Chalk Cliffs on Rügen

Caspar David Friedrich, Chalk Cliffs on Rügen, 1818

Chalk Cliffs on Rügen

We rush across two continents to get here, sunset coming after ten,

green flies glued to every fiber, leaf, and piece of bark and skin.

On the train ride out we pass by blazing rape fields, an all-white

chapel octagon, and old-world beeches towering over man and ant.

Rain comes down in torrents. Our daughter, 21, wakes up bug life

with a spy-cam Harinezumi, back from wandering the Carpathians

near Bucharest. As this is an island off of Germany, paths are

marked for birders and philosophers. The woods breathe Saxon

angst, blowing stench from mainland ports. Danish kids dance

the Pardoner’s Tale, when Death brings revelers a box of coins.

At once, a dark and turmoiled European past gives way to floods

of shining ocean, and I pose the two of you along the frail, steep

cliffs of Caspar David Friedrich, in the long pictorial slant down

to a churning sea, with sight lines in the fog that lead to Malmö.

In Sunset Park

Peach skies wash the Verrazano, with gantry cranes

as far as the eye can see. Saigon sandwich trucks

and Guadalajaran tacos! A mailman, late in his rounds,

and surely overweight, has nothing in his sack. Teens

grease truck wheels, giant drops of rain pelt down on

a colony of harbor seals. Skinfaxi and Hrimfaxi,

horses of Day and Night from Nordic lore, meet on

33rd Street for a bag of oats. A fault in the schist

at Prospect Park leads to rock grottoes in Helsinki.

Reggae ska erupts from a glacier-green town car,

Woodstock ballads skirring the winds pulled in

from Hurricane Bill. A water taxi slows, spurts,

speeds up towards shiny spires of doubt, a waterfall

under the Brooklyn Bridge, our barometer of glee.


On the train to Poughkeepsie, two college girls

can’t sit still, holding forth in Cantonese

for an hour and a half nonstop, defining

the very heart of what happiness is.

Across train tracks, Sing-Sing looms

over dark, churning waters, near where

Poe collapsed in a pool of sea wrack.

Leaves are near peak—in blazon reds and golds—

on this ancient day when the city seems

to have slipped from my memory forever.

At Olafur Eliassen’s Garden

Across the grass from the steel-scrubbed mushroom concert hall,

a chorus of frogs announces spring. Two-dozen golden rain trees

bloom in a green wash from the nearby brackish Hudson River.

You, 21,walk the granite path to the island of All Things,

where a pallet of bottled water and a pickaxe suggest a trek

to view volcanic plumes above an Iceland glacier.

A brown-eyed waif comes, too, to play at Ariel as crow,

in a bit of The Tempest that has no loving Prospero.

At the parliament of rocks (no moat or crocodiles

are needed anymore), you find your world of shade

and hair and ice and sun and stone, where a papa’s hand

just waves from across a body of water, but where we

both see stars in far-flung constellations as they ignite,

one by one, over the gathering dark of Eliassen’s garden.

Photo at Poets Walk Park

I straddle an Adirondack chair in the center of the meadow.

A murmur, a chorus comes up from tufts of spartina grass.

I won’t move from this spot: bluebirds, orioles, drop down

as if through a gash in the gathering rain clouds. We know

that the Milky Way is moving parallel to other galaxies:

our footprints press the spongy bogs and marsh along

the Hudson, where rainbow trout race up rapids. Reedfish,

catfish, killifish head down towards Gulfstream waters.

My girls return with a stray named Shadow, and a stranger

stops to take my camera with two clasped claws, waving,

as if conducting Va, Pensiero at the Berlin Philharmonic,

as if the earth was spilling its molten ore across the field,

with all species of fish, man, and feline following suit, all

singing praises to a dun world on the brink of doom or joy.

On the Ethan Allen

Headed for Rutland or even the icy Hudson Bay

our train lets out a forlorn blast, and rockets up

train tracks through lilac and blue myrtle.

