Some of Dan’s most powerful poesy comes from his ‘Skyline Poems’ – a series of poems each focusing on a different famous high-rise building. The verses orient more towards the grandiose and cosmic, possibly trying to emulate the grandiosity of the building’s elevation. So, this analysis, I’ll be looking at one of the shorter ones – Angelus for the Flatiron.
23-skiddoo is what they mean, and say,
to men who lift their eyes that way, to skirts blown
high from the draft from that space. 5th and Broadway
is no place for a lady to stay. Alone,
in the shade the terra cotta made, is shown
lascivity unleashed. In the here and now,
where the end is nigh, I wandered lonely in
a crowd, and stood underneath the evening prow,
as the looks grew cool, in a Renaissant way,
and foresaw Revelation: my dress had blown
so high (in culture-abandoned artsy sway!),
and arched through the dream, in which Satan had shone,
the sun catalyzed by this architect’s own
vision. Creation is the subject that now
occupies his Orpheus, this country, known
for its future. Stand beneath its steely prow
where this Gothos of limestone’s illicit ways
make old Gotham’s crush so uniquely its own
time and place; watch as this skyscraper parlays
the elegant loneliness of excellence
into Armageddon (I know not of ends-
save this!), and so I pray to the Virgin. How
I do not know, for such psalms have swiftly grown
into chorals of loss, that bequeath their prow
to the morrow, where reason is the final
straw, where women can rush, and not have to show
their best, in a gust, to strangers, whose looks cull
a crowd, glancing underneath this tower’s prow.
Disclaimer: Do not read my analysis until you’ve pondered the poem for yourself. After all, most of the fun and power comes from how you, as a person, orient yourself to the poem before conferring with other views. In the end, much of poetry’s strength comes from intuition – although explanation & analysis can help ground intuition for later readings.
Before peaking into grandiosity, Dan begins with the most surprising of entrances – the slang phrase 23-skiddoo. For about a stanza and a half, the poem focuses on an image of a lady having her skirt blown up, before transitioning the descriptions of the building. This starting point also fits because the phrase has found itself embedded into the mythos of the building, as seen in the Wiki article.
The poem transitions from low slang to a higher image effortlessly in the first three lines, ending with “high from the draft from that space”. Cosmic hues are set so that they can be followed up later. The image of the men staring up the skirt also sets a connection to a phallic thrust as well, followed up later in the imagery. In terms of music, the woosh is conveyed through the “skirts blown high from that draft of space” contrasting against the slower verses before.
The remaining few lines drags back for a moment, focusing on the lady, and preparing sounds for the woosh again in the second stanza. Each line has a contrast between the ending word with ‘o’ sounds and the first part, such that there’s a constant push and pull throughout, and the “I wandered lonely in a crowd, and stood underneath the evening prow” has a slow decline that sets up the next stanza.
Enjambment such as ‘alone’ and ‘I wandered lonely in’ sets up images of a lone smaller figure juxtaposed against the tower (the beautiful image “in the shade of a terra cotta made”). Apocalyptic words are also slowly introduced such as “lascivity unleashed” and “where the end is nigh” to follow up on the theme of decadence that will be introduced later. The reveal that the whole poem is being narrated first-person by the female whose dress is blown only comes with the “I wandered lonely in” – which also brings to mind the famous Wordsworth line, but subverts it with the image of modern alienation “I wandered lonely in a crowd”.
The slow ending of the previous stanza is carried over with “as looks grew cool”, and this stanza also opens up with hints at a greater theme of historical progress, with the “in a Renaissant way”. Then, the next two lines begins the cosmic rise of the poem, segueing from the dress blowing up again (intuitively conveyed through the tones of “culture-abandoned artsy sway!”) – and changing into an abstract image of “arched through the dream”. The use of “shone” subverts “shown” and transfers over to the image of the “sun catalysed” in the next line. A possible comparison is to look at The Finn and see how the sun & dream motifs are used there.
The words used in this stanza (and the next) call-back to more Classical styles, especially if you compare it to another one of Dan’s sonnets on Milton. The Latinate words used helps to bolster the sense of ‘construction’ going on, building up the skyscraper – and providing a hardening of the softer syllables used in the first stanza. It merges with the forward ambitions of America, and also fits the ‘Angelus’ format established in the title.
While the initial lines in the stanza each had a verb or image providing something ‘hardier’ to latch onto (“grew cool”, “blown”, “sway”, “arched through”, “sun catalysed”) – lines 6 to 8 of this stanza changes into a comparatively abstracted hue (“Creation is the subject that now occupies his Orpheus, this country, known for its future”), as though standing at the peak of idea after ascending up the steps of the previous lines.
This stanza ends with a return to concrete description of the skyscraper, after spending time in a more abstract realm – with the “steely prow”. This description is given symbolic import from the connection with the “future”, and repetition of the ‘prow’ throughout the whole poem at the end of each stanza, with each repetition giving different connections.
The skyscraper is once again compared with decadence in “limestone’s illicit ways”, juxtaposed against “old Gotham’s crush”. I’m guessing this Gotham refers to the nickname for New York City, rather than the Batman city, although there are also possible connections to be made there in terms of the whole ‘dream’ strain – but that depends on the frame of the reader, and is less related to the core of the poem.
If you look at lines 2-5 of this stanza, you can see how each line subverts the one that came before it. The enjambment of line 2 seems laudatory of Gotham, but line 3 establishes its position as mere history (“time and place) and raises the skyscraper above it (“parlays”). Line 4 provides an interesting description of its greatness being “the elegant loneliness of excellence”, and line 5 segues back into the narrator’s high moral voice, decreeing its Armageddon.
With the last part of this stanza, which has the narrator “praying to the Virgin” against the tower’s decadence – the sounds change back again into softer tones with words such as ‘psalms’, ‘swiftly’, ‘loss’. It returns back to focus on the woman and shifts away from the tower. Here the symbol of the prow also shifts away from the steely thrust of ambition, into “chorals of loss/that bequeath their prow/to the morrow, where reason is final”. The symbol has changed to become antithetical to the tower’s soar.
Narratively, the poem ends with a return to the small, and it ends with the image of a crowd glancing at the woman’s blown dress under the prow. The grandiose poetics are gone, and the sounds go back to normal.
The two notable subversions in this stanza are: the ‘straw’ that appears after “where reason is the final” – creating an enigmatic feel (you could read it as a segue back into the woman narrator’s internal voice, telling herself that it’s the final straw) – and the last line’s twist on the ‘looks cull’. Before you read the last line, it feels as though the line is talking about the woman narrator feeling the crush of stares on her, but when the “looks cull a crowd” comes into play – this inverts the image as something standing up against the crowd staring at the woman. It provides an image that lingers once you finish the whole poem.
With complete control of music and constant subversion, Angelus for the Flatiron reaches its cosmic vision while still having a bit of humour in the subject chosen. Compared to the last poem that I scored, American Sonnet 11, it utilizes similar techniques like the ‘rise and fall’, but deals in larger themes. But, compared to something like the Twin Towers Canon, which is a double sestina that combines the cosmic-architectural imagery with a love poem for even more novel juxtapositions, it is definitely smaller. Taking all of the above into consideration, it places at a 97 for me – a mid-great poem.