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The Largest Glue Factory in the World



Newtown Creek, by Mitch Waxman, 2012


     Forgetfulness is like a song

     that, freed from beat and measure, wanders

           Hart Crane

     When knowledge will cover the earth

     like water covers the sea

           Peter Cooper


A Walk through Blissville

I’m traipsing through gardens that once were farmers’ fields,

looking for burrs and ostrich ferns. An ornery African priest

shoos me out of his orchard as this November sun sets

beyond his apple trees. I breathe in sassafras, burning leaves, lichen,

liken the day to 1891 when the Smelling Committee of the 15th Ward

punted up the Newtown Creek to catalog the stench. Maybe I’ll

glimpse a cedar waxwing or Labrador duck before heading home.

Or wild turkeys running across a treeless boulevard, like I saw

in Staten Island, spitting distance from the Fresh Kills compost.

Lately I only dream of offal, garbage scows and gulls, plowing up

East River cul-de-sacs with carcasses of carriage nags and cows.

I pass black limo parking lots, cement factories, cracked asphalt

of the L.I.E, poke around for cabbages and a place to start my slow

seepage of words to combat stress, the weariness of the same old odors.


Black-Crowned Night Heron

A mile and a half up English Kills, we spy a heron with an eel in her beak,

high in an oak above the dead-glass water. Shouts from the Schamonchi,

a Martha’s Vineyard ferry with a box-container swimming pool, that

thick brown sludge will keep channel worms alive. At Furman’s Island,

the remnants of the largest glue factory in the world, Peter Cooper’s

rendered fat works before they moved upstate to decimate Lake Erie.

Here fish bladders were boiled to isinglass for parchment and for beer,

and collagen from cows was used for furniture and violins. Here origins

of Jell-O are found in the slurry and dross of civilization, burning skies

a purplish hue. The distant tip of the Chrysler Building can be seen

beyond digesters of a sewage treatment plant. Rat powder, azo dye,

methane, turpentine, soak the oily banks where no otters somersault,

by waterfront luxury lots for 2025. For now it’s the heron that patrols

the creek, in search of a millionth minnow to steer here after midnight.

 

The Endless Chain

I smell Epsom, lime, and sulfur in the wind today off toadfish mudflats.

Cord grass matted with mud snails, tern quills, a stink of conch decay.

Picture tidal mills that pock the marshes of New York, years before

a crossing of the Brooklyn Ferry. Grinding corn at Gerritsen’s near

Mill Basin, along the Bushwick creeks, where breweries sprang up

by pigsties, mill wheels driven by Peter Cooper’s saw-tooth chain.

Picture the East River with cable iron to replace the narrow boats,

barge mules, dike dogs, and towpaths of the canal at Canajoharie.

I dream lug nuts, gear parts, for mechanical advantage, propelling

elevated trolleys along Third Avenue, dripping creosote and ash

onto a maze of pushcarts, with steam and smoke of locomotives

down below. I keep inventing things to let the pull of sea and air

do the heavy lifting, like an American language unburdening itself,

like the endless chain of our forged relations, hauling us forever on.

 

At Sunfish Pond

Snow clouds rake the sky: I’m twenty-one, at Kalustyan’s in Little India,

long gone are the horse cars of the New York and Harlem Railroad,

the willow grove and kissing bridge I desperately seek for my bride,

who’s come in turquoise sweat pants from Berlin. I carry a Balzac

human comedy to lure her to my lair, where Bull’s Head cattle pens

and produce terminals at 28th and Fourth once stood, where local

toughs would rumble with the Bowery Boys, by the slaughterhouse

and truck farm that fed the charnel barns for Peter Cooper’s glue.

There’s still a stand of buttonwoods and a single blade of clover,

but no tide rising in rivulets to seep into brackish Sunfish Pond, 

just one contaminated Blimpie and the Morgan Library. I tell you

I’m smelling licorice or spelling ‘licorice,’ I don’t know which,

as I saunter back and forth from sex museum to Sapporo East,

from Rolling Rock to Ravenswood, as if I was the god of travel.

 

Torpedoes

There were shantytowns along Gravesend, full of wharf rats, stevedores,

the Irish poor. Peter Cooper packed a lorry for Fort Hamilton to pilot

his torpedo, a gift to Athens for its war against the Turks. Catboats

plied the Narrows, his crew broke camp on a beach of brittle stars

on the cold spring day that Byron died. He used red-hot cannon balls

to furnish steam for the tiny craft that plunged into the Lower Bay:

an oyster dredge would test the blast, seven miles out, but a Panama

freighter cut through wires he steered with, and the whole mess sank.

They found his boat without a bomb on board. No one imagined

that beneath the waves that day a million eels were racing up channels

on an annual migration, oblivious to inventive, American good will.

