The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2021

All Issues
MAY 2021 Issue


The Deaths of John Bartram

The day before the war began
is remembered in context of the war. The chores,
and breaking down the one printing press
to carry it away, resources
consolidated, blankets
distributed, and livestock
herded away from invasion.

The day before the riot began is remembered
in context of riots. Always, authorities say
rioters are from elsewhere, like parents
who deny actions of a child
that reflect poorly on them, blindness
or refusal to see sets the stage.

That the place would be torn up, a life’s work
in ruins is feared. I can’t see the garden,
can’t see the river thru the foliage.
I can’t see the gray stone house
or billowing black smoke in the distance.
A noncombatant commercial botanist
lay dead on the path.

The past is hard to see
for the stinging smoke of its blazes.
I can’t see the past
and the paths are easily overgrown.
The smoke of a century-old riot
is detected still in race relations.

No statue for this one, not even
for vines to climb, but a kind
of unpacked stature
in crated seed boxes to
send forth living specimens
and a thousand seedlings
from which citations
of the past are perennial.

Farragut in Bryant Park

The moment becomes funereal,
  moving eerily about.
Then things get real. Surfaces
  explode in splinters,
about to become surreal,
  moving about “as in a dream.”

As the 12 year old kid remembered,
  mid-ship, active duty midshipman,
bombarded off Valparaiso
  he wrote of it in old age.

He recalled associates later
  who chortled at his recollections
of battle: death, ruin, privations
  of war among civilians. 
He strode out the back room of the grocer
  while the cracker barrel crowd
tittered and called him a croaker.

He fled the southern city
  and compulsory service
for the Confederacy
  not unlike the captain
some generations on
  who edelweissed
his way out of the Anschluss
  up and over the Alps. 

The Dotted Line

The agent who brokered America’s most expensive art sale
  is the dad of one the guys
shielding America’s most shady president
  from mundane Congressional oversight.
The objet d’art is a yard-long silver bunny balloon
  whose surface mirrors the self-satisfied smiles
of hedge fund billionaires.

That the balloon is not a plucked chicken speaks
  to the basic dishonesty of millionaire artists;
mirrors their dull wit and predictability, interested
  only in self-enrichment and aggrandizing. For all
American cities need prominent statues of chickens,
  featherless, adorned with sugar and corn,
as homage to the American food chain, and
  commemoration to the half-baked measures
taken by the administration in combatting the pandemic
  by keeping nuggets in every pot.

The position of the crackpot in America
  is long and undistinguished.
In the early 21st century
  one was made president
and the nation hummed along miserably
  (but kind of semi-stable)
as long as corporate profits were steady.

When meat workers die between shifts at the factory
  an evaluation of profits is called for. And when
health care workers die in great numbers
  an evaluation of profits is called for.

The document slid from the White House desk
  like spoiled meat, keeping the
meat plants open no matter what.
On the plinth of every plucked chicken
  monument place the names of
executives and lobbyists as honor
  to the unnamed dead workers
discarded like blood-soaked foam trays.

Drift Lines

Where Bartram found seashells miles from shore
  (1752) or in mountains
the fossils will be under the waves again before long.

Everyone then got around by creek
  sandy patches of embankment 
littered with potholes
  where hands dug out potatoes.

The first Philadelphians dragged their oak-paneled dressers
  up the river bank, coming out from caves.
They looked aghast upon the labor required
  to amass fortunes, and thrive in the woods
to be rechristened Center City. Some
  among them pooled their gold
to make more gold, and dispatched
  a ship to Africa.

What comes out of books like fossils,
sometimes curious, sometimes
  paperweights for mind:
Look at the books I’ve gotten tangled up with
Look at all the books.

Eagerly drawn in, looking for places to grab on,
  finding reasons to stay.
The books will be under the waves before long.

Sight Lines

I adhere to an evolving line,
  path-like. It twists
around a complementary path
  the way bittersweet grows
on forsythia.
      (I just realized
I have likened my vocation 
  to a plant called ‘bittersweet.’)

The research, and my gut,
  said do more. Thrive
as your own upright self.
What that says about your brain
  benefits the mind. (I rip
bittersweet out of my own garden.
What does that evoke
  for poetic image?)

There’s a whole physiology to
  a healthy mind, hey? 
and the math of breathing. 
Mind wandering is an art, focused
  now, now meandering, now
policed by present moment.

How the voice is a guise under which I write.
If I duck out of critical mind
  what then?       Not worry 
  or even think of
   news or weather? 

Open swim for the mind. Lucretius
  and Bakunin, lifeguard certified.
I slid down the seaboard,
  and made a bench of the continental shelf,
settled into the benthic zone 
  and hung a poster of Plato on the cliff wall, 
an ironic cave. I defaced his image 
  with handlebar moustache
and missing teeth.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2021

All Issues