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Grandfather on the George Washington Bridge, Waterboarding, and Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Flood—May 31, 1889

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
false promises
curdle her edges, milk foams on turtle rocks
on narrow seams of sand.
Seclusion? Impossible.
Detachment, no.
She wills us to her breast,
we suckle.


locked in its weeks, he painted.
Wide hands stroking
he painted
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
cast, credits
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-
shaded verandas—
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
run amok
so once again needlepoints, cushions, dishes and chairs
sepias, bedding, books, food, family, dog
wait it out

on the second floor—
the usual.

But rumbling

then rattling, everything shaking, as if a train

no tracks

then screams inside an overwhelming roar—

a 40-foot-high

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
too late
to rip away the heavy screens that locked the stocked
fish in the dam, kept them
from escaping
into streams below

a thick layer of gold and copper pressed against mesh
blocking the overflow—

But don’t
blame the fish.

Breakneck speed.

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

miles downriver—
a new dam.

Denise Bergman is the author of Seeing Annie Sullivan (Cedar Hill, 2005), and the forthcoming The Telling. An excerpt of her poem “Red,” about a slaughterhouse in the neighborhood, is permanently installed as public art. Her website is

2012, Volume 64, Issue 05 (October)
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