But a slanting rain, the steady forward progress, a suffocating smoke

and its aftermath helped me recall the words of Farragut, much later,

when in Mobile Bay he said, “ Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead.”

 

Transatlantic Cable

People were tired of waiting for long outdated news. It took a month to hear

that Napoleon lost at Waterloo, or that a nephew died of scurvy in Bombay.

The War of 1812 might not have happened if a British envoy sailed on time.

After gutta-percha cable lay from St. John’s to Nova Scotia, the Agamemnon

and Niagara set out to play the line across a mid-Atlantic shelf, tying

the three-knot cord above the city of Atlantis, where giant squids

held sway and orcas sang above a sinkhole to the center of the earth.

North of the Azores, a cable snaked from Heart’s Content to Foilhommerum,

an Irish island good for grazing sheep, where no man could earn his keep.

Slavers sailed in both directions: Elizabeth sent a wire to James Buchanan,

at 0.1 words per minute, of reciprocal esteem. Peter Cooper, inventor and

investor, years before he’d run for President, pitched in, just as his steel mills

sot the sky with stench. Too many volts destroyed the thing, but I give thanks

as I communicate with friends in Perth and Persia, which takes six seconds.


At Jamaica Bay

A paradise for glossy ibises! Even in January, with rime ice forming

on cattails, the shorebirds congregate. If humans were bodies of water,

I’d be Jamaica Bay, always in the shadows, a rusted heap in shallows,

a piano standing mid-pond near the Raunt. I trudge in snow

with my daughter, who’d rather be at Bell House in Gowanus

for an indoor barbeque. But a hundred kinds of moths live here,

and some say it would have made a great world harbor. Railroads

bought all shipping rights-of-way, and a cross-borough parkway

made sure it stayed an undeveloped swamp. I like its relative obscurity,

a gleaming gem despite the half-dead oyster beds, the noise of jets,

dilapidated fish oil fertilizer farms. Fields of kale, urban rangers

spearing Styrofoam our parents left on trails at Dead Horse Bay.

A cloud of countless passenger pigeons, a pirate’s dinghy. Not even

Peter Cooper saw its promise, despite his designs on New York City.

 

Public Reading Room

For a terrier, there are a hundred scents on every block, but for me

to isolate just one or two can help to map the fortitude and fire

our atmosphere is made of. Here it’s anise and arugula, I detect.

Before heading to the shelter where I sleep on Thursdays, I stop

to get a book at Cooper Union, once the only public reading room

for working men and women, back when fires, draft riots, and

great awakenings consumed the city. Now it’s musty tomes of

Saturday Evening Post, Blackwood’s, Aristotle’s Masterpiece,

students thumbing Popular Mechanics, Architectural Review.

Once it held a gallery of Christian art, with Titians, Tintorettos,

Leonardo’s St. John Weeping, and Canaletto’s landscapes. But I

must shop for Cheerios, orange juice with pulp. LaDamian is there,

at the door, to talk about his stint in Indochina. Later, to snoring

and the smell of feet, I find my cot, curl up with Edward Bellamy.

 

Red Cloud at The Great Hall

I am Henry Red Cloud, of Pine Ridge, South Dakota. Without a job,

with children cold and hungry, with mold on every windowsill,

I turned to the sun, a distant star above the mine pits of the Badlands.

The town’s hit bottom, awash in burger fries, chipotle, lung-rot, tepid

beer, and vodka. In a dream, my great-great grandfather Red Cloud

returns to the snow-bound hills, bringing me the eagle quill I wear

tonight, standing at a podium in Cooper Union, seven generations

after him, when he said his day was done, that he would not fight,

but we should work with pale-faced pioneers. So said Lincoln here,

where Clinton and Obama made their pleas for cash and enterprise.

My work is solar energy, at LTE, for the health of our Black Hills,

so the Sioux can live, breathe, free from yellowcake, Thorium 230,

on a pristine Cheyenne River, singing of the forgotten ear of corn

and spiders that make us arrowheads to hunt down elk and bison.

 

Plants of Manhattan

My friend’s exhibiting pressed flowers from the Arctic, but only ones

that grow right here. I find a spot in underbrush to note the long parade

of indigenous and invader. There‘s a weed patch north of Harlem,

not far from Spuyten Duyvil, where I’ve found a cache of flora

dating to the Pleistocene: seaside amaranth, Macoun’s cudweed,

colic root, cow parsnip, meadow zizia, Jesuit’s bark, widowsfrill.

There’s nodding chickweed, blue huckleberry, American ipecac

sprouting by my knee. Lotti’s got New Jersey tea like Peter Cooper

used to brew. There’s kinnikinnick, leatherleaf, prickly bog sedge,

not to mention scald weed. Have I made up these names myself?

