There are apparently three different types of people in the world: those who love big cities, those who hate them, and then those who find the beauty within the chaos. Mary Karr, an American poet was born and raised in Texas. She had a difficult life, dealing with a failed marriage, alcoholism, and drug-abuse. She ultimately turned her life around, not only writing this poem, but writing numerous critically acclaimed novels as well as a trilogy of memoirs (The Liar’s Club, Cherry, and Lit). This accomplishment alone makes one curious about her outlook on life. A Texas-grown woman, Mary never had the chance to fall in love with a big city, but through her writing in the Perfect Mess she really seems to be within that group of people that finds beauty out of desperate situations, hence her ability to rise above her own personal faults in life.
Perfect Mess is a poem based in New York City. Instead of highlighting the elegance the city does enthrall, it instead focuses on ordinary scenes, but portrays them in the way that makes them seem favorable to the eye. Movies and television often give big cities a light that makes tourists believe the cities to be overwhelmingly beautiful. From my personal experiences, I would have to agree with Karr’s portrayal, not the interpretation given off in films. I have traveled to Paris, France, twice, and although I am in love with the city, it was not exactly what I had anticipated. All the architecture, the buildings, monuments, bridges, they were all beautiful, but amongst all the historical beauty were homeless people everywhere, dog poop on the streets, and garbage floating about freely. The whole feeling of Paris was somewhat dirty. I was surprised by this, because in films, Paris is often depicted to be the city of love, such a romantic place. Try kissing someone on a bridge while you step in dog feces. Although this seems disturbing, and kind of disappointing, I took it for what it was. I took in Paris for its good and its bad, and simply thought “Well this is it”. Not that this takes away anything from one the greatest cities in the world, but puts gives it a more realistic expectation. Within this analysis and creative critique I will focus solely on how Karr takes New York City for what it is and creatively uses rhetorical devices to put the pretty back into the ugly.
First, we have to compare the different angles of New York City. If we jump into the mind of a tourist we may think of the Statue of Liberty, Central Park, the Empire State Building, and Time’s Square. The tourist attractions are often very cleanly, and extremely stunning. The lens of a tourist is often the same lens we view through when watching films or television, like I stated prior. When drawing a picture of NYC, directors often focus on these same attractions: giving an aerial pan of Central Park, the skyline, Ellis Island and the infamous woman statue, or the hustle and bustle of well-dressed bystanders making their way through the busy Times Square. But, as a resident or a frequenter of this particular city, we would tend to bypass these tourist destinations for the sole sake of time and repetition. So, as we forgo the beauty within the famous sights, we find ourselves amongst the everyday, true marvels of NYC.
When dwelling into the poem we find ourselves amongst many different, yet ordinary scenes: piano movers hauling a grand piano, ballet dancers smoking cigarettes outside a casting call, old women, and subway rats. Karr even uses Hell’s Kitchen within this poem, which is a part of Manhattan known for its gritty reputation, warehouses, and overall non-pleasing aesthetics. The focused scenes, in conjunction with creative rhetorical devices, cause readers to ponder these regularly unpleasant scenes as possibly agreeable.
Take for instance the scene of Hell’s Kitchen. To any tourist or visitor of NYC, this probably is not first on the list of things to see, yet it becomes painted into a beautiful spectacle through Karr’s use of exemplum. “…in one instant every black umbrella in Hell’s Kitchen opened on cue, everyone still moving. It was a scene from an unwritten opera, the sails of some vast armada”. This exemplum exemplifies the splendor found in a stark place. There is often a strong use of similes, “…the sky bulging black as a bad water balloon and in one pinprick instant it burst. A downpour like a fire hose.” The similes offer comparative properties that cause a sense of relativity to the audience.
One thing that I found appealing about this poem is the use of personification. I think this is very fitting within a poem about a city, especially New York, because we often use personifying titles in everyday speak, for example—the city that never sleeps. Karr puts a twist on this popular nickname giving the city even more human characteristics: “the city feeds on beauty, starves for it, breeds it.” As well as, “for a few heartbeats, the whole city stalled, paused, a heart thump, then it all went staccato,” and “I heard a tenor exhale pure longing down the brick canyons, the steaming moon opened its mouth to drink from on high”.
Two of the most memorable passages from this poetic piece are that of the ballet dancers and the piano movers. “I passed next the crowd of pastel ballerinas huddled under the corner awning, in line for an open call—stork limbed, ankles zigzagged with ribbon, a few passing a lit cigarette around”, and “Today I loved the unprecedented gall of the piano movers, shoving a roped-up baby grand up Ninth Avenue before a thunderstorm. They were a grim and hefty pair, cynical as any day laborers”. Within the description of these dancers and piano movers we see uses of appositives, asyndeton, and expletives. I feel as if the use of these rhetorical devices offers a sense of realism of these subjects. They really come to life, and I get a great sense of imagery. This could not be accomplished simply by saying, “The ballerinas dressed in pink, shared a cigarette”, or “The piano movers angrily hiked a piano up into a New York City apartment”.
Through the brief analysis of particular rhetorical devices we find that even the foulest of places hold attractiveness, and sometimes it only takes language to bring them out. Karr does a great job exemplifying specific scenes within New York City that wouldn’t perpetually cause tourists to stop and take pictures, yet with rhetorical devices we find that New York City may be the most fitting oxymoron of all: a perfect mess.