Nine Heroes Plaza
Calamus and Grand
From Hudson’s Bay to the Hudson River, Hell Gate Bridge
to Gravesend, Brooklyn, trains arrive all night and day.
The next apocalypse? A whistle-stop away. It’s October,
birch leaves skitter down outside my flat, a time for
truth, tenderness, thanksgiving. Local politicians
call for esprit de corps, as cops, nurses, lackeys,
raconteurs, beachcombers and bums like me
get on with stories of a resurgence of a city.
I ride a G train with Patti Smith, Bill de Blasio,
carpenters, dykes and fishermen, as gurus mill
about Diversity Plaza, hoping for an ozone hole
to heal, a miracle to deliver us from the greed,
sloth, pride and anger of a rear-end revolution.
Focus, future, laughter at Louis Armstrong’s lot,
at a spooky family cemetery plot on Halloween.
Dressed as Danger Mouse, I urge Atlas Obscura
to build an app for the growing sea of refugees.
Songbirds can’t take it, flocking off to Patagonia,
no state lines or trespass laws to tie them to farm,
forest or triangle of rusted train tracks. No snow,
53 degrees, but Arctic ice sheets are on their way.
Nine Heroes Plaza
I have to find a way to the Rockaway Beach Branch
that joins my neighborhood to swells of the Atlantic.
Road maps won't work, I must trust a sense of smell,
a bird’s eye view, bats bouncing sounds off other bats
as I snake around past Hong Kong dumpling shops
to Queens Mall’s inner circle. I can skate, bike, walk
or take an Uber from foot paths of Trains Meadows,
where immigrants have come for years, for industry,
resettlement, travel clubs, flower Ikebana, Himalayan
momos, arranged Lao weddings, Latin discotheques.
I catch a bus at Nine Heroes Vietnam Vet memorial:
two now homeless ferrymen from Ho Chi Minh City,
or recently back from Parwan Province, pitch a tent,
a blockade of old A/Cs as home and to keep out rain.
A radio blares play-by-play a Yankees season opener,
Anh-Tuan, Bobby, half-asleep, tussle like King Arthur,
Charlemagne, Godfrey of Bouillon, Hector, Alexander
the Great, Julius Caesar, Joshua, David or Maccabeus.
The friends are braver, like Falstaff, as a saying goes,
than all nine worthies. And as with David in the Valley
of the Terebinth, they have in New York their Goliath.
Calamus and Grand
At Calamus and Grand, just beyond an overpass
and unfit sewer lines, shoppers meet in what was
once a bog of stink-pot turtles, quicksand, just an
orchard away from a bottomless Juniper Swamp,
sodden down at New York Connecting Railroad's
Fresh Pond Yard that ties the Northeast corridor
and Atlas Terminal to pontoons, Fouzhou Town
in Sunset Park, where radioactive canisters sluff
off to Deaf Smith County and Yucca Mountain.
Sweet flag grows in a railroad cut, here where
Whitman licked his lips and luxuriated grandly,
where I can hear a mail train from my house
as it toots twice at Elmhurst gas tanks ghosts
at midnight: I lie as one dumb, dead or unborn,
to find you on a hill beyond a granite obelisk,
where nature painters dab at forsythia or flax.
I use the Really Good Public Library: archivists
keep files on feuds like the Battle of Brooklyn,
Siege of Montevideo, Boer War, Paris Commune,
Easter Rising, Days of Rage and Điện Biên Phủ,
as Tegucigalpa caravans march to the U.S. border.
I'm standing in a crosswalk at the heart of Queens,
by tracks that transport futures and commodities:
Ethiopian coffee, cotton, cow corn, green timber,
palm oil, sugar cane, white tea, deep sea sponge,
milk of yak, pork belly crisps and a pot-bellied pig.
I'll walk from one airport to another, by tree-lined
catacombs or displaced lodgers from Canal Street
graced by willows, Triassic oaks or talking crows.
Whatever is, shall be -- we have to walk and talk:
my love, a daughter thirty, thriving, two brothers
now deceased, we shop at Target as stores bleed
bitcoin, cash, in a bygone Jet Age, World’s Fairs
spent in a travel god’s web of lust and labor lost.
We take our time, get our neighbors out to vote.
This journey is a lullaby, from kettle pond to sea,
ten miles from the city, twelve to People’s Beach
and creaky boardwalk where surfers paddle out.
We’ll look around for any fossils we might find,
check what's left for teens when condors come.
