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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.

Orchard Beach by Denise Milstein

BODY OF WATER: Pelham Bay


This 4th of July, backs to slanted sun, we watch waves.
A lipsticked youth paces, hair inert,
as kids scream or cry in shallows of floating waste. 

Then I understand how the planet counts on our demise.
My self adjusts to more or less than person.
Where nothing ends, the world transforms. 

I’m phytoplankton, quartz in sand, heavy metal sinking.
I’m water morphed to gas, free to slice through time,
to burst the container, wilt the leaf. 

When I’m glacial again, what will love be? Or loss?

When I’m glacial, what will word be? What fear?

For the love of molecule, for the dewy universe.
For folks oohing and aahing over the fireworks.
(I always hear bombs.) 

Brown ones east of the fence, concrete parking lot in back of Tony’s Pier;
white ones west, manicured lawn of the Morris Yacht & Beach Club. 

For that little girl I hold up over the fence so she can see watersky,
unwieldy bundle of bones and hope in my arms. 

Against our false divisions,
For kin beyond, 

I dream this all without us. 


Denise Milstein is a writer and researcher. She teaches at Columbia University and edits Dispatches from the Field, a publication series devoted to ethnographic material. She is a member of the Ensayos collective, a group of artists, scientists, and local agents based in Tierra del Fuego. Her work has appeared in Tupelo Quarterly, Hobart, and elsewhere. Born in Montevideo, Uruguay, she lives and works in New York City.