Excerpt for From the Banks of Brook Avenue: Annotated Edition by , available in its entirety at Smashwords





from the banks of brook avenue


annotated edition





complete text of from the banks of brook avenue

with author’s commentary about the origin

and development of the poems






w r rodriguez







zeugpress/smashwords





copyright information

table of contents



Copyright and Acknowledgments

From the Banks of Brook Avenue is dedicated to Mike Peterson, in gratitude for his technical advice and support of my publication projects over the decades.


Acknowledgments:

Poems from this book previously appeared in the following magazines and anthologies: And Justice For All; The Bronx County Historical Society Journal; Connections: New York City Bridges in Poetry; Dusty Dog; The Glacier Stopped Here: an anthology of poems by Dane County writers; Live Lines: Is There a Place for Poetry in Your World; North Coast Review; POETS on the line; The Prose Poem: An International Journal; The Spirit That Moves Us; Tokens: Contemporary Poetry of the Subway; Welcome to Your Life: Writings for the Heart of Young America; You Are Here: New York City Streets in Poetry; and Z Miscellaneous. The short poem, “genghis khan,” by w r rodriguez, previously appeared in Wormwood Review. It serves as the basis for “yankee kitchen.”



Cover Photo: Glass Clouds by Rob Rodriguez



from the banks of brook avenue © 2015 w r rodriguez



from the banks of brook avenue annotated edition © 2017 w r rodriguez



All rights reserved





ISBN: 9781370635153





Zeugpress: Smashwords Edition





table of contents



Table of Contents

Title page

Copyright Page

Contents

Preface

Introduction

I

forbidden places

a moon full and cold

just another new york city subway near death experience

yankee kitchen

the beach beneath the bridge

after seeing night of the living dead

on the coping

liberation: the brook avenue parking meter quartet

justice

she is leaving but

what could have more impact than a bus

plaza of the undented turtle

avenue b, 14th street, looking south

the push and break and chase of it

II

the third avenue el

standing upon the fordham road bridge

halloween

ne cede malis: poem for the seal of the borough of the bronx

washington comes to visit

grandfather: a photograph

bootblacks on the loose

al

p.s. 43

cypress avenue

skully

the tire man

a small but perfect world

the fountain of youth

III

welcome to the mainland

america’s favorite pastime

yankee fan

the gambling leaguers

lost again on old subways

randall’s island

triborough bridge: suspension

triborough bridge: stasis

triborough bridge: genesis

triborough bridge: kinesis

astoria park

the banks of brook avenue

Bibliography: Previous Publications

Appendix

Appendix Section I

Appendix: forbidden places

Appendix: a moon full and cold

Appendix: just another new york city subway near death experience

Appendix: yankee kitchen

Appendix: the beach beneath the bridge

Appendix: after seeing night of the living dead

Appendix: on the coping

Appendix: liberation

Appendix: justice

Appendix: she is leaving but

Appendix: what could have more impact than a bus

Appendix: plaza of the undented turtle

Appendix: avenue b, 14th street, looking south

Appendix: the push and break and chase of it

Appendix Section II

Appendix: the third avenue el

Appendix: standing upon the fordham road bridge

Appendix: halloween

Appendix: ne cede malis: poem for the seal of the borough of the bronx

Appendix: washington comes to visit

Appendix: grandfather: a photograph

Appendix: bootblacks on the loose

Appendix: al

Appendix: p.s. 43

Appendix: cypress avenue

Appendix: skully

Appendix: the tire man

Appendix: a small but perfect world

Appendix: the fountain of youth

Appendix Section II

Appendix: welcome to the mainland

Appendix: america’s favorite pastime

Appendix: yankee fan

Appendix: the gambling leaguers

Appendix: lost again on old subways

Appendix: randall’s island

Appendix: triborough bridge: suspension

Appendix: triborough bridge: stasis

Appendix: triborough bridge: genesis

Appendix: triborough bridge: kinesis

Appendix: astoria park

Appendix: the banks of brook avenue

Preface

This is a poet’s “behind the scenes” view of his work.

By revealing the people, places, events, and images from which the poems originated, I hope to give the reader insight into the creative process of transforming ideas, experiences, and imaginings into art.

So I will share the reality behind the poems.

A poem, after all, becomes its own reality.



table of contents

Introduction

I originally planned to write a book which discussed how the poems in The Bronx Trilogy originated. Most of the poems in The Trilogy were based on real people, places, or events. I planned a companion book, tentatively titled: A Bronx Poet’s Notebook: Behind the Scenes of The Bronx Trilogy.

Such a book could be a challenge to the reader. It would be long, and it would require flipping from it to the original books of The Trilogy.

So I decided instead to make an Annotated Edition of from the banks of brook avenue which offered the poems and text in one volume.

Many readers prefer to read a book of poetry without any background comments or other intrusion by the author. Copies of the original from the banks of brook avenue are available. The book was written to be enjoyed as is. It is comprehensible to readers of poetry, and needs no explanation.

This Annotated Edition is for those, like myself, who are interested in the creative process. How does a poem begin? What images, thoughts, feelings are in the writer’s mind at its conception. And how does the poem evolve from idea to final form?

I organized this Annotated Edition in a way that I hope will be easy to manage.

I kept the original format and entire text of from the banks of brook avenue. After each poem, there is commentary on its origin. After the commentary, there is a link to the Appendix.

The Appendix offers discussion of how the poem evolved. Sometimes, rough notes and previous drafts are included.

Since textual discussion is relegated to the Appendix, it does not intrude on the flow of the poems and the commentary. But it is there for those who wish to view the revisions.

How is a poem conceived? How does it evolve?