In Forest Hills, I stare where tracks veer south,
as a skunk mom and her kits scurry into weeds.
A hop, skip and a jump from the Quick Brown Fox
Triangle, I sit in the Shalimar Diner, sipping soda,
playing Parcheesi, coming up with pangrams like
Stay quiet, just dash to Silk Road cities of the dead
to experience good Uzbek plov. It's not as fun as
one I found online, Kvetching, flummoxed by job,
W. zaps Iraq. Guardian Angels lap up omelets,
patrolling streets where Central Asian Jews sell
Anjou pears, edamame, out of produce trucks.
At Cheburechnaya, we quaff like we're Moguls
considering topaz, tikka, samsa or green pilaf.
It's a matter of time before patrons saunter by,
recalling Heinz pickles, Dietz coal, Coca-Cola
bottling plants or remedies from cherry bark.
Bernie Ente says the rutted tracks aren't Eden,
teeming with tarantulas, ticks and poison ivy.
Nearby is a cracked mosaic of a burning bush,
rabbit paths, catenary wires, washouts, tassels
of maize and a flimsy footbridge used by trolls.
Lazy dogs pick at chicken feet behind a dump:
far from bright lights in Bukhara, we pay and go.
Billions of birds swarm south, wing beats fueling
brisk cyclonic winds. It's so cold to the cheeks
there's nothing to do but button up, stay awake
as an army of hobos tramps on old plank roads
by ancient myrtle trees, as caribou run for cover.
LeFrak City co-ops shoot up like chanterelles in
meadow-lands, with towers named Paris, Rome,
Peru and Mexico. Planes arc over Flushing Park,
where carpenters raise Noah's Ark. Tulip beds
drowse, a barn owl gags on suppurated mouse.
A semi trailer full of cantaloupe, freight of souls
in racetrack traffic coming and going out at JFK.
Warblers and downy woodpeckers twitter, peck
in search of warm green maggots to decapitate.
Pickups brake on the Jackie Robinson Parkway,
echo of a city's howl -- Joseph Cornell's utopia,
seen from a Queens College laboratory rooftop.
We're lost in leafy undergrowth, in a fog of mass
extinction. We break for tea, bologna sandwiches,
Brooklyn Hills alive with a din of Bremen revelers:
barks, meows, oinks, caws and a cock-a-doodle-do.
Ninety miles to Hawk Mountain, kestrels soar,
riding on currents to ambush vireos and mink.
Brand Nubian hums from a stereo near a last
pay phone in Olmsted's bridal park, spanning
a borough like a mantle of the Earth. I trudge
through what's left, fallen tree limbs, bent rails,
broken urns, with artist Mark from Cincinnati,
talking trash, potato prints, thinking to purge
a list of slurs -- more dirt on a narcissistic prig
of a leader who’s branded a bunch of condos,
fairways, with his own runt name. We call him
Ronald Rump, Snake Oil Dude, Junkyard Dog,
Dr. Quack, Lone Wolf, Bug Bear or King Leer.
He's a River Rat, Poodle Face, Leech Mouth,
Tower of Babble, Spittle Bug, Agent Orange,
Knucklehead, Deputy Nut Job, Mad Hatter,
Drama Queen, Jaw Breaker, Pussy Grabber,
Robber Wasp, Three-inch Fool, Head Louse,
Guttersnipe, Go to Hell, Touch and Go, Pip
Squeak or Dead Men Tell No Tales, and me,
walking out past Erewhon to calm my nerves.
People gaze at geysers, turn to numinous shapes
in nimbus clouds. Constable, Ashbery, make art
out of atmospherics, a Theatre of Cruelty returns
with famine in Yemen. The World Meteorological
Organization says clouds interpret climate change,
aggregating turbulence, personalities and power.
In the sky, I see a red-hair girl on an Altai pony,
racing across steppes of Ulan Bator. As if time
was going back to where she may have known
where she was. We spot cones of uncertainty
in Baton Rouge and near to Jacob Riis' house
at Richmond Hill, where a throttle stick gets
sucked out a cockpit gash in an Airbus A320.
In the woods, I kick twigs towards toadstools.
By outcast camp and kennel at Home Depot,
I recall an M train ode to elms in Ridgewood
as we plummeted the bridge at Williamsburg
towards Grand Street, a sea of hot dog carts,
with daughter Lotte, six, Moby-Dick in hand,
down to a clutch of tenements, a churchyard
where the winds and rain and river were one.
