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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.

The River and the Skull by Rich Villar

OBJECT: Human Skull

BODY OF WATER: Bronx River


for John Rodriguez

1
The Skull of Jordan L. Mott

This is all mine.
The iron they pull from the water
came from my hands.
You can find me, if you don’t believe me,
in the names you hold in your teeth
like a pipe. In the smoke rising
over Mott Street, Mott Haven,
Mott Ironworks. The root is mine.
The name is mine. Your heroes died
on streets named after my grandchildren.
My picture hangs in Cooper Union
in a painting called Men of Progress.
What do you know about progress
that hasn’t been hitched to the backs
of what I created for you? Gratitude,
if you please, for I gave you the iron
bleeding heat into your apartments.
Without me, you would not know steam
on your grandmother’s kitchen windows,
the poems you think you pull from the air.
Even the river belonged to someone once.
Jonas Bronck’s River, which flowed past
my doors once. This is my birthright.
I earned this. What pride do you carry
that I didn’t forge first?

2
The River

A man sings: Cada cabeza es un mundo.
Yours was the world you needed.
Iron will rust. The factories repurposed.
Everything comes back to water.
What does it say, then,
when even I won’t keep you?

 


Rich Villar is a writer originally from Paterson, New Jersey. He directs Acentos, an organization fostering audiences and community around Latino/a literature. He has been quoted on Latino literature and culture by both The New York Times and the Daily News, and his poetry and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Black Renaissance Noire,Hanging LooseBeltway Poetry QuarterlyAmistadLatino Poetry Review, and the acclaimed chapbook series Achiote Seeds. Since 2003, he has served as co-curator and facilitator for the Acentos Bronx Poetry Showcase and the Acentos Writers’ Workshops, both in the South Bronx. His first collection, Comprehending Forever, is a finalist for the 2013 Willow Books Literature Award for poetry.

Oshun's Bolero by Rich Villar

OBJECTPiano

BODY OF WATER: Bronx River


for Peggy Robles-Alvarado

When I came to the mud
she said she knew
I was coming. She heard
windchimes, was moved
to answer back. She said
she’d never played before.
This, I do not believe.
To improvise, one must know
music, the way water knows
the stone it shapes,

and Tony surely did.
He used to find me
the nights he’d come home
borracho, or trying to find himself
bloodshot on the living room floor.
He would wake at 4am,
lost child toddling on 181st street,
the old sirens in his head,
needing to escape.

You cannot invent boleros
with your head swimming
in the rum bottle
unless you once found
something at the bottom.

The notes would fill the building
y la gente had stopped complaining,
because Tony wasn’t right,
and the old women knew it.
That was enough explanation.
Someone tried to say it was
his mother. The belt. Tecata.
A string of dead end jobs.
A daughter’s fist in Bayamon.
All I knew were his hands,
the deft swaying of fingers
over my keyboard,

a old knowledge Nancy tried to understand,
even as she lifted him from the toilet,
when she found him strewn
like the torn pieces of a son suite
discarded. He always said the music
was hers, but the only bolero
she could remember
was the clanking of the beer bottles
she dragged to the curb with no help.

No one asked why there were no tears
the day she buried him
next to his mother. No one tried
to stop her the day she wheeled me
ten blocks, uphill, to the bridge,
to the spot she knew,
just beneath a tree of glass,
and pushed me off the side,
and didn’t stop to listen
to the furious rumba resulting
from the crash of notes, and wood,
and water, and ivory.

Water fills my belly and carries away
the fury in the Nancy’s back,
the chaos in Tony’s fingers.
The woman in yellow is playing,
the way I expect Alice Coltrane
called for the response
in her son’s trumpet,
the way Nancy sings Periodico de Ayer
and smiles, bouncing down the sidewalk,
the way she must play, I suppose,
with windchimes in her ear.

 


Rich Villar is a writer originally from Paterson, New Jersey. He directs Acentos, an organization fostering audiences and community around Latino/a literature. He has been quoted on Latino literature and culture by both The New York Times and the Daily News, and his poetry and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Black Renaissance Noire,Hanging LooseBeltway Poetry QuarterlyAmistadLatino Poetry Review, and the acclaimed chapbook series Achiote Seeds. Since 2003, he has served as co-curator and facilitator for the Acentos Bronx Poetry Showcase and the Acentos Writers’ Workshops, both in the South Bronx. His first collection, Comprehending Forever, is a finalist for the 2013 Willow Books Literature Award for poetry.

The Orisha of Iron, or How the Horseshoe Came Back to Homeboy by Rich Villar

OBJECT: Horseshoe

BODY OF WATER: Bronx River


Homeboy did everything he was told to do.