That is what this book is about!



table of contents

from the banks brook avenue



annotated edition







table of contents


I



a wholly new ordering

of ordinary

affairs.



back to main table of contents

forbidden places

in all the forbidden places

like round the corner

and too far up the block

and up and down the you’ll fall from it fire escape

and across the bad boy bad girl rooftops

of fertile pigeons and antenna thieves


through the sinister shadows of subway stations

and beware of dogs junkies

and the drunken super

basements

through the unexplored side streets of childhood

my mind wanders


that musk of the living

and dying tenement compels me

the gloom of alley and airshaft

the glow of sunlight on brick

i must navigate asphalt rivers

i must trek the broken glass


graffitied mainland to reach

the cement heart of the interior

and i will not return

i am the great explorer forever lost

in the concrete wilderness

i will discover america


flowering in the rubble



****************

Commentary:

My father parked his car in a garage about nine blocks from our house. Almost adjacent to the garage was an abandoned tenement. The street was not wide, so we got a good view as we walked past. It had not been boarded up, and through the space where there had once been a window, I could see the ruins of the front room, in shadow, with broken walls, and the vague appearance of another room behind it. A damp smell emanated into the narrow street. Possibly the building had been made uninhabitable by a fire. I would never cross the threshold and explore the shadows beyond the broken door.

And there were other places I would not go. In the good old days people might sleep on tenement rooftops on hot summer nights or keep belongings in the basement storage room. But our mothers knew that the good old days were gone. They kept a careful watch on us. Our mothers let us play in the street, but we had to play where they could see us from the front window. And we usually stayed within our boundaries. But the forbidden beckons, and the imagination wanders.



Appendix: forbidden places

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a moon full and cold

there was a moon full and cold

and i was a child in the big wide

unwanderable world

kept safe by my parents and warm

while the radiator with its ancient scales

of cracked paint hissed like a tame dragon


through the green forests

and brown fields of footworn linoleum

plastic soldiers advanced from their beachhead

to conquer the living room or to die in glorious battle

cowboys and indians skirmished at fort apache

alien spacecraft landed and robots ran amok


gallant knights with british accents

rode forth from castle walls to great adventure

fighting firebreathing worms and other strange creatures

so the countryside would be safe for travelers

and a child might sleep in bed and fear no harm

there was no gore just valor and victory and i


was general or prince or hero

anything is possible in the moonlight

this is the moon that shone over stalingrad

when death oozed through the rubble

this is the moon that glowed over the balcony

when romeo swore his love and juliet was enchanted


a leafless lifeless moon amid the tarpaper sky

which rose above the rooftops which shrouded our souls

shining white beyond empty streets and unlit windows

beyond unseen sleepers and reason and dream

a moon bright and distant

as a future as a friend as a life beyond the immediate


i pressed my nose to the windowpane and saw the moon

looming over lovers and battlefields

i wanted to sit forever in its light

to drink in the heavens to drown in wonder

ecstatic and enraptured

sated and thirsting for more


the fearless loveless bloodless moon

beyond the who and what and where of the sun’s despair

its stark chill beckoned unanswerable



****************

Commentary:

Summer offered the opportunity to play outside with cousins and friends. Fall brought school, homework, early sunsets, and long, cold evenings spent indoors.

I was an only child, without siblings to amuse and annoy me. I did have many toys for entertainment. The mottled green and brown linoleum of the living room made an excellent landscape for all sorts of battles.

One cold November night I peered out the window and saw the moon, so white against the black sky. The streets were quiet and empty. Perhaps that was the first time I ever really saw the moon. Or felt the moon, if one could call it that.

And the radiator was near the window. And beyond was my bedroom. And my toy chest. And my toys. And the bed where I thought and imagined and dreamed.



Appendix: a moon full and cold

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just another new york city subway near death experience

116th street and lexington avenue

three of us in the subway car

like some underground golgotha

when mister death walks in

not looking too kindly

we are not feeling immortal today

he is six feet tall he is five feet wide

he can sit anywhere he wants

but he stands right over me

cold eyes solemn mouth

in one hand a thick belt

dangles like a scythe

(the other holds the commuter strap

for proper balance because giants

do not like to tumble before their prey)

as the train rocks along

like the history of western civilization

which is irrelevant at this moment

of imminent doom

his eyes do not blink

his mouth does not smile

(i have lost my sense of humor

and all other sensation)

that immense hand

that mysterious belt

dangling in my peripheral vision

like a glimpse of heaven beyond pain

i cannot speak

i cannot run

the enormous gray clad arm

moves and the belt

taps my knee

taps my knee three times

his eyes do not move

i do not move

nor think nor feel

i have transcended

humanity in a subway tunnel beneath spanish harlem

and he walks off

to the next passenger

and taps his knee

three times then on to the next

three times and there are only three passengers

so he lumbers into the next car

searching for knees

and i feel like sir gawain released by the green knight

introspective and glad to be alive

i am young and i have learned

that experience is not unique

that the inevitable is

sometimes avoidable though i don’t know how

and that for a mere fifteen cent token i can wander

forever searching for the man who taps knees

but when a voice says shoot boy it was just another

new york city subway near death experience

i remember that i was going to play basketball and maybe

talk to some girls afterwards though i am

a lousy shot and terribly

socially awkward



****************

Commentary:

I can still see him standing over me. Maybe he was not five feet wide, but he was pretty big. He looked down at me, and I up at him. He tapped my knee, three times. And did the same to the other two passengers. And left. Just who was that mystery man? What was his fascination with knees? The number three? I will never know. I prefer not to meet him again.



