Robert Ronnow has a lot of poetry on his website, and this question is about "East Harlem to the Grand Tetons", a poem from his collection Brother Death, which the poet makes freely available online while reserving copyright. (I won't reproduce the whole poem here, but you can see it at the link above: it's just 15 lines long.)

What is this poem about? The specific locations mentioned are all in the US (East Harlem in New York City, the Grand Tetons a mountain range in Wyoming, Triborough Bridge again in New York City), but the poem also mentions two famous figures of Japanese and Chinese literature: Bashō and Po Chü-i. Is the narrator using these poets as inspiration for their own life, and what is the connection or significance of these particular figures? The first stanza says "Desperate to get out and never return", but the last stanza says "You can leave [and] return without being seen" - is this a contradiction or character development? The second stanza says "my death, I did it my way" - does this suggest the narrator is dead and looking back on their life? What is the meaning of "freedom to have never been" at the end of the poem?

1 Answer 1


It seems to me that when the poet writes:

But I am losing strength to fight
for the world in my imagination. Acceptance of reality
makes me a fossil of society.

he is saying that the quotidian reality of the city, in spite of its benefits such as:

he park out my back window, a job that pays.

the poet (or the narrator) feels stifled and ground down, unable to enter the world of his imagination any longer. The narrator reminds himself that:

Basho in old age found strength to walk
deep into the mountains. He visited famous sites
up north. Po Chu-i traveled mountains in his dreams.

And is suggesting that he also might visit mountains, whether in reality or in imagination, perhaps specifically the Tetons. (I have visited the Tetons myself, and they are indeed impressive.) He reminds himself that "You can leave at any time."

However there is also imagery of death in this poem. The line:

My city, my death, I did it my way.

suggests that the narrator is already dead, perhaps only in spirit. (It also echoes the end-of-life images of the popular song "My Way".) Comparing himself to a "fossil" might be another such image of death, as may the final phrase "freedom to have never been." as night the early phrase "stalled on Triborough Bridge".

I have not sought out or read any critical analysis of this poem or this author's work, and do not know anything about the author's life or other works.

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