New York on Fire – Review Excerpts

Review Excerpts

New York on Fire by Hilton Obenzinger


New York on Fire is a unique act in American poetry because it is, at once, an impressive long poem, a passionate history of the fires of New York seen through the flame-illuminated eyes of its low and high citizens, a treatise on class struggle and architecture, and a magnificent metaphor for an irrepressible force in American life. Epic, tender, passionate, informative – what pleasure!

—Andrei Codrescu

New York on Fire is a vital and vigorous sequence of historical-fictional accounts of the complicated economy of fire. Focusing on fire as the ultimate expression of racial and class conflict, it illuminates the tensile, explosive moment at which language fails to communicate and the individual resorts to violence as the only medium of concrete, undeniable expression. Multi-faceted, polyphonic and most of all, passionate, New York on Fire is to be read and heard, over and over.

—William Clark
Editor, The William and Mary Review

This novel, artful work by Hilton Obenzinger introduces some the colorful characters who witnessed the great New York fires. The research never gets in the way of the entertainment, and the results of the fires are both tragic and comic. The account of the burning of Barnum’s American Museum is worth the price of the book.

—Ishmael Reed

This three-century chronicle of misfortune is filled with adventure, horror, and bright, grim vignettes. . . Obenzinger is at ease with the idiom of every era, and his narrative is a history of Manhattan seen in flashes of lightning.

—Richard F. Snow
Editor, American Heritage

A delightful, hearty, dramatic, rhythmic and poetic romp through New York’s urban history, from the settler’s first hut fire to the insane arsons of the contemporary urban jungle. A truly imaginative portrait of burning reality.

Dennis Smith
author of Report from Engine Co. 82; editor of Firehouse Magazine

Like hell or the mythical salamander, New York lives in flames, always burning but never consumed. Our history could be the history of our fires.

That’s the premise of Hilton Obenzinger’s tour de force, New York on Fire. In 28 conflagrations — narrative poems, actually — he chronicles the city’s complex trajectory, from 1613, when “New York City burned down even before it was built,” to the present. These fires were often the result of the most explosive forces in New York’s history: class and race hatred, greed, hunger for power.

Many of the pieces take the form of dramatic monologues, frequently by unreliable narrators. Disaster stories give plenty of scope for the iffy, self-puffing heroes and sympathetic villains a dramatist loves, as well as for cleaner, more tragic ones, and Obenzinger handles them like a virtuoso. Most impressive is the way American speech grows and changes in his hands, as convincingly colloquial in the 17th century accounts as it is in the contemporary section. Meticulously researched, but no less readable, the book is designed to the hilt, with lots of illustrations, typefaces, and marginal markings that function as stage directions. . .

Poetry or not, this is one of the best history books around. Each incident crackles with immediacy. . .

—Polly Shulman, Village Voice Literary Supplement

Hilton Obenzinger began as a poet of “The New York School” and was trained by Kenneth Koch and wrote many poems of graceful discontinuity and charm. . . What is extraordinary is to see how he has grown and matured and established himself as a vigorous poet of political convictions. His book is beautifully designed, and one might say that its surrealistic convulsive charm is produced most convincingly by the montage of poems and photographs. Obenzinger was working on a species of documentary social history, but the main journalistic task was discontinued, and what he emerged with was a triumphant sequence of poems using devastating fires in New York as a perspective or starting-point or pretext, but never without a sense of blazing Realism. The poet gives us a social and private history of a great city by means of this defamiliarizing perspective.

