of my clothes. I am magnificent
Manuel turning round several times.
I am Manuel and Monroe listening.
I am the orchestra welling up.
I am the soloists and chorus
oceanically singing, “O thou
transcendent, nameless, the fiber
and the breath, light of light, shedding
forth universes, thou center of them.”
I am Monroe saying, “Thanks.” I am
Manuel saying, “Anytime.” I am Manuel
putting my clothes back on. I am Monroe
saying, “Words Walt Whitman.”

I am Astro Place.

I am The Great Change.

I am a dark stairway with walls
painted black. I am six nude
muscle men with great gravity
and tenderness slowly carrying
a seventh, as though dead,
down the steps.

I am outside in the bright daylight.

I am Monroe standing, waiting, muttering:
“The Red Shoes, Flash Gordon serials,
Red River, And Then There Were None,
A Matter of Life and Death, Ivan the Terrible,
The Magnificent Ambersons, La Dolce Vita,
The Gospel According to Matthew, Persona,
Sansho the Bailiff, Pasolini’s Arabian Nights,
Gertrud, the Soviet War and Peace,
2001, Open City, Blimp, Nashville,
Salò, Andrei Roublev, L’Amour fou,
Intolerance...” I am Daniel McPherson,
Gloria Friday, Grace James, Madonna Malina,
and Manuel de Soto, coming up.
I am Grace James saying: “I want to
get to be an old woman. I don’t
want to stagger through wasteland,
stalked by giant women-eating aloe-vera mutants.”

We pass a sign at a restaurant:
I am that sign: Radical Quiche.

Above it, in a second-story window, I am
another sign: Rent Strike.

I am Astro Place.

I am Cooper Square, and I am Gloria,
Manuel, Daniel, Grace, Madonna, Peter
merging into a demonstration, a million
people strong. I am those million.
Our lives are hard but joys come every hour.
I am Monroe turning to McPherson and saying:
“When one is a part, however reluctantly,
of a dying system like ours, one is
constantly reminded of that dying.”

I am Grace James speaking to a TV crew:
“How many have died since the world
got divided? Have these fifty-four years
of the Hiroshima Precedent—
the cold war and proxy wars—been worse
for the world than the world wars?
I encourage Americans to be
pacifists, for their, our, government’s
military position is indefensible,
but though I am a pacifist I don’t
condemn the arming of small groups to
retrieve what has been taken from
the mass of people by an elite—
the simple moral law of need over greed.”

I am these five talking as though
defining the savors of the moment,
being at the center of life,
as history changes.
“The emptiness of existence,
my dear friends,...or...
socialism, pacifism, anarchism, sex,
human siblinghood, the world of the arts,
Anna Magnani.” “Yuri Gagarin.”
I am the fires of revolution, and once I have
swept over you, once you have seen
reality, surrealism surrounds you
but is never enough.

I am Astro Place

I am Apotheosis in 2001.

I am New Year’s Eve, 2000.
I am Cooper Union at night,
I am the full moon over head.
I am Astro Place from 150 feet in the air.
I am the black tilted-cube sculpture
spinning faster and faster.

I am noon of first day of new millennium.
I am the south balcony of Cooper Union.
I am a crowd extending through
all the surrounding streets.

I am President Grace James speaking.
“In place of the old bourgeois societies
with their classes and nations and class
and national antagonisms, we now
have an association in which
the free development of each is the
condition of the free development of all.”

I am a camera in a helicopter, ascending,
revealing streets of East and West Villages,
uptown, downtown, filled with people listening.

I am President Grace James speaking.
“...abolition of the distinction between
city and country, abolition of
the carrying on of industries for
the benefit of private individuals,
abolition of the wage-slave system,
the proclamation of social harmony
and the primacy of the world interest...”

