IN THE CITY OF NEW YORK

Utopia Parkway

by Paul Hond
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One day, when Marzán was in the third grade, Lydia took him furniture shopping on East 116th Street. Marzán remembers a tall, older man approaching his mother in the store and talking to her in Spanish. When the man asked for her number, Lydia told him that she didn’t have a telephone. “The next day,” Marzán says, “Bell Telephone shows up. That’s how we got a phone.” The man started coming by in his Plymouth. Marzán and Lydia would get in, and the man, whose name was Marcy, would take them to the White Castle, to the park. Soon Lydia and Marcy got married. He was a German-Jewish salesman from Brooklyn who adored the people and culture of Puerto Rico, a Latinophile who consorted mainly with Spanish speakers. “All our friends were Sephardic Jews,” Marzán says with a laugh. “They all spoke Spanish and listened to Eydie Gorme, a Sephardic Jew from the Bronx who sang in Spanish.” The family even moved to Puerto Rico for a year (where they could afford to send Marzán to a private school); many years later, Marcy, true to his wishes, died by the beaches of San Juan.

Marzán decided to become a writer at 17, though he didn’t know what kind. The idea just came to him one day while he was riding the subway. After graduating from Fordham, where he took some writing classes, he entered the MFA program at Columbia. It was 1969, and Marzán, a kid from the Bronx who loved Keats and Dylan Thomas, found himself in the rarefied precincts of a remarkable literary world: he studied translation with Richard Howard (French) and Gregory Rabassa (Spanish), poetry with Stanley Kunitz and David Ignatow, had a workshop with Jorge Luis Borges, and, during an event at Low Library in 1972, as an alumnus, came face-to-face with Pablo Neruda, his “poet-revolutionary role model” who had won the Nobel Prize for literature the year before. (Marzán’s essay about the meeting, “Pablo Neruda’s Dilemma,” was published in the 2002 book Pablo Neruda and the U.S. Culture Industry.)

With Columbia in his rearview, Marzán moved to Queens, to a high-rise apartment building in Jamaica Estates. It suited him well. “There was always a parking space — always.” Over the next four decades, as a Queens resident, he would produce two books of poems, a novel, numerous essays, and a work of criticism, The Spanish American Roots of William Carlos Williams, in which he artfully decodes the poet’s intricate relationship to his mixed heritage: Puerto Rican mother, Anglo-Caribbean father, suburban New Jersey citizenship. “Like any child of immigrants from a minority culture in the United States,” Marzán writes, “Williams grew up aware of living in a society that devalued the foreign culture he received at home, imposing on him the life-informing quest to reconcile his cultures.”

Questions of identity and class are key for Marzán (Benjamin Martin, driving on the Turnpike, had once been Benjamin Martinez, as a boyhood friend reminds him), but, as with Williams, his final loyalty is to language. Marzán regrets the excesses of academic political correctness, which he feels can deprive students of exposure to essential literary experiences, creating a kind of intellectual classism. “If it weren’t for affirmative action, I wouldn’t be here,” he says, referring to Columbia’s effort in the late 1960s to recruit African American and Latino students, “but if I’d been given a paltry education that’s afraid to offend, that condescends to minority students, I also wouldn’t be here.” He challenges the notion of the hyphenated writer. “Ethnic art can be an oxymoron: once you get to the art, you realize that what makes it art is also what makes it less and less ethnic.” For good measure, he quotes some lines from Williams: “I am a poet! I / am. I am.”

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