New York on Fire is not only a good political epic, it is a continuation of Walter Benjamin’s dream of a book that would be simply quotation and a book that might reveal late capitalism through its objects. . . Obenzinger’s collage poem is one of the most architecturally specific and generous constructions of his generation. It is not without its own ferocious humor. His most inventive linguistic force is seen when he uses an almost undecorated prose diction to gain an intransigent epic tone. . . It is part of the Benjamin-like strength of this undogmatically “economic” poem to force a marriage of speech and writing, lyric and image. The book demands to be read not just as a choir of voices, but as voices in the context of disastrous circumstances. Each photo is another glimpse of this horrifying context. . . This imbricated epic of text and picture is a very useful addition to our sense of a poetics. In the Orient, calligraphy bridges the gap between poetry and painting. In New York City, the city of disaster, and a city with a hole in its heart that even the unsentimental Ferdinand Braudel has written will never be repaired, a poetry of photography and speech, fact and feeling, marry to produce a humane catalogue of survival.

Multiplicity for Obenzinger is not just an ontological category out of Gilles Deleuze. His poetry includes the voices of mayors and of black women, of graffiti artists and of millionaires. Charlie Chaplin appears weeping before burning towers, and so do minor ministers drowning in isolation, all cruelly and coolly rendered. Obenzinger’s strategy of collage permits his poem to rise beyond the confines of a hedonistic individualism, and the resulting historical narrative shows pluralism in its tragic form of collisions and competing visions.

—David Shapiro, American Poetry Review

Superbly researched, the kind of material Obenzinger digs up and so brilliantly presents forbids fiction. There are unforgettable images. . . And yet Obenzinger’s book is no voyeur’s catalogue of historical disaster. From the first poem, fire itself becomes a metaphor for the American struggle with its own apocalyptic impulses, revolutionary anger fighting and feeding the de(con)struction of the American ethos. Obenzinger uses idiomatic first-hand accounts in diaries and in the literature of the day as raw material for work which is a marriage of invented speech and found text. Nothing in this book is merely a poem, a story or a fictional account. Obenzinger has in each case begun with fact, but it is the presentation and selection of those facts which provides for some rather stunning stylistic and thematic touches. This is truly inspired literary invention.

—Kevin Connolly, What!

Obenzinger’s series of narrative poems provides an unflinchingly intimate look at people struggling not only with disasters, but with disastrous social and political realities as well. It’s an unusual work that mixes original writing with historical accounts; the visually striking design intersperses old line drawings and documentary photographs with the text. Obenzinger is deliberately blurring the boundaries — between the imagined and the real, the personal and the social, the mundane and the profound. He knows that such boundaries are flimsy and shifting at best, and his book is a fascinating portrait of people trying to cope with, and occasionally transcending, those moments when the fragile underpinnings of their lives are starkly revealed. . .

Obenzinger continually insists on the power of detailed language – to describe, to bear witness, to render clearly in human terms what can easily be obscured by abstract declarations. In the course of the book we come to know a cast of high and low characters that could only, it seems, be assembled in New York. . .

New York on Fire is a unique book, a rich, grimy tapestry of human experience, one that reminds us of our own mortality, our fears and failures and possibilities. And it does so, not by making earthshaking pronouncements but by causing those subtle psychic shifts that are engendered by any true art, that are ultimately a powerful impetus for change.

—Kim Addonizio, Poetry Flash

At 140 pages Obenzinger’s book cannot compete with the heavy hitters among current books on architecture — photographic valentines like Helmut Jahn or Richard Meier (both a little less than five pounds each). It has none of the weight of Vincent Scully’s latest testament (which would do for a brick, if one were needed) and it certainly can’t compete with the surreal efflorescences of any of Architectural Design’s “postmodern” samplers. The argument will, I suppose, be made that New York on Fire is only a species of history, and lacking color photos and impenetrable prose, isn’t about architecture at all.

New York on Fire. . .is a book about architecture and the modern city, a hardy weed among the fancy bouquets of the publishing industry; perhaps even a curative for a small part of our historical amnesia, a willing accomplice to the fire. It brings the flash of character and to some extent responsibility to the urban condition so that looking at the ruins of a ghetto or the first excavations for a skyscraper, we now have some clues to the process underway.

-James Graham, Hungry Mind Review