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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.

Poem for Allyson by Mike Lala

OBJECT: General Slocum

BODY OF WATEREast 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.