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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.

The River and the Skull by Rich Villar

OBJECT: Human Skull

BODY OF WATER: Bronx River

 

for John Rodriguez

1
The Skull of Jordan L. Mott

This is all mine.
The iron they pull from the water
came from my hands.
You can find me, if you don’t believe me,
in the names you hold in your teeth
like a pipe. In the smoke rising
over Mott Street, Mott Haven,
Mott Ironworks. The root is mine.
The name is mine. Your heroes died
on streets named after my grandchildren.
My picture hangs in Cooper Union
in a painting called Men of Progress.
What do you know about progress
that hasn’t been hitched to the backs
of what I created for you? Gratitude,
if you please, for I gave you the iron
bleeding heat into your apartments.
Without me, you would not know steam
on your grandmother’s kitchen windows,
the poems you think you pull from the air.
Even the river belonged to someone once.
Jonas Bronck’s River, which flowed past
my doors once. This is my birthright.
I earned this. What pride do you carry
that I didn’t forge first?

2
The River

A man sings: Cada cabeza es un mundo.
Yours was the world you needed.
Iron will rust. The factories repurposed.
Everything comes back to water.
What does it say, then,
when even I won’t keep you?

 


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.