Appendix: just another new york city subway near death experience

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yankee kitchen

there are paintings of quaint towns by the sea

and clippers slicing windswept waters

wood trim and white bricks

a touch of new england in new york

with a whiff of chowder on the menu

harbored next to a massive gray church

where angels watch over the world

and the monstrance shines over the globe

and the winged herald on the corner wields a trumpet

louder than all the taxicabs on lexington avenue

if only we could hear it

but we sail the winds and waves of adolescence

and drift back to this modest diner

with its patina of grease and nicotine

to listen to ourselves and feast

upon just being friends

in that delicious time

before the future pulls us apart

and we become like the pedestrians beyond the window

scurrying to love to money to fashionable

restaurants or dive bars

honking like traffic at anything in the way

some of us will make the angels cry

some will just wander off

into life but for now

we have nothing to do but sit

together and sip our sodas until the ice

turns to water while ralph

the aged waiter with the patience of a saint

lean and drawn like the farmer in american gothic

and a loving smile pretends not to see

jerry use his straw to shoot spitballs at the good

citizens of nantucket so purposefully

portrayed in oil amid the rustic wooden frame

while in the infernal heat of the kitchen

the anonymous infamous fry cook grills

hamburgers cheeseburgers and anything we can afford

we do not know his name but we call him

genghis khan because legend has it he once

charged from the grill waving a butcher knife

at a customer who complained

so we laugh and to the last

lick of grease eat clean the bone

white plates of our hungry

youth



****************

Commentary:

The poem began as a very short piece (nine lines) called “genghis khan,” based on the rumor that an angry, knife-wielding cook threw out a customer who did not like the food. But Yankee Kitchen was much more than that. The restaurant was next to St. Jean Baptiste Catholic Church at 76th and Lexington. I was in a Boy Scout troop at St. Jean’s, and friends with kids who went to school there. We played basketball in the gym and punchball in the courtyard.

Too young to hang out in the local bars, we refreshed ourselves with burgers and sodas. Yankee Kitchen was our place, in a time when we were still young and relatively innocent. So I built the poem on top of the genghis khan image that would form the ending. This seemed strangely appropriate: for five years I worked for Saint Anne’s Shrine in an office building adjacent to the rectory. Eventually, the church closed the building and sold the property. The facade of the office building was kept, and a high rise erected above it.



Appendix: yankee kitchen

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the beach beneath the bridge

a strip of sand and stone

between overgrown grass and gray water

white suburban homes mottle the leaves

of a distant shore

thirteen years old our footprints

are pools in the mud

we walk away

from parents and baseballs

there are mussels and driftwood

a horizon and a sky

ashes of bonfires burnt out

like the passion of night’s lovers

the beach is awash with a love we barely understand

the smell of lowtide mud and brine

there is no going back not yet

the uncertain future ebbs and flows

now beneath the bronx sun we run and laugh

and stumble in the cold dark waves



****************

Commentary

When I was about twelve, my parents took me and a friend to Ferry Point Park, which is under the Whitestone Bridge. We played for a while, then wandered the narrow beach where we found many white circles which were the remnants of condoms. At the time, I did not know what they were. Eventually I realized that at night the park was a spot for lovers to meet. I think the poem was originally the opening of “ferry point park,” but I decided to make it a separate piece. And, for the sake of propriety, I took out the mention of condoms.



Appendix: the beach beneath the bridge

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after seeing night of the living dead

stiffarmed we limp across the commons

they’re coming to get you barbara

we yell from dormitory bushes

on this hallowed ground

where edgar allan poe

once haunted the jesuits

but no one is scared so we

stagger into the pub to bend

our elbows till dawn

pretending to be

cinema heroes and poets

and in the platonic light of day

when we are only ourselves

they up and run

premeds

junior accountants

student politicians

literally up and run

they conform so well

we not at all

they will flourish and prosper

we will write and paint and teach

and grow old paying bills

starving for the days

and nights when we

roamed the gothic campus

young alive hungry

liberal arts

rebels



****************

Commentary

Yes it really happened. I went to Fordham University, Rose Hill Campus, where Edgar Allen Poe used to walk and hang out with the Jesuits. A few buddies and I went to see a showing of the black and white original Night of the Living Dead. During one of the “scary” scenes of the movie, I reached around and pinched the neck of one of my friends. He jumped three feet straight up in the air. I did not put that in the poem. Afterwards, we wandered around for a few minutes reenacting some of the movie scenes. I guess we were the weirdoes and not held in great esteem by the more conventional types. But, hey forgive me, I was an English major.



Appendix: after seeing night of the living dead

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on the coping

atop the parapet

of a five story walk-up

on the outer edge

of coping


he stands

fifty feet in the air

upon the smooth

downward slope of tile


his kite soars

a soul

in search of heaven

and he smiles


childhood stops

children gaze

with upturned

wondering eyes


there must be angels

in the clouds

a miracle flutters

overhead


the eternity

of a summer afternoon

the immortality of youth

the timeless awe


those black sneakers

on the brink

of doom

and suddenly


a jump

a blind

backwards leap

onto the tarpaper roof


the kite

sports in the wind

and he descends

creaky stairs


to the rest of his life

to be found years later

jaundiced

needle scarred


dead in the stench

of an unlit doorway



****************

Commentary

Coping is a tile atop the parapet or short wall that lines the roofs of many tenements. The coping, which peaks in the middle, slants one way towards the roof, and the other way towards the beyond. This teen ager was standing on the outer edge and flying a kite. We were kids. We watched. At the time I probably thought something like: “Wow. If I could get up on the roof I probably could get my kite that high up in the sky.” When I worked on the final revisions of the poem, I almost shuddered at the horror of the scene.



