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Phillip Lopate describes the shape of Manhattan Island as‘a luxury liner, permanently docked, going nowhere’. This feeling of being tethered to the land, unable to get to sea, was a feature of New York life for much of the twentieth century. New York was an island without a coast. The West Side piers that once welcomed the Lusitania spent most of the twentieth century crumbling or behind barbed wire, while the East Side’s coves and points were cut off from pedestrians by six lanes of the Robert Moses-designed Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive. It wasn’t much easier to reach the shores of Brooklyn, Queens or the Bronx, either: with a few exceptions, they were largely reserved for municipal or industrial use, and easiest to see from the Staten Island Ferry (en route to the borough with the most beaches). Now, slowly, the city is reclaiming its shoreline, with some spectacular results.

Two Sublimes by Steve Mentz

OBJECT: Hurricane Sandy

 

1.      The Dry

         (thinking about Lucretius)

 

When I tried to count the rings the next day

I estimated one hundred years.

Numbers create order, and I sought precision:

            40 feet tall

            60 inches around at my chest’s height

            20 inches in diameter.

            1913.

The tree had been, for a century, the highest point in Short Beach,

O’ertopping the church steeple that started its ascent partway down the hill.

It came down in the dark.

I was sitting on the couch with the kids reading about Fangorn Forest.

Eald enta geworc.

We heard a sound

Whoosh

And a harsh clatter of wires yanked from shingles.

We stared into darkness, seeing nothing

Because there was nothing to see.

Olivia understood first what the faint glimmer and emptiness meant:

“The pine tree,” she said.

“It’s gone.

 

2.      The Wet

         (thinking about Longinus)

 

When the hurricane made landfall I went outside

To play a game of chance with overhead wires and windswirl.

I could not help myself.

I walked down the street to a granite ridge overlooking the water.

I stood there next to my neighbor, a man who makes his living building houses.

We watched as rows of waves like hump-backed rams

Shouldered their way, sloppy and frothing, onto shore.

We saw water splattering onto and through our neighbors’ homes,

Erupting high and foamy into white cloud-fragments,

Scattering sand and salt and wood and drywall fragments into the surf.

“Isn’t it beautiful?”

Is what he said to me.


Steve Mentz is Professor of English at St John's where he teaches Shakespeare, oceanic literature, and literary theory. He's written two scholarly books, including most recently *At the Bottom of Shakespeare's Ocean* (2009), edited two more academic volumes, and also published many articles on literary culture and the maritime environment. His works in progress, performance reviews, and swimming autobiography can be found on his blog, The Bookfish (www.stevementz.com)