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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.

Three Poems by Kristin Maffei

OBJECT:  Headless Dutch Boy Figurine, Dentures, Ellis Island Ferry

BODY OF WATER:  Dead Horse Bay, Lower New York Bay

 

Portrait of the Artist as a Headless Dutch Boy

I carried pails of water once, too.

Seawater, up along the shoreline

to dryer sand.  I picked out seaweed and shells.                   

I do not pour my buckets

into troughs     feed cows         plant bulbs,

but I work in my own way.

I thought

I was a tulip once,

but now I think clearer,                       and I understand you,

small porcelain figure.

We are the same in our way.

White, bloated skin, you are cold and drowned.

Washing up you wanted                     some new life in a cabinet.

Painted smooth,                                  someone thought of art,

stability,          sent you on your way.

Your work is done. Now rest.

 

 

Family-Portrait as Ellis Island Ferry

Call it demolition by neglect.

Call it how cruel can you be when you’re gone

if you’ve gambled that your wife will die

before you or that she won’t but

you won’t be able to care when you’re gone.

Call it my grandmother vomiting

into her bowl, two meals ruined:

the ship over before they flipped

her two eyelids over with buttonhook.

Call it the way my grandfather lost his boat:

low-tide went out and slipped

the bow under a dock. Crushed sails.

Rowing out to the middle of the early morning lake

steam rising off our wake, we stare straight

down in the brown glass-water, strain to see

the Dewdrop, old hotel ferry in our old hotel town,

call it what it is: sunken.

 

 

Portrait of the Artist’s Father as Dentures & Toothbrush

You can get anything you want in Manhattan,

you raved, coming home with your new teeth

just in time for a family vacation to Florida.

Your teeth were like mine – soft, cavity-prone –

when you had them.  Lots of root canals

and bloody floss, but straight and small and white.

When the doctor took them all out, your mouth

swelled up like a drowned, red body. You gagged

until they cut away the back of the false teeth.

Then, you left them around the house tucked

 into napkins at dinner or in the car cup-holders.

No one ever wanted to find them.

And when you lost them for good, just before

our trip, you called in sick to work and for $800

you bought a new set, rush delivered, in the city.

And when we came home, and grandma said

she’d found them, under the bed, next to the dog toys,

didn’t we all laugh at the dog wearing your dentures?


Kristin Maffei is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and a first-year MFA student at NYU.  She is an Associate Editor at Oxford University Press and co-founder of the collaborative literary ‘zine Call & Response (www.callandresponsezine.com). Kristin's poetry has been featured in qarrtsiluni, The Little Jackie PaperIn Flux, and on a few buses in Oxfordshire. Her nonfiction work has appeared in a variety of newspapers in Putnam County, NY, and she once wrote a book on horses.