Appendix: on the coping

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liberation: the brook avenue parking meter quartet

I

the war droned

air america

deathdrugs

slumlord decadence

nightsticks and headblood


nor freedom from ourselves

eternities of tenements

work

sweat

survival


rentstrike

riot

petition

so many nouns and verbs

yet the poor are always among us



II

the resignation

of sun on concrete

the protest wind

of winter apartments

life is the struggle to live


brook avenue is indifferent

to saint and thief

time and space are money

taxation inevitable

and the city will take its tithe


we labor we sleep we dream

we awaken to parking meters

parking meters on brook avenue

where the sewerburied stream flows

invisible as hope



III

where orchards once grew

now stark

silver moneytrees

eat the fruit of our labor

we pay to park and we pay


for the means to make us pay

coinboxes are stolen

and we pay for replacements

by day we spend

by night we are robbed


dime by thin roosevelt dime

from weary hands

our wealth trickles

through treacherous currents

to the ocean of greed



IV

midnight’s entrepreneur

is an invisible

lumberjack

hacking a trail of steel stumps

through urban wilderness


a cycle of thievery

and fruitless reforestation

meters reappear

to disappear again

and again and again


and again until

the city withdraws

from this war of attrition

no more parking meters

no more parking meter thief


the avenue is free

as a babbling brook


o liberation



****************

Commentary

I grew up in a time when “going green” was not a concern, so parking meters and streetlights were the closest things we had to trees. And I was fascinated to learn that Brook Avenue was named for the stream that was eventually subsumed by an underground sewer. When the city put up parking meters on Brook Avenue, someone sawed off the money boxes. A guerilla war, an urban parallel of the Vietnam conflict, but fortunately not as deadly.



Appendix: liberation

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justice

a youth grabbed an old woman’s purse fat with tissues and aspirin and such sundries as old women carry in sagging purses a desperate youth nice enough not to beat her head bloody into the sidewalk as muggers of the feeble often do for the fun of it i suppose and he ran up the hill but one of the perennial watchers watched it all from her window the purseless old woman in slow pursuit yelling such curses as it takes old women a lifetime to learn but it was too dangerous too futile the silent watcher knew to call the police who might come and rough up someone they did not like just for the fun of it i suppose or who would talk polite and feel mad inside and roll their eyes because there was really nothing they could do and there were murders and assaults to handle so this silent angry watcher carelessly but carefully dropped flower pots from her fourth floor windowsill garden one crashing before one behind and the third hitting him on the head a geranium i suppose and closed her window while the huffing grateful old woman looked up at the heavens to thank the lord and when she finally calmed down she walked off with her purse laughing and leaving the youth to awaken in the blue arms of the law and do you know two smiling cops walked up all those stairs to warn the watcher that if she weren’t more careful with her plants she would get a ticket for littering i suppose



****************

Commentary

I heard about how a woman got mugged and another woman tossed a flower pot from her window and hit the mugger on the head. When one grows up in a world where being a victim of crime is a constant fear, a poem like this is therapy



appendix: justice

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she is leaving but

she is leaving but

pauses a moment

before the great

overhead thud

our upstairs neighbors

like to play so they wrestle

the burly father

the burly son

and the takedown

takes down the ceiling


my amazed aunt had turned to talk

stopped at the french doors

on the threshold of doom

by mundane words

a second before bricks

and whiskey bottles

left by turn of the century

italian plasterers

and genuine plaster

crash in a dusty thud


she laughs to see

a leg poking through

she laughs to be standing

in our living room

an oasis with green sofa and chair

art deco end tables and console television

she laughs just to be alive

in a rent controlled apartment

in the south bronx

where no one escapes death


and she laughs



****************

Commentary

My aunt could have been killed by the falling debris. She had almost entered the dining room, but stopped at the French doors to talk a bit more. Just a second before the dining room ceiling collapsed. Plaster chunks are heavy, and there were a few bricks and bottles left in the ceiling by whoever made it. I did not see the leg poking through, but I think my parents did. Sadly, my aunt died of cancer a few years later.



appendix: she is leaving but

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what could have more impact than a bus

what could have more impact than a bus

boasted the bus on a bus long fluorescent sign

advertising advertising space along the roof

of this new bus and its new bus brethren

who bore the plastic banners of big corporations

making big bucks from this richest

and poorest of cities

but galloping buses are not pedestrians

to be tamed with words and money and this rare

soon to be extinct

what could have more impact than a bus bus

with a bellyful of passengers and its fluorescent plastic strip

sped past the bright shops and dark taverns

along third avenue where once

the great sad eyed el roared

and rattled tenement windows

and this rare soon to be extinct

what could have more impact than a bus bus

right outside the seventy-sixth street flophouse

where nightly floppers staggered home

amid swinging staggering singles

in the very crosswalk where daily the ancient monsignor

damn near ran out of breath while we wondered

how long he had left how many months or minutes

until he could no longer hobble to safety

before the light turned and he would be caught

in the stampede of uptown traffic and be killed

while we watched like the crowd at calvary

and did nothing to save him

we would carry the guilt to our graves

we would suffer gruesome memories

we would sweat through grisly nightmares

but he died quietly in his sleep

and the angels carried him away

and we were just streetcorner losers

with time to kill

then one day this rare soon to be extinct

what could have more impact than a bus bus

caught in mid escape a white pigeon

white as a baptismal gown white as a stained

glass window dove on a sunny sunday morning

a rare aberration of the prolific pigeons

those fellow gray loiterers

whose droppings whitewashed the steeples

of the church that spiked its windowsills

and swept up wedding rice before the flock could partake

a rare white winged apparition

caught like any of us might have been

by this rare soon to be extinct

what could have more impact than a bus bus

and it fell wide eyed

its feathers drifting slowly

spiraling white and red onto the asphalt

ground down by car after car until

even the blood disappeared

and the flying spirit disintegrated into the busy world

outside the dive bar beneath the flophouse

that will die and be reborn

in a paradise of condominiums and upscale cafes

with no room for the congregation

the aged priest may have been trying to save

with no room for elevated trains

or bored teenage boys

there was prophecy and revelation and the promise

of eternity and we knew

we too might grow old someday

if we were that lucky



****************

Commentary

Now, in Madison, Wisconsin, the transit company, to make money, wraps the entire exterior of a bus in advertisement. There was a time in New York when buses had a lighted-strip running across the roof on which an ad could be placed. The advertisement “What could have more impact than a bus” was a way of encouraging businesses to post a message. My buddies and I sometimes hung out at the corner of 76th and Third, and an old priest would slowly cross Third Avenue on his way for a night cap. And once I did see a bus smash a pigeon on Third Avenue. A sad sight.



