OBJECT: General Slocum
BODY OF WATER: East River
Watching the construction downtown from my roof
Allyson says it’s a fish decomposing:
the spotlights a spine
the floors rib bones piling up across the river.
Gabriel says 1904 the General Slocum caught fire sunk
one thousand twenty-one of its passengers
dead en-route to a picnic.
The cause in the forward section
a lamp-room filled with oil rags and straw.
Then a paint locker a cabin used to store gasoline.
The captain steering into the wind as passengers moved backwards
the few children donning life preservers
vanishing in a floe of powdered cork and rotted canvas.
In the 18th and 19th centuries British prison hulks held captives
in the American French Napoleonic revolutions.
More Americans died aboard these ships than in the war itself.
On the shore a hole one or two feet and all hove in[i]
I drive through Fort Greene on my way to the beach
eat lunch in the park under a column.
It holds a fraction of the dead. I leave bread crust at the base
and pigeons flock down from above Your crumbs for the living;
let the dead eat their own. Before the fire the Slocum
struck two ships and a sandbar ran aground three times
and was the site of a revolt by some 900 Patterson anarchists.
What was recovered was converted into a barge. In 1911
it sank in a storm. Water swells over Battery Park and the Times
runs a photo of a cyclist in the surge. I hold the page above me
the ink runs cross the bridge looking down on the river
and go unable to imagine the city submerged
the bodies from the HMS Jersey buried half-decomposed
at the level I lie in the sand waving the flies off.
[i] Attributed to Christopher Vail of Southold, prisoner aboard the HMS Jersey in 1781
Michael Lala grew up mostly in the western United States and Tokyo, and studied writing in Michigan. He is the author of the chapbooks [fire!] (forthcoming, [sic] Detroit) and Under the Westward Night (forthcoming, Knickerbocker Circus New York). His poems and text art have appeared or will in the Red Cedar Review, Low Log, Asylum Lake, I Am a Natural Wonder, and GQ Italy online, among others. He curates Fireside Follies, is a founding member of 1441, and lives and works in Brooklyn.