I see a ruined castle of the Rhine, built just so

on purpose, a single cattle egret on the wing,

salt lagoons, Somali pirate motorboats, rabbit

islands near to Oslo, oily marshlands in Iraq.

A flood of dark as we tunnel though a hill

and flash back to flattened cattail riverbanks

below a prison watchtower, two kayakers

in a frenzy at a black silt sandbar. We are

as happy as tippled hostlers on a pilgrimage

to Kent, the sun bent down below Poughkeepsie

as night descends and loons cry out Olana! Olana!

U Thant Island

Cormorants crowd the barnacled rocks on this tiny reef,

where a green, blinking light on Tower 17 wards off

pleasure craft that chum along the river of lost footsteps.

A dented Oneness Arch and scrub oak nursery nurtures

fledglings who will not soar to nearby granite canyons.

A catboat lazily sprites about its northern spit, headed

for Hell Gate and the Hudson. A coal barge, slow as

sludge, plies currents, pushing towards the Upper Bay.

A Coast Guard cutter picks up chatter on the island:

maybe a dream of peace tapped out in the Secretariat,

broadcasting in the 167 tongues of Jackson Heights.

A red flag flaps, alive with electric eels, inviting us

to visit this trolley tunnel rubble hill, a century old, part

of our carbon footprint, the Pepsi-cola Wars to come.

Sunnyside Yards

I bike through mornings on my way to the United Nations, where

we work to bulldoze walls in Gaza. South-South cooperation

is everything: indigo Tata cars flooding the roads in Bangalore.

I veer past Pennsylvania Railroad beds, dreaming interior lives

for landfills, laying down my ill-at-ease at the door of a shed

where maps of Long Island flyways crowd the window jambs.

I zip past Harold Tower, Montauk Cutoff, a balloon loop track

with ornate Pullman cars, as drowsy as Thomas and his mates.

The timetable of the 8:01 to Cold Spring Harbor is my hymn:

I scale the cantilevered bridge, a truck lettered TIME goes by,

I coast down Second past Les Sans Culottes, the greenmarkets

of May, hearing Dag Hammarskjold in the wind at my back:

…the road to holiness passes through the world of action…

What joy at 43rd to hear a freight train air horn blast in Sunnyside!

Independence Day, 1995

We amble past the smallpox hospital, sumacs mobbing its blown-out

windows, past the prison stop and tramway cul-de-sac where

hybrid buses make their turnarounds and city elves are launched

to flitter back and forth along the 59th Street Bridge, past hidden

vacuum tubes that suck the island’s trash at 50 miles an hour.

Make the rain pour down, a writer said about the lunatic asylum,

and put the everlasting stove in midst, hot as a witch’s cauldron.

The Twin Towers loom, a beacon for the world of not forgetting.

We bring beach chairs, binoculars, plastic bottles full of Evian.

We climb the dunes and watch as shadows fall over Weeksville.

No Tall Ships, but a maze of nasal jet skis and medicated

teens on Turkish flatboats, doing the Macarena. We listen

to the WPLJ radio simulcast, watch the bombs bursting in air,

and remember Roosevelt’s four freedoms that have got us here.

Running of the Bulls, Pamplona

Each night an E train spews us out at 74th and Roosevelt,

each night the mariachis play Cielito Lindo.

Planes roar over rooftops and nobody notices, crowds

drift in with tacos al pastor, for posters of Ronaldo

at the World Cup soccer store, wary of the shadow

of the moon at Shooter’s Island. A giant plasma

screen airs kerchiefed workers scrambling up

a Roman road in the kingdom of Navarre, gleeful,

petrified, jumping fence posts and pilings,

twisting ankles or kneecaps to avoid what they want

most—a run at the unknown, at crazed and thirsty

steers stampeding towards a bullring, a simple gash

or bloody lip to seal the wound of man and animal,

to re-enact the comedy of the creation of the world.