Appendix: what could have more impact than a bus

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plaza of the undented turtle

sirens

red lights

angry cops

the gold car speeds

down avenue

c and swerves

onto the sidewalk

through the plaza

scattering

the twelfth street midnight

beer drinkers and slams

head-on into the shell

of the beloved

cement turtle

while the skyline sparkles

postcard pretty

outside our window

ten stories above

as we watch this drama

just another city night

just another summer street

just another urban legend

seeking anonymity

reality entertains

when it happens to others and

the door flies open

the foot race begins

run driver run

from police

run police run

into the night

flow river flow

to the mysterious sea

who knows

how it ends

is there justice

on dark streets

red lights gather and vanish

gather and vanish

all life long

blood bleeds

bullets kill

the turtle

does not cry

the pontiac

has chosen to remain silent

then the impounding officer

starts the engine

it purrs it revs and it’s off

to automobile prison

there is no reporter

asking the cop at the wheel

about inanimate

reincarnation

it really does

have a phoenix

painted on the hood

there is irony

to fulfill

tragedy

lust

love and laughter

babies will surface from the womb

to crawl to walk to climb

searching

for the ecstasy of heaven

now the undented turtle sleeps

beneath the electric hum

of the power plant which may

or may not explode

with a hiss and a fireball

and a boom like the big bang

as if the universe were created anew

on the lower east side

and we are lucky just to breathe

amid the smoke and the screams

and we are lucky to survive

the chaos of night

and the turtle waits for the warm sun

for the silly day for the children

to play like creatures

on the back

of the great

creator

god



****************

Commentary

My future in-laws lived in a high rise at Tenth Street and Avenue C. On the tenth floor, just across the plaza from the Con Edison power plant. One night, about a month before I was to get married, I was looking out the window. I heard a loud PFFFT. Then I saw a huge fireball which seemed to be a block wide and which rose high into the sky. Then I heard a boom. The lights went out and people ran screaming through the plaza. As Roseanne Roseannadanna said: “I thought I was going to die.” But my future mother-in-law said “That happens from time to time,” and did not seem worried. I guess she was right. Over twenty years later, when I was in The Bronx visiting my mom, I heard that the Con Ed exploded. So I called my mother-in-law. It had, and this time, since it was post 9/11, they were trying to evacuate her building, but she and her old dog could not make it down the stairs. A few years later, during Hurricane Sandy, the Con Ed plant blew up again, and we watched the video on the internet. So there was truth in Momma’s words. Though she has passed on, the Con Ed plant is still there. And another time, before I got married, I was looking out Momma’s window. The police were chasing a car, a Pontiac Firebird, which drove through the plaza and smashed into the cement turtle. It was night, and no children were playing on the turtle. The driver got out and ran off. I do not know why the cops were chasing him, or if they caught him, but the car started right up for the officer. And the turtle was unscathed. Absolutely undented.



Appendix: plaza of the undented turtle

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avenue b, 14th street, looking south

there is a place when

there is a moment where

crossing the street

all the streetlights stretching south

and all the traffic lights

align in rows

that would converge but for

some distant building

and i think i must be

exactly in the middle

of the street but i know

the world is too crooked

for that



****************

Commentary

When I was dating my future wife, we often walked from the Union Square subway station to Avenue C. I happened to notice this visual effect while crossing the street. If you are some night, give it a try. But watch our for the cars!



Appendix: avenue b, fourteenth street, looking south

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the push and break and chase of it

three men push a broken car down the street.

a dog chases them.


three dogs push a broken man down the street.

a car chases them.


three cars push a broken dog down the street.

a man chases them.


three men, three cars, three dogs

push each other down the street,

chase each other,

break each other.


no, no, we must not upset the order,

said the car who was really three cars who had chased the dogs.


a little innovation is in order every now and then,

said the man who was really three men who had chased the cars.


do we not constitute a microcosm of the universal flux

from order to disorder to the establishment of a new order

to be set to chaos?

said the dog who was really three dogs who had chased the men

and who now chased cars

following a wholly new ordering

of ordinary

affairs.



****************

Commentary

I was working at my Uncle’s shoe shine parlor and saw a couple of guys pushing a car down Brook Avenue. A stray dog started to chase them. An image I could never forget. The style of the poem is influenced by Russell Edson.



Appendix: the push and break and chase of it

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II



our spirits drink immortal rage and compassion from the fluorescent green ooze of the waterbug writhing fountain of youth



