Crossing Queensbridge

Eugene de Salignac, Blackwell's Island Bridge (Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge), 1907

[Listen to the poem]

Remember, and remember always, that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Under thy shadow by the piers I waited;

Only in darkness is thy shadow clear.

The city's fiery parcels all undone,

Already snow submerges an iron year...

Hart Crane, 'To Brooklyn Bridge'

Crossing Queensbridge

Ode to an inglorious, ochre-drab bridge of drudgery, its double decks

our bliss and our inferno, two twining selves, two mooning eyes,

an inverted Eiffel, a modern-day assemblage of Meccano

steel erector set, laid down by a Brobdingnagian

with a foot on Blackwell’s Island. Rays of sunshine

catch in the trilon filigree. An Owls Head sludge boat

putters off with intestinal remains, as Esther Truong,

from Saigon, commandeers a can-choked shopping cart.

The bridge is an act of faith and usury, a sticking plaster,

a bastion barricading centuries against me. We pass reales

back to shorelines lined with imbeciles, imps, inventors,

a stop gap for standing still: enjoy its physics of motion.

The calm, a crimson deer alert. The pause, what’s after.

When I brake, rest, feet down, the bridge begins to teeter.


From here you can see the truss half–finished, mock-real,

suspended in air from anchor piers, a bridge to the beyond.

Then Bactrian camels come: a herd of Ang Thon elephants,

a granddaddy leading toddlers on a modern-day crusade

despite the rain of frogs, a coal-grey sky, the gift of Ra.

Hairy oxen on the upper deck, a stream of pickle trucks,

tar pit scows, Ho-Ro flatbeds, mixers with cement,

log haulers, train cars with an alphabet of artifacts:

wheel-wells, hand-blown glass, litho inks and rebar,

corn flakes, horse dung, coil springs, lug nuts, hair gel,

black beets, sugar cane, snake venom, mint mouthwash,

bubble tea, armored cars with rubies, Kashmiri spices,

beds of seaweed, sable hats, tarantulas, a steady

gush of offal, gutters, leaf mold, and Asian bird flu.

Repair Docks, Gowanus

William Merritt Chase paints plein air at repair docks, 1888,

fog lifting in an orange blaze of sun that blanches wood

not treated for monsoons. Clam boats span the Erie Basin

where a stand of hickories came down in summer gales.

The docks are clogged with dinghies, soap tins, rusted

bench lathes, smelling salts, sulfur, and a felling axe.

A porpoise plunges towards the Ninth Street Bridge

only to drink in lye and ash from a tanner’s trash pit.

Sky, water, waste are blended in a scumble

of pig bristle, leaving a stain, a ringing in the ears.

Hostlers sneak through Brooklyn streets at dark

as we strain to hear a teak harmonium as if it might

redirect the surge of bluefish rushing from one side

of the bay to the other, where there is beauty, rest.

Trolley Stop, Midnight

Miguel Angel Asturias snags a crumpled Guatemalan flag

from the falsework floor, hears cries of Chichicastenango

let loose in icy winds, waters churning like a grist mill,

an albatross circling as it searches for Alaskan crab,

red minnows darting into pools of seeped petroleum,

Xi'an dhows in scudding whitecaps, off to Botany Bay.

Atlantic scrod and blueback herring race from fresh

water to salt sea, a ripple in the waves. Adam Purple,

displaced from Alphabet City, tricycles the bridge

with a macaw, heading for Elmhurst Hoovervilles.

A diva with a pitch pipe gargles Peter and the Wolf

as Port Johnson coal barge men wade into Hell Gate:

rime ice settling on cattails as shorebirds congregate.

Men with hand trucks cart Korean Times as tuk-tuks fly.

Ferry Landing

A hundred years of Ponderosa pine, slag ore, tar, molybdenum,

cash crops, lean hogs, trout streams feeding water troughs.

My life is an oil spill: Deepwater, Greenpoint, Amoco Cadiz.

Ferryboats bear our dead and those who work on Wall Street:

a jail barge rests off Rikers, a tram sparks up, six guard dogs

train for missions in the Kyber Pass. A truck bursts into flame.