Invasion of the Body-Snatchers

We’re here for the outdoor movie, by the gantry crane

along the river East of town, with a view of the Twin Towers

a month before they’re taken down by two jet planes

that vaporize their cores. This is the lull before the storm.

Kids on a hogshead raft lazily pole to the Long Island side,

a Moran tug struggles with a barge of iron ore and slag.

The movie starts, gulls engulfing us, up on the screen

and along the oyster bay. Movie music freezes blood,

pus-filled cocoons waking in cracks and catacombs,

women loping through the frozen canyons of D.C.

There’s nowhere for us to go but home when it’s over,

as we search for others who can look us in the eye.

A milkweed pod bursts open as the moon rises over

an opal city, seeds floating up into an unknowable sky.

Barge Park

We walk up Box Street past stray cat chicken coops filled with straw,

looking for Queenie, our neighbor’s Abyssinian. Wild green grapes

climb a chain link fence near sets for Boardwalk Empire. Boat horns

guide us in to Newtown Creek, where a grab dredge stirs up silt.

We see Peerless Importers, the sewage plant you call Hersey’s kisses,

a trail of pearls to 1940s Onderdonck. A lake scow, Lucinda May,

channels bits of scum and filament from an underground lake

of oil that bubbles up towards English Kills. The whole history

of science has been accidents at work as they see fit: time pulling

backwards against your un-hunched shoulders and wistful smile.

The drawbridge opens for a tug with smoke-black canisters,

terns careening in a restless wind. At Jungle Press, lithographs

dance on vellum, cross-hatched flags and dresses and kittens,

to mark a sense of urgency, our love for things that come from nothing.

Landscape with Reclining Buddha

The full moon of December beams over downtown Bangkok.

It‘s Loy Krathong: we float bread boats down the Chao Phraya

for the Goddess of Water, in the name of shadows

of the lost and little princess beauty queens. We take tuk-tuks

to Lumpini Park to watch a play about Ganesha’s birth

and a Burmese film about the zoo in Mandalay.

We take a diesel bus to trek upriver, past terraces of rice,

stork nests, cobras under stilted huts on the canals.

Two kruanch birds in branches of a lime tree:

their bickering is how the Ramayana came to be.

A milky Pomeranian, a golden babbler, a river chat:

no attachment to happiness or sorrow. Burning rubber,

kids with palm-frond pinwheels, fresh fish in banana leaf.

King Bhumibol is seen in every standing puddle.

Gingko nuts, dragon fruit, pagoda trees. Bulletwood,

India cork, queensflower. Plumeria, crown-of-thorns,

and sambar deer. What riches of the tongue to hear!

Our bus breaks down. A woman rocks a baby

in a hammock in the teak. We drink warm Coke.

We spy the giant Buddha, out beyond the hyacinth,

a cur in a hole at his feet. And I swear the Buddha spoke.

In Cairo

In Cairo I walked by the banks of the Nile in the shadow of the pyramids.

Teenage boys swam out to punts that followed the setting sun.

Every car horn honked till nine or ten p.m. but it’s still the quiet

before the storm. No rioters on camels dressed with scimitars,

no peaceful working people, bent on the end of dynasty, in Tahrir Square

we supped on lentil soup with limes and drank Egyptian beer.

A full moon kept watch over the cracked-clay roofs of the city.

I walked by stalls with motor parts, owners’ faces caked with grime.

We talked with Arabs who see a brighter future for the poor.

In the Egyptian Museum, pharaohs stirred and opened up one eye.

We watched the dogs of Cairo as they scratched for fleas.

We swam in an ebony pool that reflected obelisks of dawn.

We watched the sun come up on El Sayeda Street, the home of Ra.

We ate grilled pigeon with our fingers to the sound of flutes,

we drank tea with Sharif in the fight for endless fishing rights.


