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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 in Which the Poet Attempts... by Rich Villar

OBJECTEast Tremont Bottling Co. Bottle

BODY OF WATERBronx River

 

Poem in Which the Poet Attempts to Teach Children on a Walking Tour of their Own Neighborhood about the Purpose of Urban Poetry, Completely Ignoring the Tree and the River in Front of his Face

On the 174th Street Bridge

spanning the Bronx River
what you tell your children
about the nature of poetry
is that it’s not so much
about their assault rifle cadences
as it is about what they are able
to record between their mama’s Con Ed bill
and the scattering cucaracha
because their mamas were here before them
and the cucaracha will be here

after the last bomb drops and
shit like that could be considered pastoral
since nature poems in the urban setting
involve concrete and brick
weeds and trees bursting through
unfriendly ground to snake around
the rusted necks of overpasses
project brick compared to French cathedrals
winter sealed inside by landlords
who resemble Ronald Reagan and

you are satisfied with your lesson
because you have taught your children
to see the Bronx as it is but

the flaw in your theory is named Gerald
and he is Puerto Rican
and he is Gerald not Jerry
not salsa or bachata or bad language
and he keeps to himself as you walk and talk
the language of spray paint and breakdance
and he does not know who Afrika Bambataa is but

there’s a bottle in the grass near the river
which you can see if you crane your neck
it says East Tremont Bottling Company
and it reminds you of the anecdote of the jar
by Wallace Stevens who is suddenly
the realest motherfucker you ever met
and Gerald will tell you without words
that it’s been there since the river was the river
and there is a river underneath your feet
which was never meant to be a sewer
which is older than hip-hop and you
older even than poetry and

because there are green bottles in the trees
over your head
dozens of them filled with water and totems
bottles which ring and harmonize
every time the wind picks up
and Gerald calls them muerte bottles
because this is his neighborhood
and his cousins’ names are made of glass now
and that’s just what they do
to remember the dead and

this information overwhelms you
because suddenly you realize
that a teen on a bridge between a river and a tree
know more about surviving
than you will ever be able to teach her
about the poetics of struggle
because he is only enacting
the erratic line structure
of a walk home that is never the same
from one sunset to the next
because your lack of faith keeps you
from simply hearing a green windchime
simply harmonizing with a river
simply flowing beneath a bridge
simply plainly Oya speaking to Oshun

a child teaching a teacher
with no words needed to explain

 


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 faciliator 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.