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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.

Funeral Train by Devin Kelly

OBJECT: Freight Train

BODY OF WATER: Hudson River


There were four men on that train in 1865,

and all the other passengers just belongings

and the baggage of stranger souls. A Wednesday

evening. No fog. The signal given as the bridge

divided and the sloop went past. The Catskills

peeking over Peekskill like sad lovers

at a funeral. Two men hoping for a free ride

south from Albany jumping into water

to survive the crash. And the other two

drowning. And all those ignorant travellers

moving or standing miles away not knowing their things

were lost. A book of tintype photographs wearing

at its seams. The faded signature of a father. A stone

smoothed and taken from Lake Tear of the Clouds.

An hour north, a man drunk from whiskey

wandered onto the tracks and was struck.

And from that same train, another man fell

from motion sickness off the car and died.

It was all death that day. Death of memories,

and death of things that hold them. And not even

a chance to reach the city, where some stranger

might have dusted off a shirt now drowned

to dance his wife around a room and make it swirl

with the rhythm and life of things. The next day

the trains ran without delay, as usual, over that narrow

stretch of man-built land that sliced the Hudson

in two, over buoyant belongings and two dead men

finding cause to still float like children playing.

And the mountains rolled and watched, as lovers do,

some mornings, still under sheets, watching each other,

their curves of flesh like earthen things, topographic

and, even in motion, still. Just over a month later,

the train carrying Lincoln’s body rolled slow and forever,

this time north above that thin bridge where such deaths

had occurred. And people gathered at the water

to watch those nine cars pass by. And some lowered

their heads. Just as now, in this city, some stranger dies

at the moment I drop a penny. And I stoop low

and bend my chin, not knowing any circumstance

other than that there are some things worth

taking, and some worth letting go.

 


Devin Kelly is an MFA student at Sarah Lawrence College, where he serves as the nonfiction editor of LUMINA. His poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Armchair/Shotgun, Post Road, RATTLE, The Millions, Appalachian Heritage, Midwestern Gothic, Meat for Tea, apt, Big Truths, Kindred, Dunes Review, Steel Toe Review, Cleaver Magazine, Passages North, Lines & Stars, and District Lit. He co-hosts the Dead Rabbits Reading Series in Upper Manhattan, and teaches Creative Writing and English classes to 7th graders and high schoolers in Queens, as well as the occasional children’s poetry workshop at the New York Public Library in Harlem, where he currently lives. You can find him on Twitter @themoneyiowe.