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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Number 262: Lawrence Ferlinghetti "Retired Ballerinas, Central Park West"

Retired Ballerinas, Central Park West

Retired ballerinas on winter afternoons
walking their dogs
in Central Park West
(or their cats on leashes—
the cats themselves old highwire artists)
The ballerinas
leap and pirouette
through Columbus Circle
while winos on park benches
(laid back like drunken Goudonovs)
hear the taxis trumpet together
like horsemen of the apocalypse
in the dusk of the gods
It is the final witching hour
when swains are full of swan songs
And all return through the dark dusk
to their bright cells
in glass highrises
or sit down to oval cigarettes and cakes
in the Russian Tea Room
or climb four flights to back rooms
in Westside brownstones
where faded playbill photos
fall peeling from their frames
like last year’s autumn leaves

-- Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Hap Notes: Ferlinghetti's word picture of aging ballet dancers is both slightly amusing and deeply moving. Living their faded upper class lives, walking cats on leashes, still spry but old, the ballerinas know that they chose a profession that would and did eject them as they aged. But their lives are still exotic to us – smoking their imported cigarettes, having tea at fashionable spots – they are the divas of the dance and are used to being treated like a hot-house orchid, even if now they have to treat themselves this way.

The Goudenov reference is to Boris Goudenov (the Russian Tsar of the 1600s, also famous opera by Mussorgsky) or possibly Alexander Goudenov, the ballet dancer (although this is unlikely as Goudenov was probably in his 20s or 30s when the poem was written, although it's a possible reference. It does add a special tang to the poem. Sad, too, because Goudenov had a bit of an alcohol problem towards the end of his life (which ended when he was only 45). [Side note: Yes, Boris Badenov in Rocky and Bullwinkle is a pun on the Tsar/opera, if you did not know it already)

A "swain" is a young man from the country or a man who is the lover of a girl or young woman. It's worth noting that ballerinas in their prime are usually pursued by many a swain.

The taxis blare out the final judgment call, the ballerinas return to apartments like "cells" to wait out their final days.

Because of that "autumn leaves" line, this poem really always makes me think of this season, even though it's winter both literally and figuratively for the ballerinas in the poem.

Here is where we have talked about Ferlinghetti before:

and here:

The masthead pictures are of the famous Russian Tea Room in the poem. For many years it has been a fashionable place to eat or have tea for the wealthy residents of the Upper East Side in New York.

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