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the third avenue el

I. 1886

a bridge and shining rails span the river

the long arm of the el stretches north

from harlem through the mainland

the seeds of the bronx are sown

tenements will blossom on fertile ground

there will be streets and streetcars and immigrants


will brave the broad ocean for their chance

in the land of the free

the colossus rises above new york harbor

glorious timeless stoic

her mighty limb bears a beacon of hope

a wary welcome to the new world


where geronimo is imprisoned

where chinese laborers are expelled from seattle

where former slaves are massacred in a mississippi courthouse

no one is indicted for their murder

in this great republic where the lord

and manifest destiny work in mysterious ways


a torch a tablet a stern look

staring toward the tempestuous atlantic

the copper matron will guide

exiles to the promised land

sure footed she is stepping

in the direction of south ferry station



II. 1920

from the battery park aquarium

to the botanical gardens and beyond

all for a buffalo nickel

a stadium will be built and there will be baseball

in the bronx and babe ruth and the yankees

will come and the crowds will cheer


in the golden age when the poor

inherit the earth one apartment at a time

the multitudes have arrived a new world is rising

farms become tenements

immigrants become americans

who will rest who will eat who will work


who will raise families and ride that great train

to a modest job and home to a modest kitchen

commuters flicker past trackside windows

curtains flutter and the glass shakes

garlic and cabbage and old country recipes

simmer on the flames of freedom


green stanchions green stations

lady liberty has turned green above the gray water

the sidewalks are gray the tenements are brown

or white or gray or red and the street gets little sunlight

children play and laugh in the shadows

the el sparks and thunders and storms across the sky



III. 1955

the sons and daughters of immigrants

survived poverty and prohibition

the depression and two world wars

now their children are given dog tags

and schools teach to duck and cover

when atomic bombs explode


but the economy is booming

the city thrives and factories flourish

televisions toys cars

disneyland gunsmoke the mickey mouse club

mcdonald’s opens in illinois and eisenhower

sends aid and advisors to vietnam


this humble train this noble artery of democracy

the bronx harlem yorkville

lenox hill murray hill

little italy and chinatown

in this land where liberty proudly enlightens the world

rosa parks is arrested and the boycott begins


the third avenue el is mortal it lives it moves

it dies a long slow death

the aquarium has been closed and the fish deported

ellis island is abandoned to rot in the harbor

on the final manhattan run people doff their hats

and toast the last echoes of its passing glory



IV. 1973

the once great el is merely

a minor shuttle an appendix

lost in the intestines of the bronx

the dodgers and giants have migrated west

the yankees wane and rust

mottles the rivets of industry


america the beautiful wrestles with itself

broken glass lost dreams

riots and assassinations

planned obsolescence and withdrawal with honor

the weary el clatters like a faithful milk wagon

while tenements crumble and die


the world trade center rises above the skyline

the last passenger run is made in the dark

and the train disappears in the night

the streets will be quiet and sidewalks

freed from shadow but the world

will not seem so wonderful


towers will rise where towers have fallen

the bronx will rise from the ruin

ellis island will reopen and the children

of the children of immigrants will come

to behold that great green lady

her colossal foot trampling forever the broken chain of slavery


her torch pointing to heaven

where stars are innumerable stations


and the great train rumbles toward paradise



****************

Commentary

My mother had fond memories of riding the Third Avenue El from the Bronx to the Aquarium in Battery Park. I remember a rickety ride through a decaying Bronx. And seeing a transit policeman lock the Bedford Park Station as the last section of the El was being closed. It was late at night, and my girl friend and I had left the back entrance of Fordham University and were walking along Southern Boulevard. The midnight silence was broken the clank of metal. But the poem is not based on personal memories; it is the product of many hours of research. I found it fascinating that the rails crossed the Harlem River to The Bronx in the same year that the Statue of Liberty opened. And that the World Trade Center opened in the El’s final year. The Third Avenue El opened The Bronx to development, so it seemed fitting to tell the story of the El in terms of American and Bronx history.



Appendix: the third avenue el

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standing upon the fordham road bridge

on a walk from nothing to do to nowhere to go

i stop here beneath heaven and above the harlem

river which curves from spuyten duyvil to hell gate

past the train yard and bus barn and power plant

through bluffs of tenement and project

in a valley veiled in concrete and night


all those little people with their big lives

all those big people with their little lives

asleep now or wandering the streets

searching for a cool breeze in the humid gloom

or cheap or expensive thrills which bring

forgetfulness of whatever pain there is to life


and i have found the river

darker and deeper it seems than space itself

though the sky is a gray haze of city light

which obscures the stars as we are obscured

and i stand above unheard currents

where tall masted ships no longer sail


i watch striations of light on the midnight water

which casts no human reflection

and tells no tales of what it carries away

the silent inscrutable current is a thirst

to be salted by unfathomable oceans

and in the depth of this drowning darkness


the faint vision of dawn

bringing a new day to this weary world



***************

Commentary

This poem is really about the University Heights Bridge, which I had always called the Fordham Road Bridge, because it enters The Bronx at West Fordham Road. It is the experience of being in the city, surrounded by the city, and yet of being somewhere else, in the sky, above the water. And at night the city lights reflect on the currents, and the river keeps flowing in a dark and haunting way.



Appendix: standing on the fordham road bridge

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halloween

detroit burns and the bronx is mugged

with socks full of stones the wicked beat

money from mortal flesh

pirates and devils

torment candy from the naive


riots and thievery and war always war

there are no loving arms

strong enough to fend off the world

blood and grief and bloated bodies

children starve and the innocent die but tonight


the slaughtered will rise from sprawling graves

tonight urchins will drift across mine fields

their ghostly songs whine like artillery

and in mockery eggs splatter

like bombs from unseen rooftops


o do wear a mask of a monster or mutant

it is less hideous than to look

helpless into the face of humanity

there were saints and gods among us

and we killed them


blessed are the dead who have been purged

of cruelty and greed

they know what we have lost

forlorn paradise heaven uncreated

they know and they will come


the intentionally killed the merely neglected

they who should fear but who love nevertheless

they will come who have been liberated

from the perpetual procreation of pain and stolen joy

they will come and they will dance


look look their bliss wafts through the tangible

we smile and we pray that the children will be safe

let us feed the darling monsters coin and corn

we who are so generous and who will send yet more

souls suffering to their graves for our great blessing



***************

Commentary

It is difficult to look at the dark side of humanity, at the pain and suffering caused by war, genocide, and violence. The early version of the poem recalls arson in Detroit, stores on Fordham Road closing early to avoid being robbed by people wearing masks, and the Rwandan Genocide. Some cultures believe that at this time, spirits could enter the world of the living or that souls could emerge from their graves. I play with the idea that souls of the dead will reappear, and that we will treat the trick or treaters while continuing our violence.