We watch youngsters pick at piles of junk TVs
and flat screens by the elevated train, as they
stack them for a Buddha garden. We high-five
Ariana, who likes fives and practices her W's
to see how why works. Fives are everywhere:
a Figure 5 in red on a squad car, Five Points,
Fifth Avenue M5 bus stops, the perfect fifth,
Chanel No. 5, MI-5, Babylon 5, five wounds,
five arms of a starfish, the Pentagon on fire,
ads for Intel Pentium. Ariana sucks fireballs
as we jog Atlantic Avenue, buy a green finch
and a cage, wander up to Smokey Oval Park
to hear a major race his towa-towa tanagers
into birdsong, as if in Georgetown, Guyana,
to the sound of foghorns in a rain, in a fifth
dimension’s loop that leads back to eternity,
black holes, snow squalls churning the sea.
We snack at Woodheaven Cafe, where WiFi
hotspot FrI3:)Chick3^ can be joined for free.
Ariana grabs her dolls and Mom from a deli
as we prowl the streets in search of Kerouac.
On Rockaway Boulevard where deer paths met,
an aqueduct sags with the weight of horse flesh
rendered into fat: heroes Seabiscuit, Glue-Boy,
Fatty Lumpkin, Gunpowder or Mister Ed nod
off to the bebop syncopation on Chicot Road,
where beatniks gathered with their rotgut gin,
typing on a scroll of paper packed with nouns.
We cruise Belt Parkway in a Cadillac to check
on pond scum readings in wastewater runoff.
It's winter, snowflakes brushing jungle gyms
and roundabouts at Goddard's Rocket Park,
where unseen lives of moles lift mountains
of loam, kids rejoice in simple tasks of giving,
where a massive fuel tank farm, a quagmire
at Twin Ponds, is legacy to Andrew Jackson.
An A train joins a rusted spur and veers off
towards the Rockaways, to Ellington songs
that need no introduction. I pass a Manx cat
grave in what's called the Hole, where roofs
are level with street signs, as black cowpokes
clean horse corrals by the encroaching marsh.
A history of water that artisans channel over
prairies, a sky bridge to Kamchatka, a cache
of drones cluttering the hangars at Resorts
World Casino, campsite for weary travelers,
for Dalisay Fortuna of the Philippines, who
climbs a Hill of Plenty to find a well of debt.
I'm satisfied today with flowering chickweed,
Brandt geese, bramble, a Bergen Basin walk
with rail yards where you can nearly picture
Thomas the Tank Engine, his friends Percy,
Clarabel and Cranky, all ears on Ringo Starr,
as if the Island of Sodor possessed no past.
Hard-pressed, I see cars exit the Van Wyck
with bookies bent to bet on thoroughbreds,
revitalize Queens countryside, where elderly
ladies steer Greyhound pups past 7-Eleven.
And here my life is mirrored in a chandelier,
in half a head of lettuce, a lightning bug, a tug
of war, a monstrous side of beef, a Beaujolais,
a night light for a child, a sleeping giant: all the
indications of a world so quick to catch on fire.
In dreams, our Little Venice of herring shacks
and a rickety old wooden trestle bridge across
the bay light up in an electric blue implosion.
The Brothers Ravioli organize a cricket match
at Spring Creek Park and celebrities show up,
like Awkwafina, Reagan Youth, the Ramones.
To get to the Howard Beach-JFK train depot,
take a left by a dune that nose-dives into fog.
Girl scouts launch a Google Loon, hoping to
put a stop to all the rock attacks in Palestine.
We find a space shuttle's grassy launch pad,
an opium den, tins of cocoa, a Swedish lady
with lizards in her bra and birds of paradise.
Someone's tiger cub gets loose at customs,
where they find dried caterpillar handbags,
sea ice, a knife concealed in an enchilada.
After Runway 4L-22R, we visit Lenny's Clam
Bar, its tunnels to Malacca and to Singapore:
a farmer and four goats are doling out gelati.
From here you can see the far-off glint of Oz,
the pink flamingos, a sunlight like no other.
Also known as Crittersville or Hamilton Beach
like the blender I use mornings for banana,
kale and seaweed smoothies, this inlet lives
and breathes its tides. Either high or neap,
a street can be a creek -- you need a kayak
to get across. Unlike recent Anak Krakatau's
spuming fire and lava, sending a tidal wave
across Sumatra, here every bio-engineer,
merchant marine, plumber or philosopher
is thinking of survivors half a world away.