To drink in the salt-mist ocean

tides of commuters at the turnstile

a pororoka at the verge of sea

ticking hedgehogs

burning fireflies

wandering children

bleeding eyes and vows

from cloistered nuns

watching ice caps melt

more polar bears shot

than deaths to global warming

listening to a brother’s stories

fields of bright mustard

biting horseflies

at the Baltic shore

The Birds of Guangzhou

Below the White Cloud Mountains and the star-scraped crags,

e-waste boils in a blackened creek that trickles toxins

to the Pearl River Delta and the South China Sea.

Children scrounge for dead-volt batteries at 17 cents

an hour, for motherboards, in pools of lead, cadmium

and copper filaments, their hands tanned by mercury

and strychnine. An avalanche of laptops, diode tubes,

bursts from a freight container where an old man lies,

cradling a green gecko, dreaming of a happy childhood,

of pioneers in Mao caps with Little Red Books, chanting

Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom. Air raid sirens blare

across the busy truck stop where no planes collide.

Instead, a dying flock of brambling finches plummets

from a blue sky to pits of alchemy, poison, and poverty.


I dreamt I sailed across the Sea of Marmara, to red-pine Buyukada,

not far down the hill from the chapel of St. George and French hotels

that once housed children from the Greek expulsion. I’m in the middle

of a movie set with English soldiers and fez-capped Turks

as if it was Gallipoli again. Up in the woods, a murder of crows

is wrestling with how to open mussels on the road.

Packs of scraggly cats stubble the hillside, each one a sentinel

for the individual, the one. There’s not a single car or truck

on the island, while bikes and phaetons with spotted Appaloosas

own the roads. It’s as if Leon Trotsky still was here, lusting

for Frida Kahlo. Lilacs, bay, the fragrant odor of magnolia

from bygone empires. I hear Hikmet reading poems in the wind

as I bushwhack to a hidden beach below the cliffs, where I strip,

dive into the rock weed, and come upon a sea of holothurians.


The great fish Dunkleosteus marsali has landed on the pebble beach

at the Cape of Kursun at the southern tip of one of the Princes’ Islands

in the Sea of Marmara. It’s older than the Byzantines who settled here

when fig trees grew among the quartz. 397 million years ago

it swam the rocky bottoms here to feed on eels and eelgrass,

come up out of a dream of mine to startle us, reminding us

how fragile is the bond of life between a man and man, a woman

and a man, a woman and a woman: Orpheus, orphans, Ottomans,

prisoners, pirates, and privateers, Persians, Greeks, Seljuk Turks,

Azerbaijanis and of course the French and Germans all who love

the donkey carts, the dogs that bark at midnight under Mars,

the cats and catcalls of the ruined Russian Art Nouveau,

they all come here to hear the deep-sea call the great fish makes

along the red-pine beaches of the southern coast of Buyukuda.

Horse Latitudes

In Istanbul, Hakan and I decide to make a documentary, to make the world

a better place, as Allah says in this evening’s green mosque call to prayer.

In a bar called Bird, we eat Turkish ravioli and drink dark beer called Dark.

We storyboard a one-minute advertising spot that people might remember,

on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and how to drain it of its plastic bags.

Beluga whales, spotted grouper, and blue fin tuna all avoid this stretch

in their search for krill and smaller creatures. Beautiful Monika from Pilsen

plays a Green Peace activist who commandeers a launch and team of volunteers

to motor to the center of the vortex where not a single living thing can breathe.

Later we shoot in markets, shops, bazaars, in Marrakesh, Milan, and Marmaris,

Sana’a, San Diego, and Salamanca. We feature rubbish heaps in Beijing,

Beirut, Boston, and the Bosphorous, as well as in Paris and Port-au Prince.

There’s no gunfire, kissing, or illicit sex, just the cheeky model Monika

in an orange life vest with tousled hair on a ship with a giant dredge.

© 2010