Appendix: halloween

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ne cede malis: poem for the seal of the borough of the bronx

yield not to evil

meet misfortune boldly

wings spread

head cocked

beak in profile

one stern

alert eye

stares forth

the bald eagle is perched

atop the hemisphere

the stylized cupule

of an acorn

a triangular shield

where the sky is broken

by the straight beams

of a circular sun

whose indifferent eyes

surface over calm water

peace and liberty shining

on the ripples of commerce

and at the base

a small triangle

dark

almost insignificant

it is the land

of new hope and old tradition

behold it is the bronx

here unseen millions create their lives

and await their fate

in the scroll

the ominous motto

ne cede malis

yield not to evil

all is surrounded

by a festooned circle

a suggestion of universal harmony

the sun has eyebrows

it is all so placid

the sky is cloudless

the waters still

the land a mere shoreline

a speck in eternity

and the eagle

watches his back

a wary carnivore

in a troublesome world



****************

Commentary

This poem has a unique subject: the Seal of The Borough of the Bronx. Where else could it get published, but in a book of poetry about The Bronx? I was most pleased that it did find a home in the 2008 Bronx County Historical Society Journal. But for the Historical Society, I might never have come across the Seal nor learned about its symbolism. The image that inspired the poem appeared in BCHSJ in the 1990s. It was black and white, with no color to distract from its starkness. Peace. liberty, commerce, and hope are represented by the sun and the eagle. To me, the sun looked so indifferent, and motto, yield not to evil, seemed so fascinating. I could not resist writing about it.



Appendix: ne cede malis: poem for the seal of the borough of the bronx

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washington comes to visit

he arrives at grandma’s house

just off cypress avenue

but nana does not serve him a bowl of her soup

and poppop does not offer him a hand-rolled cigar

and dad does not take his picture

because they are not home

it is 1781 and even their home is not there

but the british are

and washington is scouting enemy positions

so the redcoats welcome him

with cannon fire

from harlem and randall’s island and nearby ships

but the general

continues his visit and goes

to the shoe shine parlor on brook avenue

uncle al does not give him a free shine

mom and aunt jean are not standing in the doorway

aunt helen is not watching from her window

and grandfather does not run out

into 138th street as he does

to welcome roosevelt’s motorcade

he shines the cops’ shoes

so they let him shake

the hand of the beloved f.d.r.

but washington is not yet president

and the shoe shine parlor and 138th street

and cypress avenue and brook avenue are not there

though the millbrook is and so is the mill

and muskets fire and cannons roar

it is noisy as the fourth of july

and washington plans to attack manhattan

and bring peace and quiet to the neighborhood

but he marches to yorktown instead

and the rest is history



****************

Commentary

Professor Lloyd Ultan’s account of The Grand Reconnaissance (which appeared in the Spring 2002 Bronx County Historical Journal) mentions Washington approaching on the Cypress Hill, and a cannonball landing near the Millbrook, a stream which is now beneath Brook Avenue. It is hard to imagine a Bronx landscape without tenements. In 1781, the British had a line-of-sight that allowed them to fire artillery from Harlem into The Bronx. According to Ultan, Washington arrived at a hill on 140th Street and Cypress Avenue as the firing began. My father’s family lived at 141st Street, just off Cypress Avenue, and my mother’s family had a shoe shine parlor on Brook Avenue. There is a historical photograph, which was published in Bronx Accent: A Literary and Pictorial History of The Bronx, and in The Beautiful Bronx 1920-1950. It depicts Roosevelt’s motorcade on 138th Street on October 28, 1940. In the lower right, my mother and her sister can be seen standing in the doorway of 514. Above them another aunt is looking out her front window. On July 11, 1936, the Triborough Bridge opened. Roosevelt’s motorcade drove through 138th Street. According to my mother, her father ran out and shook the President’s hand. The police let him do it. They knew him because he had shined their shoes. It may have been the best tip he ever received.



Appendix: washington comes to visit

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grandfather: a photograph

standing outside

the shoe shine parlor

a short man

in a long apron

brushes in hand

elbows bent

a gray face

an impatient smile

as if to say

hurry

take the picture

there is work to do

my customers are waiting



****************

Commentary

In the shoe shine parlor the one with the least seniority worked in the middle spot. I got a good view of the photographs in the long rectangular frame just above the bench. One photograph depicted my grandfather, aunt, and several uncles and customers. I used it on the cover of the shoe shine parlor poems et al. As I look at it again, he was not wearing an apron, nor were his elbows bent. But that is the image of him that I had in my head when I wrote the poem. In a way, this poem is a photograph of sorts.



