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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.

Oshun's Bolero by Rich Villar

OBJECTPiano

BODY OF WATER: Bronx River

 

for Peggy Robles-Alvarado

When I came to the mud
she said she knew
I was coming. She heard
windchimes, was moved
to answer back. She said
she’d never played before.
This, I do not believe.
To improvise, one must know
music, the way water knows
the stone it shapes,

and Tony surely did.
He used to find me
the nights he’d come home
borracho, or trying to find himself
bloodshot on the living room floor.
He would wake at 4am,
lost child toddling on 181st street,
the old sirens in his head,
needing to escape.

You cannot invent boleros
with your head swimming
in the rum bottle
unless you once found
something at the bottom.

The notes would fill the building
y la gente had stopped complaining,
because Tony wasn’t right,
and the old women knew it.
That was enough explanation.
Someone tried to say it was
his mother. The belt. Tecata.
A string of dead end jobs.
A daughter’s fist in Bayamon.
All I knew were his hands,
the deft swaying of fingers
over my keyboard,

a old knowledge Nancy tried to understand,
even as she lifted him from the toilet,
when she found him strewn
like the torn pieces of a son suite
discarded. He always said the music
was hers, but the only bolero
she could remember
was the clanking of the beer bottles
she dragged to the curb with no help.

No one asked why there were no tears
the day she buried him
next to his mother. No one tried
to stop her the day she wheeled me
ten blocks, uphill, to the bridge,
to the spot she knew,
just beneath a tree of glass,
and pushed me off the side,
and didn’t stop to listen
to the furious rumba resulting
from the crash of notes, and wood,
and water, and ivory.

Water fills my belly and carries away
the fury in the Nancy’s back,
the chaos in Tony’s fingers.
The woman in yellow is playing,
the way I expect Alice Coltrane
called for the response
in her son’s trumpet,
the way Nancy sings Periodico de Ayer
and smiles, bouncing down the sidewalk,
the way she must play, I suppose,
with windchimes in her ear.

 


Rich Villar is a writer originally from Paterson, New Jersey. He directs Acentos, an organization fostering audiences and community around Latino/a literature. He has been quoted on Latino literature and culture by both The New York Times and the Daily News, and his poetry and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Black Renaissance Noire,Hanging LooseBeltway Poetry QuarterlyAmistadLatino Poetry Review, and the acclaimed chapbook series Achiote Seeds. Since 2003, he has served as co-curator and facilitator for the Acentos Bronx Poetry Showcase and the Acentos Writers’ Workshops, both in the South Bronx. His first collection, Comprehending Forever, is a finalist for the 2013 Willow Books Literature Award for poetry.