He asked which Orisha was the one for iron.
He found out it was the same one for war.
He took this as a sign.
He said some words and danced when nobody was looking.
He found some beads and started wearing them.
He did not make the connection between tricksters and St. Anthony.
He listened to Aguanile, and was really feeling it.

On a dead run, he flung a horseshoe into the river.
He tripped and fell by the bank and swore he heard laughing.
It was a sign when they came to kill him.
There was a reason for the iron he let fly like rain.

He was protected by something greater.
He had faith in this,

even when the policia broke the door down
and flung his protected ass to the kitchen tile.
The orisha of iron is in these bars.
He said, I will not stay here.

And he didn’t. But the orisha of iron
kept him for fifteen years anyway.
He was protected from something.

Upon release, he came back to the river,
Still wondering where he went wrong.
When he got there, an old man in yellow waders
plucked an old horseshoe out of the mud.

“I think you dropped this, brother,”
he said.

 


Rich Villar is a writer originally from Paterson, New Jersey. He directs Acentos, an organization fostering audiences and community around Latino/a literature. He has been quoted on Latino literature and culture by both The New York Times and the Daily News, and his poetry and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Black Renaissance Noire,Hanging LooseBeltway Poetry QuarterlyAmistadLatino Poetry Review, and the acclaimed chapbook series Achiote Seeds. Since 2003, he has served as co-curator and facilitator for the Acentos Bronx Poetry Showcase and the Acentos Writers’ Workshops, both in the South Bronx. His first collection, Comprehending Forever, is a finalist for the 2013 Willow Books Literature Award for poetry.

Poem in Which the Poet Attempts to Teach Children... by Rich Villar

Poem in Which the Poet Attempts to Teach Children on a Walking Tour of their Own Neighborhood about the Purpose of Urban Poetry, Completely Ignoring the Tree and the River in Front of His Face



On the 174th Street Bridge

spanning the Bronx River
what you tell your children
about the nature of poetry
is that it’s not so much
about their assault rifle cadences
as it is about what they are able
to record between their mama’s Con Ed bill
and the scattering cucaracha
because their mamas were here before them
and the cucaracha will be here

after the last bomb drops and
shit like that could be considered pastoral
since nature poems in the urban setting
involve concrete and brick
weeds and trees bursting through
unfriendly ground to snake around
the rusted necks of overpasses
project brick compared to French cathedrals
winter sealed inside by landlords
who resemble Ronald Reagan and

you are satisfied with your lesson
because you have taught your children
to see the Bronx as it is but

the flaw in your theory is named Gerald
and he is Puerto Rican
and he is Gerald not Jerry
not salsa or bachata or bad language
and he keeps to himself as you walk and talk
the language of spray paint and breakdance
and he does not know who Afrika Bambataa is but

there’s a bottle in the grass near the river
which you can see if you crane your neck
it says East Tremont Bottling Company
and it reminds you of the anecdote of the jar
by Wallace Stevens who is suddenly
the realest motherfucker you ever met
and Gerald will tell you without words
that it’s been there since the river was the river
and there is a river underneath your feet
which was never meant to be a sewer
which is older than hip-hop and you
older even than poetry and

because there are green bottles in the trees
over your head
dozens of them filled with water and totems
bottles which ring and harmonize
every time the wind picks up
and Gerald calls them muerte bottles
because this is his neighborhood
and his cousins’ names are made of glass now
and that’s just what they do
to remember the dead and

this information overwhelms you
because suddenly you realize
that a teen on a bridge between a river and a tree
know more about surviving
than you will ever be able to teach her
about the poetics of struggle
because he is only enacting
the erratic line structure
of a walk home that is never the same
from one sunset to the next
because your lack of faith keeps you
from simply hearing a green windchime
simply harmonizing with a river
simply flowing beneath a bridge
simply plainly Oya speaking to Oshun

a child teaching a teacher
with no words needed to explain

 


Rich Villar is a writer originally from Paterson, New Jersey. He directs Acentos, an organization fostering audiences and community around Latino/a literature. He has been quoted on Latino literature and culture by both The New York Times and the Daily News, and his poetry and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Black Renaissance Noire,Hanging LooseBeltway Poetry QuarterlyAmistadLatino Poetry Review, and the acclaimed chapbook series Achiote Seeds. Since 2003, he has served as co-curator and faciliator for the Acentos Bronx Poetry Showcase and the Acentos Writers’ Workshops, both in the South Bronx. His first collection, Comprehending Forever, is a finalist for the 2013 Willow Books Literature Award for poetry.