Some say it's the jolliest enclave of the city,
with open skies, sea air and room to amble.
Muskrats basking, a red-winged blackbird’s
nasal cry of welcome. Sand flat cleanups
root out gems like a mini rubber Gulliver,
a mildewed Elmo, glass floats from the Sea
of Japan, a giant oarfish, a rusted robot arm,
snow globes, ruby slipper, a poem in a bottle.
The joy of walking and talking with soulmates
like Norman and Miguel, giddy all the way from
Little Egg Marsh to the mouth of Hawtree Creek.
Dry winter days, working a Jersey City tugboat,
we drank beer and fed a crush of hungry gulls.
There I heard about the bay, ice-bound in winter,
a heaven for wading birds and butterflies besides.
It could have been the Nile or Brahmaputra, save
for a red caboose and condensation trails above.
On one trek out, age 21, I spot an orchard oriole.
Later, I come with compañeros for a nature hike,
eat at Tommy’s Pizza on a jaunt to Breezy Point.
When Michael Griffith died in Howard Beach
we stayed away. After that, I swear that I saw
the famous gar-barge, Mobro 4000, chugging
up a channel to Belize and back with sludge.
Then, as a young dad, we brought our Snoop
to a West Pond eyrie to feed the snowy owls.
Every year we’d come for pitch pine, picnics,
jets soaring over, a beluga offshore spouting
up to Nova Scotia. After Hurricane Irene,
Barbara spies a floating coconut, blown in
from Mali or Marigot Bay. Playland's gone,
terrapins are back and hunting ospreys reign.
Once named Little Cuba for its Prohibition rum,
this is a poor man's paradise, a blue-collar joint
near a hummock and the train hut at the Raunt.
Subway Island's east of here, with borrow pits
and icky Porta Potty rentals called Call-a-Head.
The town hosts National Guardsmen, sea dogs,
bakers, butchers and basket-makers who trace
an ancestry to Limerick, Londonderry, Lübeck.
The park down at Big Egg Marsh is a topiary
for the times: folks boast family values, fiery
matriarchs, egrets eating frogs and rain bait
from my hand. My job at District Council 65,
United Auto Workers, took me there by bus
for training. Least terns skim past Yellow Bar
and over Sunset Cove, where matrons swam
in tank tops with locomotives puffing smoke.
Lisena Garden Center now stocks AstroTurf,
as brigadiers, birders, work to save the basin
in Boston Whalers, planting quahogs, oysters,
marching at City Hall, where one judge won't
even listen till you smush seaweed in her face.
A train full of second graders brakes at a triangle
of track by Hammels Houses -- future physicists,
talk show hosts, rappers, women basketball stars
are walking dogs, folding laundry, taking out trash.
We stroll an esplanade to where Hog's Island was,
risen from the surf one night, then vanished, inns
and all, in a squall in 1893. Near St. Rose of Lima,
we trek the hill of a nameless landfill, though rife
with mosquitoes, West Nile virus is yet to come.
Sycamores gag on airport air, gobs of cooling tar
plug potholes of a nation's rage and restlessness.
I look for a punk rock bungalow, the beach cafe
where a poet sits in a corner, downing a mohito.
We walk along a lone and level wasteland drift,
past Arverne-on-the-Sea, averting dog parks, dive
bars, body shops, a paintball field and dance hall.
Some projects look like post-war Germany, others
want a lick of paint. Families sit on seesaws where
the pavement's come undone, as if at excavations
in Lake Success, near Long Island Sound: we look
for the iron coffin lady; she's nowhere to be found.
Picture the Panic of 1907: a credit union's shattered
storefront glass, breadlines, a busted water main,
barren fields, sharecroppers sowing beets and rye.
Cash crops, glass eyes, limbs lost in lumberyards,
fingers crushed by oil drums, the Panama Canal
half-dug, Queensboro Bridge's middle, mid-river,
connected to nothing, not to ice-cutters, farriers,
midwives, match girls, tailors -- nor to idle ships
with sailors. My grandfather Ed was seven then,
he said it was here he held a seal pup in his lap,
ten years before he drove an ambulance in Italy.
My love and I have coffee at Claudette’s, as Ray
says how hard hit they were by Hurricane Sandy,
near where Playland stood. You can hear echoes
from the Kiddie Whip, Atom Smasher, Retronaut
and Steeplechase, all shuttered up or disappeared.