Underwater tidal turbines across from Hallet’s Cove whisper

what we are thinking: the stars above are shifting south...

I look down from a turret to a mutt park, a Boston Whaler

docked to pick up crystal methedrine. Voyages, we’ve all

had them, but now we rest at river bottom under pond scum.

After the hurricane, the bridge was wall-to-wall walkers,

now there's not a soul along the east side of the bike path,

just a Moran tug shunting a barge of anthracite up river.

On Blackwell’s Island

Mohawk iron workers down from Kahnawake built stone piers

without cofferdam or caisson, upper chords now looming

over Louis Kahn's so-called masterpiece Four Freedoms,

a decommissioned gun-grey battleship without a keel.

Once the Panama Canal was done, Jamaicans come to

carry fodder for the bridge and shop along Pear Avenue.

Roosevelt Island is drowning in shadows of the past,

the shriek of a goshawk alarming F-train passengers

as they alight. One day vertical farming will overtake

the cholera ward and veteran's hospital, hi-tech nerds

re-engineering the north end light. Missouri bateaux

pass unnoticed, as tunny fish head north towards war,

one rogue otter after oysters by some clanging floats,

a glint of gold atop a bridge's spire to ward off witches.

World Town

Cities without wolves, men without money, a tag on the bridge

reads World Town, but all I can smell for blocks is marijuana.

A woman with Asperger’s climbs a parapet with a Daily News.

Lost boys from Khartoum, disoriented, walking without water,

stevedores and hawkers all headed for Corona, Rego Park,

Floral Gardens, Mount Calvary and its tombstone stories.

A Tai Pei panel truck has a giant fortune cookie on its roof.

I walk the bridge each day with a dozen others, looking for

candy lofts where Hart Crane’s Dad first made Life Savers.

White roofs, green roofs, cool roofs, urban heat effect across

a torrid breeze and one long banshee steam train whistle –

monkeys and parakeets in the Queensbridge treetop canopy.

Creatures come out of the bush of ghosts to lurk and bicker

in the grass where a jetty's being fortified for the next blow.

Soccer Octagon

Kids are scrapping for ice cream in the shade of a jacaranda.

A sleepy goalie kicks a long ball that lifts up in a Nor'easter,

sails over the emerald city, out past a set of red nun buoys.

Sooty gulls wheel over Black Hawk helicopter down-drafts,

above old mule tow paths of the FDR, where shiny hospital

window glass refracts an ambulatory burn center's wounds

as they trickle down suck holes, in whorling eddies of grief.

Spittle bugs crowd bus turn-arounds, the pitted horse track

a river of remembrances for three young Hungarian brides.

We cherish the known unknowns and a trellised briar patch.

From the soccer octagon, you can spy a troll's toll gate

where hunch-backed Quasimodo hungrily reads Spiderman.

From the cricket grounds, you can just make out a chicken

coop in Queens where bantams are scratching in the dust.

A History of Chewing Gum

It started with a Tikal sapodilla tree in Eastern Yucatan:

a manufactory for making masks, toys, tires, rain boots.

It was the thing to do -- to chew -- upon the dance floor,

along the Model T assembly line, or as you ambled past

Sax Fifth Avenue with a cheeseburger sandwich board.

It was the American Chicle Company, where you took

the Montauk cutoff a last time on Engine Number Nine.

It was smelly cows at a water hole near the cope stone

of the bridge, by open-air market farmers in from Athol.

It was off on Hog Island, where boars were running wild,

hayseed germinating by a stalled Quixote dump truck,

a hobo with a jackal laugh, a truck inscribed with TIME,

a sailor from Alst at work on a scotch egg and a shandy,

and Tutti Frutti Double Bubble for every sucker in the land.

Mount Vernon Hotel and Gardens

Abigail Adams snoozed here once in eider down and lace taffeta,

a river clogged with ice, and John Quincy nowhere to be found.

They all smoked pipes, tossed quoits, wrote notes to creditors

with quill pens under the holm oak where I linger long tonight.

