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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.

Island, Romance by Asya Graf

This work was created during the WoW/UNY Governors Island Residency. Asya Graf was in residence on Governors Island from October 1-31, 2018.


It was June, not yet summer. The clouds hung low over the towers in the Financial District and Staten Island was a hazy idea, more mirage than landmass. A fine drizzle pricked our faces. Bracing ourselves against the railing on the upper deck of the ferry—8 minutes to Governors Island, the sign said in the waiting room at the Battery Maritime Building—it was like we were swimming already. As though all it took was some water and the anticipation of our bodies in it to erase all that seemed solid and insurmountable.

*

I signed up to swim in the annual race around Governors Island in order to experience my city from a different angle and from a different element, trading air for water, the vertical for the horizontal. I told myself I’m not here to race: I’d spent enough of my youth racing in water, oblivious to everything save my body fighting to beat time. I’d meant to take it slow, to notice the particular way the Statue of Liberty loomed over the water to my right and the four verdigris cupolas on the roof of the Main Building on Ellis Island floated like a fantasy over the industrial waters of the harbor. I wanted new, but what I got was old.

As soon as my body entered water, I had only two goals in mind: stay warm, win. And once the race began: only win. The harbor flicked on and off from view, but all I knew or cared to know was my racing body. Total self-absorption, a paranoid state of proprioception and fixation on a feel for the water to the exclusion of all else. The very thing I longed for—to know my city from the water—receded as soon as I touched water. This tension felt old and familiar: loss at the very moment of possession.

*

Maybe it’s only that I wanted to say, misquoting Whitman: I too lived, Brooklyn was mine. I too walked the streets of Manhattan and swam around it. But swimming around Manhattan felt beyond me, a pool swimmer trained to go for hours back and forth, not around. Instead, there was this little island, a circumference of two-something miles, which was my measure, the measure of my body. Governors Island was intimate and lyric alongside Manhattan’s epic. An island I could hold in my mind, an island a child could draw, a blob with no complications. An ice-cream cone. An island of the mind and of the body. My geographic twin.

*

It’s not quite accurate to say I fell in love, and yet there must’ve been an original falling. The first island I deliberately sought out was Shaw in the San Juan Islands, cupped between mainland Washington and Vancouver Island. I went toward, but mostly came away from. I thought of islands as negative passions: freedom from, escape from, absence of. On the ferry from Anacortes, I scanned the waves for orcas but couldn’t look away from the pale bulk of Mt. Baker behind me. The white mass above, the possibility of whales below—it wasn’t islands I was after but wildness, not shelter but exposure. On Shaw, I found a benign kind of domesticity, the opposite of wildness, although I now understand this to be a false binary. I stayed for a week with the Benedictine nuns at Our Lady of the Rock, learning to card and spin wool and clean the chicken coops. The sisters were an island on an island, their lives weaving together the conflicted connotations of insular—insulated and isolated, safe and cut off.

*

What does it mean to swim around an island? The artist Paul David Young swam across the New York Harbor to Governors Island in order to complete Christopher Marlowe’s unfinished poem “Hero and Leander,” a retelling of the Greek myth in which Leander crosses the Bosporus each night to visit his beloved Hero. It doesn’t end well: one stormy night, her light goes out, he drowns, she throws herself off a cliff. But that wasn’t my myth, was it? I thought I wanted a sense of completion and the satisfaction of encompassing: “to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time,” as T. S. Eliot said. A tight loop around a small island is not transgression, as in crossing a treacherous strait, but a wish for homecoming. Even Odysseus’ ten-year zigzag around the Mediterranean is a circumnavigation of Ithaca, the wildness of his journey subsumed by its purpose—to reestablish domestic integrity. Though of course, in the end, as Tennyson rightly pointed out, Odysseus was not particularly thrilled to be home.

*

And yet something remains from my circumnavigation of Governors Island, something more than my obsession with the race or its myths. Breathing to the left as we passed Castle Williams, I was heartened to see a family of four pedaling south in their rented red surrey, pacing me. I remember too the momentary vertigo after we rounded the southwest tip of the island and all of Upper New York Bay opened up, clear to Staten Island, down to the Verrazano Bridge. Cargo vessels were anchored out in the bay, awaiting clearance, for a tugboat to come fetch them, giants amassing as though plotting a takeover. The gantry cranes loomed over us across Buttermilk Channel, at the Red Hook Container Port. They were loading or unloading an enormous blue container ship, though now I think this was a hallucination. I remember the precise vulnerability of my body. It’s a feeling like sandpaper across the back of my scalp. An industrial harbor is no place for the human body. And yet, this vulnerability takes the form of longing, like the desire for a lover to crush you. I still have dreams of swimming among an armada of container ships. I’d be lying if I said these dreams were nightmares.  

*

Two days later, B. found the sea lice bites. I took off my shirt in the bathroom and B. asked me, “What’s that on you?” The bites looked like measles, a rash spread across my stomach and breasts, following the contours of my swimsuit. The itching was gradual and then persistent. By the time B. pointed out the bites, I was in denial of the other symptoms: fever, lactic burn in all my muscles, shortness of breath, nausea. We were flying to Mexico City in a few days. I should’ve gone to the doctor but didn’t. Two days later, straining up the steps of the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan, I was still carrying traces of the harbor. Under the high-altitude sun, my body wouldn’t let me forget the place I called home, a damp archipelago where jellyfish larvae terrorize the unwary swimmer. Female swimmers in particular, trapped in our one-piece swimsuits and bikinis.

