To Light Up a Dark Time, Effervescent Poems of New York City

By Alex Dimitrov

Until the pandemic of 2020, I had never watched “A Hard Day’s Night.” I have now seen it probably 15 times. My wife and I are spending our quarantine months in a suburban house with our toddler twins, Jasper and Wesley, and the twins have developed an obsession with the Beatles. They’re especially fixated on Richard Lester’s 1964 film, an absurdist romp in which John, Paul, George and Ringo thwart rules and needle authority figures and frolic in fields in between performing songs that percolate with joy. You can see why kids would connect with it. You can also see how the movie must’ve been a postwar antidote to gloom when it came out in the summer of 1964, months after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

My own private “Hard Day’s Night,” at home, has been a copy of Alex Dimitrov’s “Love and Other Poems.” I have found myself flipping through it all the time (but usually when the twins are napping) for an impromptu shot of delight. The book revives the persona of the downtown flâneur — it’s full of nods to Prince Street and Cafe Orlin and the Strand — and reading it feels like wandering around that pre-pandemic metropolis that we’re aching to get back to. From a business standpoint, the timing of books (and movies) tends to be arbitrary — they’re released when they’re ready — but every now and then a new one seems to dovetail with the cultural moment. “Love and Other Poems” is an example of that. It practically embodies the phrase “breath of fresh air.” It comes to us in the midst of widespread loss and grief, with faint signals of hope on the horizon, but it nudges us (if I can borrow a line from a poem by the Nobel laureate Louise Glück) to “risk joy / in the raw wind of the new world.”

Here in his third volume Dimitrov comes across as an unabashed romantic. The first poem in the book, “Sunset on 14th Street,” begins this way: “I don’t want to sound unreasonable / but I need to be in love immediately.” A scene unfolds: New Yorkers dashing home at the close of day. But these are 21st-century New Yorkers, more technocrats than boulevardiers. They don’t smoke. They drink green juice. They stare at their phones. As Dimitrov writes,

it’s insane to me.
They’re missing this free sunset
willingly! Or even worse
they’re going home to cook
and read this sad poem online.

Dimitrov’s lines are clear and conversational, and if you happen to detect an immediate and uncanny resemblance to Frank O’Hara — the flow of city streets, the openheartedness, the easy swing of the words, the exclamation points — well, that’s intentional. O’Hara is such a constant presence in “Love and Other Poems” that it’s hard to figure out whether Dimitrov’s tribute represents an act of longing or impersonation. Dimitrov certainly doesn’t try to hide it. The book gets rolling with an epigraph from O’Hara — “All I want is boundless love” — and the pages that follow are peppered with allusions to the bard of “Lunch Poems.” One of O’Hara’s most famous works is “Having a Coke With You.” So when Dimitrov calls a poem “Having a Diet Coke With You,” he knows what he’s doing, even if he’s not sure it’s a good idea:

Oh god, Alex …
what is wrong with you?
I can’t believe this is the title
of your poem. If you look up
the billboards are sexy and American,
letting you forget all the cruel things
you’ve said to your boyfriends.

If you’re a Frank O’Hara fan (and who isn’t?), the nakedness of Dimitrov’s New York School ventriloquism can throw up a hurdle, at first. It’s like listening to an indie band that sounds so much like the Velvet Underground that you can’t stop hearing Lou Reed’s voice in your head.

To stop there would be to deprive yourself, though. Opacity makes a lot of contemporary poetry essentially incomprehensible for the casual reader, but “Love and Other Poems,” like “The Hill We Climb,” Amanda Gorman’s electrifying address delivered at the presidential inauguration in January, feels like a swift smack of the reset button. Dimitrov removes the academic armor of convolutedness and simply comes out with it — how he’s feeling, where he’s going, what he’s wanting. The result is refreshing, especially right now. His city and his stanzas bristle with life. “And the smell of a bar on a cold night,” he writes in “More,” “or the sound of traffic as it follows you home. / Sirens. Parties. How balconies hold us. / Whatever enough is, it hasn’t arrived.”

Long poems like “New York” bob between chance encounters and emotive bursts, replicating the rhythms of a city in motion:

A woman almost sold me a crucifix there
in 2010 but I couldn’t afford it
so we talked about past lives and Stevie Nicks,
and how Tusk is most certainly better than Rumours.

By the end of our talk she just gave it to me.
She was a painter and had great energy
and I’m sorry, I know this is not LA
but that word just does something for me.

Energy, in fact, could be seen as this book’s aesthetic objective. It fizzes like a just-opened bottle of soda. It sprints like the Beatles running through a train station. It talks a mile a minute like a person swept away in the druggy lunacy of a serious crush. (“The day I met you never ended for me,” Dimitrov writes in a poem called “LSD.”) As is often the case with any full-moon romantic, sustained exposure to Dimitrov’s desire for “sweeping, all-consuming, / grandiose love” can be a bit much, depending on the reader’s mood. I’ve spent weeks of the pandemic with “Love and Other Poems.” There have been moments when, for me, its effervescence has failed to rhyme with the despondency of these days. But far more often, “Love and Other Poems” has felt like a long-awaited remedy.

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