Commonplace
-
www.common-place.org · vol. 12 · no. 2.5 · February 2012
-


Poetic Research Department

Statement of Poetic Research


William Allen
The Largest Glue Factory in the World

Forgetfulness is like a song
that, freed from beat and measure, wanders

Hart Crane

When knowledge will cover the earth
like water covers the sea

Peter Cooper

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 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.

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.

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.

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, creampuffs, 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.


comments powered by Disqus

this issue home