*

When I asked a teammate what it’s like to swim around Governors Island, he said it was fine till you got to Buttermilk Channel. That’s where you’ll really smell the diesel, he said. He was right. Once we rounded Picnic Point—the bottom of the ice-cream cone—the quality of the water changed. From the mint and mud smell of the estuary, it took on a thin papery quality, as though it had lost some of its density. Something about it reminded me of acetone. The tide was going out like someone had pulled the plug on the harbor, and we were pushing up against it. The waves were slapping me in the face and I swallowed water. According to the Department of Environmental Protection, the harbor is the cleanest it’s ever been. But still: I likely swallowed fecal matter. It was my way of saying, again misquoting: I am fused with you, men and women of Mannahatta!

*

Ports are places of grief, Philip Hoare writes. Sailors refused to learn how to swim, since swimming would only prolong the agony of drowning. Ports are places of temporary arrival and inevitable parting, of risk, hard labor, hard lives. The containerization of the shipping industry has made the smaller, tighter anchorages of the city unworkable for cargo vessels. The Red Hook Marine Terminal is still a working port, but most shipping has moved to New Jersey and Staten Island. Swimming around the city’s harbor means immersing yourself in grief for its robust history, for its departed vessels, warehouses, carriages and horses and carts and trucks, brothels and saloons and boarding houses and markets. The eeriness of swimming here is due in large part to how empty it is of people.

By contrast, Governors Island feels alive and intimate. A body that will allow me near it. That I can approach, encircle, make mine.

*

After supper my first night with the Benedictine nuns on Shaw Island, I walked over with the other guests to the priest’s house to watch a wildlife documentary. He had just arrived from Kenya, sent to this island by the Church. I wondered what sin he’d committed to merit this exile. He showed us leopards and lions stalking their prey as his eyes filled with tears. Were we the only ones homesick on this entire island, a black African man and an atheist Soviet Jew? Afterwards, in the dark with a flashlight, I hiked up to the highest point on the island in desperate search of reception so that I could call B. I cried imagining B. on our red loveseat binge-watching “Wallander.”

*

Swimming around an island is an exercise in melancholia. Attempting to encompass something you cannot own, to approach something you can only circle around. It is intimacy through distance, being kept away when your heart’s and body’s desire is to possess. For the privilege to land on Governors Island, Governors Island Trust, acting as the Charon of New York Harbor, levied a steep toll from the race organizers. As though to touch the body of the island had to come at a price. The fee notwithstanding, the island’s very geography makes it unapproachable, surrounded as it is by a perimeter of landfill, a bulwark of sharp rocks and debris dredged from the bottom of the harbor and collected from subway construction over a hundred years ago. The island is defended, and I’m self-absorbed, and we’re both impenetrable.

*

Tracing the perimeter of things, knowing all along that circumnavigation is not enough. Who wants to trace the outside when the prize lies in getting through? Governors Island was used primarily for defense of the Upper Bay and the city beyond it. Like the Byzantines’ chain across the Golden Horn—much good it did them against the Ottomans—Castle Williams and Castle Clinton across the water in Manhattan were meant to block British ships in the War of 1812. Then as now, the island is not easily breached. I might have encircled it by swimming around it, but all the fortifications remained between us. The jagged rocks of the seawall, the chain link fence around the promenade, the bureaucratic obstacles to touching the body of the island. Which in fact we never did. We entered the water off a boat and exited via a ramp, never feeling under our feet the fine, squelchy sediment at the bottom of the harbor.

*

One of the first books I read after our immigration from Soviet Russia to San Diego was Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins. The book was, and still is, a staple of the California middle grade curriculum. Of course, I identified with Karana and the real woman on whom her character was based, stranded alone for eighteen years on San Nicolas Island: her home, but not domestic; a wild, terrifying, lonely place that took all her wits to survive. Two ways to lose home: you leave, or all the people you love leave and you alone remain. You desert or are deserted. On clear Santa Ana mornings, I’d strain to see San Clemente Island, the southernmost of the Channel Islands. It seemed close enough to swim to. Remote and unreachable, it became the stand-in for the lost home. A place to long for. If nostalgia is a longing for a home that never was, an island on the horizon is an ideal embodiment of that impossible home.

*

“Remoteness is inseparable from movement, but it is created through a special kind of movement that separates at the same time it connects,” writes John Gillis in Islands of the Mind, talking about the way the remoteness of islands is a social more than geographic construction. I create the distance between us, and then I seek to erase it. Blurring the boundaries, I bring you near while somehow still keeping us apart. Isn’t that what all romances are? Playing with intimacy while striving to maintain boundaries? Or maybe what I was after was an end to this game. I wanted to surrender. Don’t ask me, surrender to whom? Rather, surrender what. Surrender is transitive but not dative. Psychoanalyst Emmanuel Ghent writes that surrender is a passionately sought controlled dissolution of boundaries, a relinquishing of our false self, an intense wish to be known and recognized. Instead of landfill, I wanted landfall.

*

Several weeks after a friend died, I happened to be traveling to Iona in the Hebrides Islands. It was remote and cold, and yet the place was overrun with tourists. Ignoring the crowded abbey, I made for the southern beach where St. Columba was supposed to have landed in the sixth century. There I picked out three spherical pink marble stones, each about an inch in diameter, and brought them home with me. I’d meant to put them on my friend’s grave, but they’ve been hard to give up and I’m no longer even trying. My favorite of the three is the most perfectly round. Flecks of mica glitter as I roll it around on my palm. In Jewish tradition stones stand for the permanence of memory. From Governors Island, I’ll carry always on my body the sea lice scars, mingled with those from chicken pox, contracted one summer thirty years ago in a Soviet sanatorium. I’ll keep too the vertigo of the open bay, the terror under the gantry cranes, a queasy longing for the container ships, and the taste of mint, mud, and diesel.


Asya Graf’s poetry and essays have appeared in Boxcar, Cimarron Review, Comparative Literature, The Santa Fe Literary Review, Sport Literate, Underwater New York, and Vestal Review, among other journals.