Grandfather on the George Washington Bridge
From this height seedpods
fallen from naked cliffhanging trees
speckle the palisades.
Water wrangles the shore,
deliberates, decides, controls.
From this height the Hudson’s
curdle her edges, milk foams on turtle rocks
on narrow seams of sand.
She wills us to her breast,
locked in its weeks, he painted.
Wide hands stroking
and the myth of him painting hardened to memory
and memory softened to myth.
A useful hand-me-down:
suspension, overview, expanse.
So I return
to water, height, the nascent view desperate
for a rustproof coat, to him
stretched over the traffic of sturgeon, bass, and shad,
his taut cable arms, wide paved waist,
angled iron muscle shoulders—
just a man
in fumes of oil and turps
reaching for a far-off unpainted spot,
the bucket swinging from a belt
at his hip.
Up what should be down nose mouth
what should be empty
what should be quenching—
for nine months
each of us
swallowed a future in an unflagged bag of sea
head up when a head should be up
down when it should be down
floating, somersaulting, practicing
the exit, you me he she—
you, who are you who are you to so easily
thrust that first gulp
down a captured man’s paralyzed throat
rewind his life like a celluloid film
unspooled in a tangled heap—
you release the chokehold just a bit,
squeeze one more
squeeze out one more drop your so-called
enemy’s first and only name, your
first your only name.
Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Flood
May 31, 1889
Because they can
sport fishing grounds
two steps from their mansion doors
from the wraparound elm-
more than a trinket, plaything, the Conemaugh
dammed, curtailed and
because they can
swollen to 60 feet deep behind
their South Fork
Fishing and Hunting Club, large-mouth bass
all the room in the world.
Rain, an early melt of snow, a yearly storm.
Little Conemaugh and Stony Creek
so once again needlepoints, cushions, dishes and chairs
sepias, bedding, books, food, family, dog
wait it out
on the second floor—
then rattling, everything shaking, as if a train
then screams inside an overwhelming roar—
wave at breakneck speed
houses, factories, fields, livestock churning
like a shattered mosaic
barreling, blocking the no longer blue
cousin Lila, Tom from upriver, the tanner, Dr. Spector
Frantically they had rounded up workers
to rip away the heavy screens that locked the stocked
fish in the dam, kept them
into streams below
a thick layer of gold and copper pressed against mesh
blocking the overflow—
blame the fish.
Farms, factories, fields, entire streets.
Mud, metal, trees, sewage, beaver, heartbeats, cows
the Murphys, the Richardsons
and 2,000 more.
Inseparable now, Johnstown
South Fork, Woodvale, Mineral Point, East Conemaugh
upsidedown, crushed or
in memory only
a new dam.