Poems of Brooklyn
Julia Spicher Kasdorf
(New York University Press)Kasdorf and Tyrell have come up with poems in honor of gebroken landt --- Dutch for "broken land."* The name ultimately evolved into the word "Brooklyn."
Ah, Brooklyn. After the coming of the bridge we found ourselves colonized by the common goys in Manhattan. The Bridge may have been a beaut (and it turns up in many of the hundred or so poems collected here), but we can't forget that made it possible for our city to be robbed by the pit-bosses there on the other side of the East River. They even managed to kill our streetlife in the name of an old-testament god named Moses cementing us with "parkways" (that was the name he gave them). Brooklyn came to be no longer our own; they may not have owned the land, but they did own the government. That was when we became The Last Exit to...
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Broken Land is a helluva book. The earliest poem that the editors were able to track down is a complaint (c. 1666) by Henricus Selyns about "Mercenary and Unjust Bailiffs" ("Do orphans overwhelm, and widows terrify.") Then --- a hundred years later --- comes an ode to "The Market Girl," by Philip Freneau: she's from Flushing and she wasn't born yesterday. She brings "kail and cabbage" to market and there's no one who "can hope to cheat / a BARGAIN from this country maid."
Already, 250 years ago, they are trying to paint Brooklyn as the home of pecksniffs and thieves, filled with woe, plaints that continue to this day: Jean Davis (1916) on a dead child ("I wore my new black coat, and mam cried"); a 1918 poem by Charles Reznikoff on a man who "dropped dead" on Brooklyn Bridge; a few on Greenwood Cemetery. My hometown, always getting the bad press, even from Federico García-Lorca.
horses will live in the taverns
and furious ants
will attack the yellow skies that take refuge in the eyes of cattle.
we'll witness the resurrection of dead butterflies,
and still walking in a landscape of gray sponges and silent ships,
we'll see our ring shine and rose spill from our tongues.
The editors didn't put much of Walt Whitman in this anthology thank god: they included but two of his less mawkish shorter odes, "Sun-down Poem" and "The Wallabout Martyrs."
The most interesting verse here comes from later writers who chose to settle in the moil of Prospect Park, Grand Street, Brighton Beach, Borough Park, Williamsburg, Flatbush ... content with the wonders of the Botanic Garden, the Hyacinth Garden, Coney Island, and glory be, Enid Dame riding the D-Train,
Everything is important:
that thin girl, for instance,
in flowered dress, golden high heels.
How did her eyes get scarred?
Why is that old man crying?
Why does that woman carry
a cat in her pocketbook?
Be careful, she warns, "Don't underestimate / any of it." Like Brooklyn itself, "Anything you don't see / will come back to haunt you."
Melissa Beattie-Moss's son plays (as the editors do) with the very name:
Mommy, he says, it's BARUCH, BARUCH-lyn, finding the Hebrew word Baruch
meaning Blessed in the old Dutch town of Brookly, which you remind me
also means a broken land.
Then here is Nuar Alsadir "Walking through Prospect Park with Suzan" telling us, with words, the uselessness of words, "There is little to believe in / Since what we see is not necessarily out there / and language hollows being into desire." David Gershator ponders on the Brooklyn Public Library,
... someone tarred the lions
still later someone smashed the lions
later still they up and disappeared
it's tough to be a lion in Bushwick Brooklyn
library lions don't stand a chance
in the man eating streets.
There have been few poetry anthologies over the years that are worth a toot. I remember a slim paperback of world poetry from our college days in the 1950s. I think it was edited by Donald Hall. It introduced many of us, for the first time, to García-Lorca, as well as Roy Fuller, E. E. Cummings. It even offered one of the rare accessible poems translated by Ezra Pound.
The touchstone here is not in having some great, some good, and some so-so poems; rather, it is the ability to show a uniformly high, rich collection, where damn near all the poems are touching, funny, alive in some magic way. Of the anthologies that have passed over this desk in the past few years, only two others stand out: Anderson and Hassler's Learning by Heart and Lark's screwy Cricket in the Telephone (at Sunset).
Kasdorf and Turell have collected with wisdom and grace. And some of the writing is so poignant that you have to lay it aside to rest it for awhile. Such a poignant mix, this Brooklyn ... Enid Dame, again, with her memories of a virulent past joined in a dream of the present:
Me, all my tears are locked up behind my eyes
rusted like all the words in the mother language I don't even dream in now
Me, I don't cry.
Me, I survive and survive.
How I survive! I've outlasted Vilna and Ponar
the meetings the sewer the forest
the Judenrat and my family...--- Sarah Levy*The editors tell us that the word
also might come from the Dutch West India Company charter
for the "Town of Breukelen" (a translation of the Algonquin name
for Long Island).