Red Wheelbarrow Poets
Poem of the Week 11/15/2016
I stood on the canted, wet black stones
piled outward from Brighton Beach into Rockaway Inlet,
with coffee and a cigarette, the taste of which was ruined by the cold salt air.
I went back to that place, as if looking for my keys,
if keys were the self who still had a say.
Behind me, the six-story shtetl of bricks and heavy
Jewish food backed up to the elevated subway,
spine of the old neighborhood, escape route bending northward
over Mrs. Stahl’s Knishes, towards Manhattan.
Before me, the ocean Grandma Eva called the yam
and urged me go swim, churned and threw up lattices
of spume in the name of the blistered sea.
My hoodie zipped, I cuffed the drips-in-winter nose
I inherited from my father, and, stiff-eyed, took the wind
from Breezy Point, past which I’d sailed once, far as Ambrose Lightship
to see the ocean open out and offer no more answers until England.
At 17, in khakis that matched my desire to run away,
I swabbed locker rooms, and mowed the scruffy lawn
where white and red impatiens were planted
in the shape of the burgee of the yacht club in Sheepshead Bay
where I tendered the members to their sailboats at the moorings.
And evenings, when they’d all gone home, on my last run
over the summer black and glassy bay, I smoked cigarettes
and listened to “My Love” on a cream-colored transistor radio
with a gold-tone grill and the name Electra etched in red script
beside the thumb wheel for the volume.
And on race days, some of which were cirrus and zenith
blue for absolution, I winched the lightening boats
up from their trailers, swung them on a davit over the cyclone fence
where gangway sailors held steering lines to keep them from swinging
while we lowered them down,
and I followed them in the committee boat, past Kingsborough College
and the seaside nursing home where forty years later my father would die,
dropped anchor in the inlet, and fired blanks from a cannon to start the race that sent them
— a regatta of schoolteachers, doctors and tradesmen, and a gal with short hair
who climbed telephone poles for Bell Atlantic on weekdays and the masts of sailboats
in a bosun’s chair on Sunday —
around a course of red and black channel markers, buoys and bells,
their boats heeling over to beat up to the wind, or raising
their painted spinnakers like pregnant women promenading
in summer dresses, though none of this could reach me
in the wretched unhappiness in which, those days, I bobbed,
and waited for the race to end.
And then, as a man of thirty-three, when I’d scuttled my first chance at poetry,
after 5 years working with a damp towel slung over my shoulder
and my arms crossed on my chest to hold the anger in,
as the exit manager of the Hollywood Car Wash on Coney Island Avenue,
speaking college French with the Haitians who wiped the cars,
and leaving there for law school, living still in Brighton,
I stood on these same rocks, reciting mnemonic devices
to drill jurisprudence as I prepared for the bar exam, the summer
I also came closest to dunking a basketball in the playground
at Brightwater Court.
And now, in the shadow of that dray career,
with hips as brittle as butter chip cookies,
I climb these February rocks to stare at the sea and back at the beach
and the boardwalk, and the men’s room under the boardwalk
where a boy once showed me his penis,
and wonder where I fucked up, how I got it so wrong, how the key
I turned to open the world had locked me instead into absurd anxiety
and obdurate complacency.
I cut my feet on a broken bottle here.
I ran with my sister to catch the orange drink man.
I came for the fireworks on Tuesdays
and found my grandparents laughing with neighbors
in folding chairs when they were my age now.
I brought girls to my apartment in my red Monte Carlo.
I bought sturgeon from the fish store. I lived across from the synagogue
where you could hear the men mumble through the open windows
on Yom Kippur while the women waited outside wondering
how long after sunset the rabbi would hold them;
The swells on the ocean are the muscles of the Earth,
and the spines of the fish-eaten fish fall through the sea
to what we call its bed to pretend that it sleeps.
But the business of the waves proceeds
without regard for whom, or when
because the ocean is a vast, tectonic, sloshing thing
that answers to planets, not men.
Poem of the Week email subscription