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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.

Newtown Creek Burning by Aileen Bassis

OBJECT: Toxins

BODY OF WATER: Newtown Creek

(for my mother-in-law Marija)

 

He said, ma, the water is burning

but how can water burn?

 

But then, I smelled and saw 

smoke outside this Blissville apartment

with my children on the floor, cardboard

in their shoes.  Outside 

are words jangling.  I knew 

German Russian Polish

Lithuanian and now this lumpy

English with its sticky spider letters 

climb and make my tongue

stumble and knock into my teeth.  

The creek is burning.

 

I remember

my father’s house built brick 

on solid brick and I thought nothing 

could move this house.  

I didn’t know that I would move

and run west holding my husband,

my daughter’s hand, my pregnant belly,

across Lithuania, into Germany, across

the Atlantic to live beside a smoking 

creek of burning water.  

 

I only know this 

street, these thin

walled rooms, my walk 

to the factory of cursing 

women filling bottles. 

I don’t call this home.

See 

there, 

water burning

 


Aileen Bassis is a poet and visual artist in Jersey City working in book arts, printmaking, photography and installation. Her artwork can be viewed at www.aileenbassis.com.  Her poems are published currently and upcoming in Mobius, Haggard and Halloo, Marco Polo Arts Magazine, Eunoia Review, Blue River Review, Untitled with Passengers, Gravel Magazine, River Poets Journal, SPECS Journal of Arts and Culture, Spillway and Still Point Arts Quarterly.