The Largest Glue Factory in the World
Forgetfulness is like a song
that, freed from beat and measure, wanders
When knowledge will cover the earth
like water covers the sea
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.
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 hundred shad 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.”
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.
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.
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.