I am the night. I am Daniel McPherson
and Manuel at home looking at
a videotape of the inauguration
of American President Grace James
on TV. On the CD player I am
the last minutes of Carl Nielsen’s
Inextinguishable Symphony. I am
the TV cutting to a studio
with McPherson and Madonna Malina
on tape discussing the day’s implications.
I am the TV Daniel saying,
“It marks the peaceful triumph of
democratic socialism, I hope.”
I am the TV Madonna Malina shouting,
“Impossible!” I am the TV
Daniel McPherson continuing,
“...a necessary period
of de-greeding.” I am
McPherson and Manuel looking
lovingly at one another.

I am on the TV. I am Madonna Malina
and now-President Grace James
talking with affectionate animation.
“Happy New Year, Madonna.”
“Happy New Millennium.”
I am both toasting: “To the great changes.”
I am Madonna Malina smiling
with ambiguous confidence. I am
Manuel jumping up angrily—
“They left out abolition of the family!
—petit-bourgeois statist utopian bullshit!”
I am Manuel stomping out, slamming the door.
Soon I am the phone ringing.
I am Daniel McPherson picking up
and saying, “I know. The rights to
change your mind and to get up and leave...
Just a joke... Sure. Midnight under
the Cooper Union clock... But none of your
bullshit macho violence, OK?”

On the TV, I am a rerun of Grace James’s speech:
“When I think of the long span of history
that has brought us to this moment—
the wars of liberation, the treaties,
abolition of slavery, abolition of
nuclear weapons and nuclear power,
I think that history changes
from nightmare to sweet dreams
according to the dreamers.”

I am Astro Place.

I am the TV helicopter shot of the crowd
listening to the small black figure on
the south balcony of Cooper Union—
I am the camera rising higher up
to reveal the street grids, the skyscrapers,
I am caught up in the first clouds,
which part briefly to reveal Central Park.

I am The Inextinguishable Symphony
and I end, as all but one thing must.

 

Norman MacAfee at Astro Place, New York City


About “I Am Astro Place”:

“I Am Astro Place” is a poem version of a film script, Astro Place. I was inspired to write the film by something Allen Ginsberg said in 1982 during the worst of Reaganism: “Make your own self-fulfilling prophecies”—and by something Susan Sontag said about dwelling in “the Republic of the Serious.”
      In May 2006 Bob Holman, that great generous poetry soul, suggested I write “I Am Astro Place” as part of a People’s Poetry Gathering New York Epic anthology. The poems from various writers would use an “I am... [things about/in/of New York]” form. Bob and I were in touch because he had read my poem “The Coming of Fascism to America,” which had just appeared in Jacket, and asked to publish it as a Bowery Poetry Club chapbook. The book came out Mayday 2006.
      Astro Place, which I plan to film, is also a section of a novel, Tolerance. Tolerance is a homage and response to D. W. Griffith’s pacifist, experimental epic Intolerance, which intercuts four stories. Tolerance intercuts seven texts. Another section of Tolerance is my opera to music of Charles Ives, The Death of the Forest, which is an independent work, as is Astro Place. I wrote Astro Place from 1983 to about 1989, with subsequent tinkerings. At Bob Holman’s request, I made “I Am Astro Place” during the night of May 13, 2006.
      The author photo is by Nancy Miller Elliott. The only extant copy is a distressed 1.5-inch by 0.75-inch shot from a contact sheet. The photo was restored by Miguel Cervantes-Cervantes in May 2007. And he made a small adjustment in a second copy that transposed the real into the “socialist surrealist” title.
      Norman MacAfee’s books include The Coming of Fascism to America, A New Requiem, The Death of the Forest, The Gospel According to RFK, and translations of the poetry of Pier Paolo Pasolini, the letters of Jean-Paul Sartre (in two volumes, Witness to My Life and Quiet Moments in a War), and Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. “I Am Astro Place” is part of a new poetry manuscript, “One Class.”

Photo caption: Norman MacAfee in 1984 at Astro Place subway station. Copyright © 1984 Norman MacAfee and estate of Nancy Miller Elliott. Photo restoration: Miguel Cervantes-Cervantes