Jean Garrigue’s "Amsterdam Letter" partakes of a number of ancient modes in the writing of poems, two of which are indicated in the title, the letter poem and the poem of travel, both of which received considerable impetus in the poetry she came to as a young poet. Pound’s "River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter" revived a kind of poem that certainly thrived in ancient China, though of course that particular poem was written not by the traveler but by the one who stayed at home. The letter poem may have gotten its impetus from Petrarch’s invention of the sonnet, a form that mixed description of the loved object with appeals to her. It also owed something to the dedicatory epistle poets wrote in the Renaissance hoping to secure patronage from the wealthy. "Amsterdam Letter" represents a sub-category of this genre in that it is addressed to no one, meaning everyone, in the manner of a journalist’s letter from a foreign capitol, Edward R. Morrow’s from London, say, during the Blitz.
Travel gave the writer an opportunity to report back on the marvels of distant lands, as in "Amsterdam Letter." A non-fictional genre originally, which still thrives, it also gave structure to the novel in its early days as the examples of Gulliver’s Travels, Robinson Crusoe, and Moby Dick would indicate. Poetical traveling, though perhaps begun in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, would have to wait for Wordsworthian rambles, journeys to Renaissance Italy conducted by Browning and, in Garrigue’s day, the post-World War II Fulbrighter who, having fought in Europe, returned after the war to study the culture he had tramped over only a few years before in uniform. Jean Garrigue had the additional desire to travel in wanting to recover as much as she could of her European, particularly French, heritage. In such poems as "Pays Perdu" and "Cortege for Colette," she did just that.
"Amsterdam Letter," however, is one of many (and one of her best) celebrations of travel alone. Her first publication, Thirty-Six Poems and a Few Songs, included "From Venice Was That Afternoon." Other poems followed, including "Swiss Altitudes," "Primer of an Italian Journey," "Soliloquy in Pere Lachaise," "For the Fountains and Fountaineers of Villa d’Este," "Discourse From Firenze," the whole of Chartre, and Prose Poems, "French Country Circus," "The Water Wheel by the River Sorgue," "St. Sulpice," "Of a Provincial City," "Country Junction," "Song for ‘Buvez Les Vins du Postillon," "Cannes," "The Grand Canyon," "Song in Sligo," "Grenoble Café," "Beaucaire," to which I would add "After Reading The Country of the Pointed Firs" and "On Going by Train to White River Junction, Vt." The little girl who grew up in Indianapolis in the 1920's wanted desperately to see the world, and a poem like "Amsterdam Letter," as we’ll see, was giddy with delight at what for her was the newness and particularity of that place.
"Amsterdam Letter" also participates in one of the most ancient of poetical practices, the list. From Homer’s catalogue of ships in The Odyssey to the present day, the list has served many poets well as an underlying structure. E.B. Browning’s "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways," for one. Garrigue’s letter begins,
Brick distinguishes this country,
And broad windows–rather, rectangles
Of wide and glittering scope--
Cattle a specialty, and cheese, storks–if they are not all dead
Or abandoned–and flowers, oh, flowers!
Some say as well, quick humor.
Brick, windows (rectangles), cabbages, cattle, cheese, storks, flowers and humor. A capricious list, but that will be the form that her "delight" takes in the poem, reminding us not so vaguely of that other Manhattanite’s celebrations of the city, Frank O’Hara. Garrigue, for all her travel, was a lifelong citizen and resident of Greenwich Village, coincidentally once a part of Nieuw Amsterdam. "Amsterdam Letter" ends with another list, this time of words she was taught the Dutch versions of by an"old Frisian lady," "Horse, sky, cow, tree, thank you," followed by the two large abstractions that emerge from her experience of Amsterdam itself which come to anchor the poem, namely, "Beauty, and love." I take this as a small but serious correction to Keats’s famous ode, love replacing truth in his short list of "all ye need to know."
Garrigue’s poem, of course, is written in free verse with lines ranging from four to twenty-one syllables, a liberty with line-length that mirrors the wandering and distracted delight of her attention. But, rather than producing a poem that operates at a purely sensuous level, seeing, smelling, tasting only what is put immediately before her, she draws past–perhaps the word is "through"–such experiences a series of observations that reflect an enlarged, abstract sense of what the good life contains. Out from behind a surface arbitrariness emerges something resembling an essay on right living, one conducted in an abstract and formal diction that contrasts with the concrete imagery of the poem. Beginning with the word "distinguishes" in the first line, we are gradually introduced to features of life in Amsterdam that make it highly civilized. The windows of line two are said to be of "wide and glittering scope," a quality that one could easily apply to many aspects of life catalogued here. The old Frisian woman becomes a model citizen of the city in being "affable," "amusing and helpful." Even the cab driver proposed to her, an act she likens to a "specimen of humor." The sky is "dense, heavy, fragrant," the water "rich." While the gabled houses are "sedate," the bicyclists, six abreast, "skimming around corners like swallows," display quickness, as the Dutch do humor, and quietness. "How quiet they are! Even the trolleys!"
The list of enviable qualities goes on. The "bravura" of carved animal heads, the "elegance" of panels, "the clear meaning" of glass. Bravura, elegance, clarity of meaning. What more could there be in such a world of perfection?
...that delicacy of manner, that responsiveness to many,
That prevalence of what seems self-possessed, contained, and easy--
Not only that, but the Dutch are "Amiable conversationalists...
Who by a manner suggested
What I have no word for--
Unfeigned it is and unblighted,
That "generous, free disposition"
That so strongly confirms
A fitness of things.
Here we enter Shakespeare’s great romance of love, Twelfth Night, where Olivia corrects the vain, curmudgeonly Malvolio (act I, scene v) to remind him of the greatest of human dispositions, one which if practiced widely enough "confirms/ A fitness of things," as Jean Garrigue found it in the city of Amsterdam. "There by the water beds/ And the ancient, calmed passions of their reflections," she (re)learned the meaning of not only beauty and love, but of calmed passions, bravura, elegance, amiability, sedateness, quickness, all summed up as a fitness of things.
"Amsterdam Letter," in other words, becomes a grid on which Garrigue can bring together a real place and her sense of a personal utopia, the real and the ideal. Notice, though, that the speaker is only a visitor to this place and that she does not speak the language. She is, in fact, the merest initiate to its secrets and, without saying it in so many words, must be content with a brief encounter, however insightful and intense.