Beyond Kip’s Bay, George Youle built a shot tower for dropping

molten lead to fashion musket balls, just like Thomas Jefferson

did at his Natural Gorge, when the American fur trade flourished

and the Gold Rush grew in Sacramento. Later came gas tanks,

George Bellows’ street urchins somersaulting in the greasy East.

Before the bridge and tram and elevated subway lines this may

have been seen as paradise within the city, with trotting course

and orchard, boxwood, roses, lilac, viburnum, ferns, and cherry.

A stand of twenty-four sycamores nearby, where we would have

sprawled in salt grass, smooching, as if there was no tomorrow.

Maison Tropicale

I keep seeing the midnight Maison Tropicale in Brazzaville, in Congo

in my head at one or two in the morning: colonialism not forgotten,

conjured by the modular prefab house of Jean Prouvé, architect

of airplanes, set down on the banks of the river above Point Noire,

where elephantfish, African tetras, blind chichlids abide in the deep.

Its story was one of three cities (London, Kinshasa, and Niamey),

a poetry of decay, an abandoning of the will to believe in dusk,

snow, sky, shadows, monsoons, and the power of a terremoto.

So we say Salut. Au revoir. Je ne comprends pas. A bien tout.

The richest man in Ouagadougou wears a tricolor bonnet rouge.

We have to take the Congo-Océan railway to avoid the rapids.

Both rivers are our brothers, running at tides and wind-up clocks.

Now the maison tropicale sits below the Queensboro Bridge

to be sold to the highest bidder, come high water or hell below.

Hallett’s Cove, 2025

From here we can witness what’s left of the twisted remnants

of the bridge, years after its collapse in a river's trickling sluice.

Oyster beds are teeming along the estuary, as bright and clear

as the day Henry Hudson's three ships entered up the Narrows.

A school of dolphins is sunning at a boat dock, and kids kayak

near a floating swimming pool and the suspension bike path

that slopes in from the island to a UNIS school in Turtle Bay.

Vertical farms splay out across the river, bean sprouts thriving

in dragonfly towers that spout lush oxygen for asphalt workers

from Maldives, Madagascar. Tsunamis wrack the Pacific Rim,

a continent again resembling Pangea. An elfin animism thrives

as clerics, scribes and mujahadeen hide in underground caves.

Kodiak bears, quetzal birds, and penguins are long since gone,

but the gleaming Bridge of Isfahan still blazes nightly in Tehran.

For Dinqnesh (Lucy)

Hundreds of Ethiopian runners, trained on cloudy Mount Entoto,

make for the midway trolley stop atop the Queensbridge, as if

they were back at home where lady farmers foot down hilltops

with bales of eucalyptus, where herds of sheep and goats graze

Just as they did three million years ago, when Australopithecus

afarensis foraged for her fruit, nuts, seeds, in savannah bush

and woodlands where I sit tonight in peace, hungry for more

than khat and black coffee, fir-fir, black injera, lemon-flavored

Ambo water from flower farms once ravaged by the Derg,

who today cast shadows on Jupiter and Dreamliner hotels

in Addis Ababa, where we've gathered to deploy some global

information system for the stars, for blinking satellites that

fix a firm position on our runners back in Queens, who, after

Evian, sail on winged feet towards the finish of the marathon.


I can almost see the Hagia Sophia across the river bight,

where moray eels pass boatloads of heavy water through

their guts as if we were at Suez. A Roosevelt Island tram's

at full capacity -- a youth looks out at me, through me,

it is me, not even my Doppelgänger, me at twenty-five.

Consciousness, Kerouac, poke weed, tulips, the wild boy

of Avignon, softly crying lait, lait. The tidal suck traps

bedrock, where a man sleeps on a barge, wakes up

to jerry rig a sea wall where fretwork and truss chords

lay about, to the shrill of our cicadas, by the Black

Star Line spouting soot as it leaves a Harlem pier,

where you can almost see Lake Tear of the Clouds,

up in Adirondacks where the Opalescent River flows,

where a clutch of brown bear cubs lives off northern pike.

© 2013