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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.

Resurfaces by Kelly Sullivan

Kelly Sullivan wrote this poem for an event in collaboration with Marie Lorenz's Flow Pool at Recess. See pictures and read more about it here.

OBJECT: Dead Bodies

BODY OF WATER: All Over

 

1989

That time at ten when the sunglasses, for which
you felt such pride, slide down your nose and hit
the slow movement of water in the bay, splash, twist,
descend. The way your father watched
and as he held your hand, he said oh no! in mock chagrin
so that — sunlit flash — you remember the day in the aquarium

when a man grabbed your hand and dragged
you across the darkened rooms, the starfish swirling
in kaleidoscopic knots and his hand wrenching
your shoulder as you resisted. You whimpered, yelled,
but nothing sounded in those underwater halls
as if you too were aquatic, mute as a fish, blowing your gills

open and closed, open and closed as schools of humans
parted the way. It was the man who stopped dead like vertigo,
dropped your hand and stood mouthing oh no oh no
I’m sorry, I thought you were mine
. Unrecognizable person
so unlike you, claiming to disclaim, mute mouth aghast,
his face distorted through the light-refracting water and glass. 

2015

Manatees, sea cows made light in the saltwater,
swim up the springs, the temperature always 70 degrees
summer or winter. To cool us in mid-July we enter
as the noon sun slips through moss-covered trees.
She holds the baby aloft. Her husband laughs, snaps photographs,
updates status, Instagram. But from here I wonder at their happiness,  

what comes if it is just display? At the state park we lowered carefully
into the tank. The sea cows swarmed against the glass designed
to give a view of feeding. Now we’re the one’s consigned
to enclosure, their bodies as landscape divided our periphery.
In afternoon humidity above a storm erupted with damning
force. Under the water’s boiling skin the manatees placidly swim. 

And sheltering in that submarine glass it resurfaces: it was your own father him
who put his hand in that girl’s hand and didn’t look and dragged
her through the galleries, brazen serpent, belligerent thug,
child-stealer, unable to recognize his own kin
by touch or scent, and after stood chagrined and apologized to her,
the girl, and not to you, alone, underwater, the unclaimed daughter.


I had intended to write a poem about all of the bodies that end up in the New York City waterways. I was thinking about the strange case of a man named White who murdered his roommate, named Black, in a homeless shelter in the Bronx. For a few days helicopters trolled the Hudson. Then I read that they had found White’s body, apparently the victim of suicide. But this exploration of drowned bodies turned into a litany of the things we submerge and that later emerge again, sometimes in a different form. --Kelly Sullivan


Kelly Sullivan’s poetry and short fiction has appeared in Salmagundi, Poetry Ireland Review, Southword, and elsewhere. She published a novel, Winter Bayou, in Ireland in 2005. She teaches Irish literature at NYU’s Glucksman Ireland House. kellyesullivan.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Islands

 

At low tide on Easter Sunday we walk the donkeys

across an chois, the step, to Straw Island, the one time of the year

when new moon and sun converge to make the aquatic

almost terrestrial. The donkeys graze for three months

on marram grass and vetch, birth their foals, drink rain water left

in angled rocks except some years someone forgets

we’ve left them there and drought or storms or geography

constrict so they are half-starved, parched, and try their best

to swim. In 1974 we found their skeletons scattered across

the ground, dry as desert. An chois — the step — because

to step across from Inishmore to the island of straw rests in principle

on the fact that bodies in gravitational pull grow stronger

the closer they come together. And Easter an ancient celebration

of the rising year, when we shift our balance back to day.

Just a step between coming together or falling away.

 

 

This poem derives in large part from a beautiful passage in Tim Robinson’s Stones of Aran Pilgrimage in which he explains the gravitational forces underlying tidal movement, and the practice of taking donkeys out to graze on Straw Island off Inishmore, accessible by sandbar only at the lowest tide of the year.