Pleasure seekers fled, we spy mole crabs boring
into mud, a Ken doll fast in a spewing sluice pipe.
A cabbie from Monrovia discovers a silver dime:
I turn in my tracks, kissing Barbara, as brittle stars
in a brackish pool edge imperceptibly towards sea.
Oceans of envy, oceans of grace: in a blizzard,
I can’t see in front of my face. Swimmer's ear
from a sixty-second polar bear dip, salt tears
and sleet raining sideways as an Okeechobee
clan listens to a podcast of the tragedy Medea.
End of an elevated train: I tramp to a meeting
point on Rockaway Freeway, road to nowhere,
where boys have hooked a fluke. Belle Harbor
has its beauty and its sorrow, a bright horizon,
the American Airlines 587 fatal jet wash crash,
bound for Santo Domingo, a month past 9/11.
Fire crews, EMTs, shop stewards, lunch ladies,
grocery baggers, gaffers, conductors, call girls
endure the super storm to help out hundreds
at Breezy Point as city blocks go up in flames.
Beyond are shipwrecks Ajace, with scrapyard
trolley ties, Cornelia Soule with gravel ballast,
R.C. Mohawk, Bronx Queen and Lizzie Dean.
Snow angels encircle us, as anchovies, urchins,
gulf weed, black cod and a skinny albatross all
jumble in my head as we shout, spin and sing.
By a pine where topless bathers swim in summer,
the Children's Hospital for Tuberculosis juts out
like an eyesore on the beach. Now it's all a ruin,
but after skid row midnight walks in Mott Street
Teddy Roosevelt, Jacob Riis, brought kids here
thinking the ocean air was tantamount to cure.
In May, horseshoe crabs arrive to spawn, just
as they've done since the dawn of the Jurassic,
in from fish holes like Cholera Bank, Augie's
Lump, 42 Fathom Basin or Spermaceti Cove.
In June, we laze about Fort Tilden with Thea,
Justin and Emily, all architects from my days
at Cooper Union. After surfing, they join us
for kombucha, with keys to a kingdom come
I entrust to them -- and to my daughter Lotti.
Someone's made a shed into an ego nursery,
we walk parabolas of dune, pass Surface-to-
Air Missile launch pads, Nike sneakers tied
upside a scrub oak. Sea lettuce, beach rose,
cabbages, salt-perfume, a sound of walking
barefoot ankle deep in shoals of spiral shells.
Twenty years ago, I roamed this wilderness
for miles, sketching out sagas for Aquaman
and Indigo at Ambrose Light, where hordes
of cheeky bluefish frenzy herring bait balls,
where planes lift off, tip out to Fire Island,
turn, looking back to where wide sandbars
take on silt from ebbing tides, thrusting up
corridors to Lagos, Bogotá or Seoul. Piping
plovers nest and air balloons rise towards
the Moon, hope still sunk in Pandora's bin.
At dusk, a flash, as a shining star sails past
Pluto, Ultima Thule, where unsung seamen
fix their sextants. I'm glad to have lived so
long to pick at pinkish coral in the reef, me
commingling ether, earth, sky and a fervor
of heart and soul as one. Collecting snails
with Lotti, who steps upon a bumblebee,
as we look back at things forgot at thirty:
we listen for voices of friends who've gone,
mermaids with no hands who helped me walk
on ice in cattails with my dog when I was twelve.
Early in March, the four of us converge at the end
of a peninsula. Low tide, the water's sheer, Bijoux
the Chow, a puffy lion-dog, bounds into breakers.
You can nearly see Conception Isle, the Bahamas,
on the far side of the Sargasso, as little glass eels
begin a furtive passage north. Out of the Azores
millions plummet past us into the turbid waters
of New York Bight or up the Hudson. Others go
cheerfully beyond to the Mississippi's tributaries
Rappahannock, Arkansas, Osage, Ohio, Wabash,
Platte and Tennessee. For there, an eel can grow,
prosper, return, maybe even decades later now,
slipping down to Hudson Canyon's seamounts,
Glory Hole, Valley of the Wrecks, the Sargasso,
so plagued by plastic he may not make it home.
For us, it's a cool ocean view, American Princess
ships searching out humpbacks and harbor seals,
sun tumbling into bay. Under waves, moon jellies
pulse in our dreams. Laughing gulls dive for scup,
boat-tailed grackles flap, a girl scribbles in the sea
wrack, off the tip of Rockaway, the word tomorrow.