Azure bluet and wild leek blanket the ravine, while swamp pink,

skunk cabbage, spread out in shafts of light. Evening primrose,

orange grass, common moonseed. I see so many Manhattan plants

but wonder why there isn’t any cursed buttercup or common juniper.

 

Ringwood Manor

Though no one lives here now, the portico and grounds are full of spirits.

Jackson White, negro-Lenape footman, a hundred years deceased,

lover of cribbage and Jerez, sweeps the carriage house at dawn.

The ghost of Aaron Burr wanders in a copse of beech trees

and a colonial map-maker sits by the lake with a compass,

chewing pemmican in the rising mist. Rochambeau’s army,

dispatched in an unmarked grave, whisper the Marseillaise.

By the patio sphinx, a patch of cold air intrudes at teatime

with scent of lavender, no one knows why, except to say

it could be the lady of the manor. In Long Pond Ironworks,

the magnetic center of Passaic, stench wafts up from slag

heaps, raccoon tibia, Indian tobacco, blown-glass ink pot

shards. Here Peter Cooper’s empire raked its raw materials,

its trail of leavings, his voice still shrill in crags and quarries.

 

At Penny Bridge

We take a rose to Calvary, in the name of countless girls and boys

who died of cholera, exhumed at midnight, ferried to this rural tract

where the dead outnumber the living, a million unkempt tombstones,

in shoddy Gothic churchyards fed by man-made ponds and peaks.

We walk under elms and evergreens and climb a plain of worry,

gathering toadstools in a glen. We want to smell a cinder

in the wind from ancient chimneys, and lie in fragrant fields

of white impatiens bursting into bloom. We scull to an island

of industrial decay, by the hulk of a boxcar and a red caboose.

We chink at mausoleum doors and clocks all stop at once.

We watch monk parakeets mob in a potter’s field, at closed-down

tram-stop Penny Bridge, where mourners used to come in droves.

We stand on a hill to see the sea, the far-off tomb of Peter Cooper

in lavish Green-Wood, where he sleeps and dreams of Tinker Toys.


Bishop’s Halo

I’m sitting in an English garden, mixing pigments for a sunset sketch.

For months, I’ve painted the sky to try and render the ash that fell

in far-off Hebrides after the eruption. Not that I’ve ever been to Java

or was keen to travel. The sky is ague-red, an afterglow of Krakatau,

or due to the death of Karl Marx, Queen Keelikolani, Peter Cooper.

The Metropolitan encores with Faust, bellowed out, astonishing,

in  bee-like glades of industry that typify Part Two. A golden spike

is driven in the dust at Galveston, and standard time zones ensure

that work proceeds across the globe. The Orient Express chugs west,

so scimitars and grace are gone. A last quagga succumbs in London,

where fountain pens are in and slavery’s done for the British crown.

Wars break out in Chile, among the Zulu and the last of the Apache.

When will these eerie sunsets pale? The blue halo of sun portends

an end to the machine age, and beckons new horizons for tomorrow.


A History of the Newtown Creek

Forgetting is a measure of the mind in a city that’s hard at work:

The smell of linseed oil, the smell of pine, the smell of opalescence

The smell of hyacinth, the smell of burning rubber, the smell of wax

The smell of car exhaust and coal and tar, the smell of sap and vitriol

The smell of squalor, diapers, dogwood blooms, the smell of sex

The smell of sharkskin, selfishness, anemones, the smell of wine

The smell of eucalyptus, locust droves, axel grease, and lemon rinds

The smell of boiling bones, of caulking and pickle barrel brine

The smell of goldenrod and ragweed, paint fumes, rotten fruit

The smell of sweetened gelatin, cream puffs, fresh-baked bread

The smell of gunpowder, oily, oak hewn hulls, hydrogen peroxide

The smell of diesel, tar, mud flats, cat clay, peat moss, gasoline

The smell of weariness, of dog-tiredness, of autumn in the wind:

Forgetting is a measure of the heart in a city that’s found at rest.

 

This series of poems looks at the smells, sights, sounds of mid-nineteenth century America, in New York (around Newtown Creek, Brooklyn) partially through the eyes of Peter Cooper, at once abolitionist and candidate for the U.S. Presidency, pre-Gilded Age self-made man, railroad, steel, and manufactory entrepreneur and social reformer interested in the rights of working men and women, but also a grand polluter of the New York waterways. The 14 poems are written in 14 lines each, using a loose sonnet form, as well as echoing the Persian ghazal (using the name of a persona within the poem), with an emphasis on the smelly things we pass every day living in the city.

© 2012