Appendix: grandfather: a photograph

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bootblacks on the loose

we are bootblacks on the loose

and we might be found

in jersey or north of the county line

on summer tuesdays we swim

at palisades amusement park

the world’s largest salt water pool

we cling to the board beneath the waterfall

and lose ourselves in the briny roar

saturday night it’s pepper steak

at a chinese restaurant in yonkers

or a burger at ho jo’s

where uncle al tries to convince

the waitress that i am an unusually short thirty-one year old

looking for a date

thought i am thirteen and still wrestling with puberty

sunday afternoon it might be

the bowling alley by yankee stadium

or the billiard parlor on brook avenue

cousin billy is gifted with great strength

and an abundance of enthusiasm

he subdues the pins with brute force

he breaks the rack with a thunderbolt

scaring the balls into pockets

and he pounds the leather into a shine

while sandy finesses his strikes and sweet talks

the bank shots and coaxes the shoes

to perfection

i suck at everything but have fun anyway

i am learning to sweat my way through a shine

not the strongest

not the suavest

but i get the job done

i cannot outswim

uncle al though billy

can beat him at bowling

and sandy can beat him at pool

but al’s arms are like tree trunks

he has been a bootblack

longer than the three of us have been alive

and no pair of shoes

can make him sweat

he loves to take us places

when we are not working

and to play gin rummy when it rains

and to lie in the sun

on the boardwalk at palisades

and smoke a cigar after lunch

while we wait

so we won’t get cramps

the proper amount of time

between eating and swimming

is exactly how long it takes

for al to finish his cigar

so we watch the manhattan skyline

and boats on the hudson river

and women in bikinis

and we wish

the day would never end



****************

Commentary

I came up with the title years before I had most of the content. From the line “we are bootblacks on the loose,” I was able to recall the memories that re-create an awkward, innocent, and fun time of my life.



Appendix: bootblacks on the loose

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al

his father was a bootblack

and he is a bootblack

shining shoes with graceful movements

a faint smile beneath his moustache

while big band music plays on the ancient radio


and when the brushes dance

over the leather he leans

slightly like a man

gently holding the waist of a woman

in a prohibition era ballroom



****************

Commentary

An artist at work. He worked fast, but never seemed to hurry. He worked hard, but never seemed to sweat, but I am sure he did. Sometimes on a summer afternoon he would stand outside and stretch out his arms so that the breeze would blow threw the sleeves of his tee shirt. When you shine shoes in hot weather you are going to sweat. But cool people do not seem to show it.



Appendix: al

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p.s. 43

jonas bronck elementary school

he settled in paradise

on the east bank of the harlem river

divinely guided to a virgin forest

of unlimited opportunity

that needed only an industrious hand

to make it the most beautiful

region in the world he claimed

but we grew up on streets without trees

and we gathered in the auditorium to watch

space flights on a black and white television

the stage had a mural

of the purchase of the bronx

guys in tight black suits and long white stockings

and some sachem outside a longhouse

the suits were not spandex

and the longhouse was not made

of barclay-barclite fiberglass panels

and just beyond the panorama

maybe some old lenape was saying

there goes the neighborhood

they are letting the whites in

they do not even speak the language

is that real money or are these guys just

a couple of broke tulip farmers with counterfeit wampum

when a launch was delayed we watched reruns

of  my little margie

then it was back to the space race

because america must beat russia to the moon

so the commies would not invade the bronx

and we stockpiled tanks and troops in europe

and we saved the world for democracy

though we could not save the neighborhood

from drugs and crime

and in our kindergarten classroom

midnight vandals threw the teacher’s coffee into the aquarium

the goldfish was floating belly up in the morning

no one talked us through our sadness and fear

it was a tough school

if you barfed in the cafeteria you had to clean it up yourself

which led to more barfing

you cleaned and barfed till you barfed no more

and there was nothing more to clean

then you went to class or went home

my mother had her own memories

of this educational institution

where teachers put clothes hangers

inside kids’ shirts to encourage good posture

and criticized mom because her parents spoke italian

and not good english

so when they sent letters home in spanish

which neither she nor i could read

she shared her disgruntlement at the main office

but the next letter came again in spanish

and she returned again and again

she was quite good at expressing disgruntlement

in perfect bronx english

most of us were not bilingual but we were quick learners

in kindergarten we were not taught the alphabet

but the first grade teacher assumed we knew it

we learned this is the way life would always be

full of irony and incongruity and strange paintings

and of love and disgruntlement and rebellion

in third grade i became enamored

with a leopard skin coat

there was a redhead inside it

i don’t remember her name

but what a coat

when they painted the doors pink

and put a DO NOT TOUCH sign on the wall

how could i resist

shoving my hat into the wet paint

they would not arrest me for it

they would not send me to the principal

the redhead would not be impressed

even my mother would not yell

at something so absurd

it was like the rich taking money from the poor

it was like going to the moon while the world was dying

it was like sending troops to vietnam

it was like arsonists burning tenements

even when the slumlords did not pay them

it was like writing poetry

instead of working on wall street

it was like jonas settling the bronx

and thinking he could improve paradise

it was because there was a sign

saying not to

it was because the tenements

were crumbling and the trees had vanished

and john wayne had killed all the indians

except for a few token sidekicks

it was because

it was there

and i had a hat

and the paint was wet

and i was a stupid kid

with a pink hat

receiving a great education

in america



****************



Commentary

The early draft was a rant of memories. For years it remained on my “to do” list. As I started organizing it, I wound up doing a fair amount of research. The Barclay-Barclite sign loomed over the Major Deagen, but what was manufactured in that large building? Some sort of fiberglass panels, I think. One of my aunts claimed that she went to school with Dutch Schultz, but I could not verify that in his bio, so I removed the reference from the poem. I checked to see when My Little Margie was originally broadcast; we must have seen the reruns. The mural in the auditorium is still in my memory. I could not find a picture of it. I contacted the school and was told that there is no mural in the auditorium. I could not find it through my research. It is so sad that a part of Bronx history has vanished. I remember the mural as vividly as I remember the leopard skin coat. And the dead goldfish. And my mother’s anger at the letters in Spanish. And leaving school with pink paint on my hat, which my uncle Al, the bootblack, removed with the benzene he used to clean brown shoes. I paraphrased Jonas Bronck’s comments about the virgin forest needing an industrious hand to make The Bronx the most beautiful region in the world, and I could not resist inventing the comment by the old lenape. The Dutch really did counterfeit wampum. And at one point tulips were worth more than gold. According to what I read, the crash of the tulip market prompted the Dutch to expand their New Amsterdam colony.



Appendix: p.s.43

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cypress avenue

the avenue is named for the trees


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