I am the daughter of manifest destiny,
Spawned by the Brooklyn Bridge
A BROOKLYN STATE OF MIND, continued: what is Brooklyn to you, Poetry Slow Down community, on the theme of slowing down our hurried minds with poetry: Is Brooklyn, USA, the opposite of poetry to you, or its apotheosis? You’re with me here, wondering about how poetry makes sense of a place, or creates sense of value of place, the meaning we give to the place we live in, or call home, in our minds . . . There is something about Brooklyn, that takes us into the heart of how poetry makes a place live, how poets work the soil, and to me now, the Manhattan-Brooklyn relation is revelation at the heart of the nation’s heart and mind: you can’t get there from here, yet we live parallel and inextricably related lives, in the lost-country and the city, a psychological chasm, uncrossable, and then I’m thinking, wait, “Crossing Brookyn Ferry,” that great poem of Whitman’s, wait, hold on here, the setting and theme of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman . . . and wait . . . Feynman was here . . . wait, Woody Allen . . . . Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a novel whose title was always a little ominous to me: a place where it is a miracle that a tree grows? Land laid waste? And speaking of ominous, Thomas Wolfe’s” Only the Dead Know Brooklyn,” so . . . this psychic ghost town with its one tree, and . . .then, all the iconography of Coney Island, and the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Dodgers (ya bums!). So, last week we talked about the poetry of Brooklyn, and Marianne Moore’s paean (pee-en, expression of joy or praise, as opposed to pain in, expression of suffering), to the Brooklyn-ya-bums Dodgers, and you know what, we ran out of time, I had material for . . ten shows! And in the process of thinking about the show, as an outsider, a foreigner, an anthropologist of poetry, I mean, I grew up as far away as possible, out west, and you don’t stop until you reach that Pacific Ocean, 3000 miles away, where the Dodgers had dodged, LA, I told you when I grew up it was always the Brooklyn Dodgers in our house, a fact I never thought about, and as I was thinking about Brooklyn with you, and then Ferlingetti’s autobiography—he the San Fransisco City Lights man, yet, he places himself back in Brooklyn in his mind—his Coney Island of the Mind makes Brooklyn the center of his artistic awakening, I realized this past week that I, too, have a poem about my own artistic awakening, and identity, and it is a Brooklyn poem: I imagined my own past in terms of this Brooklyn-Manhattan nexus, and the Huck in me, needing to light out (“where can you go when the territory has all been taken? I had to go west”) . . . I couldn’t believe it when I remembered the original opening lines:
I am the daughter of Manifest Destiny,
Spawned by the Brooklyn Bridge.
I had never seen the Brooklyn Bridge, this was something in history, like George Washington’s cherry tree, some iconic symbol. Remember, I’m born under the Hollywood sign, my early life was in mountains overlooking the Pacific, the nearest store was two miles away and my mother, staying home with us kids, didn’t have a car: she didn’t drive—of course—now I see, this story shaping . . . she was from Manhattan . . . she didn’t need a car. My father was living in Brooklyn, he was born in Brooklyn, and he had a car. I remember a story they told us once, over a campfire in the Sierras, about their past, which they never really talked about except in New Yorkisms we took for granted as the eccentric vocab of our parents, these metaphoric ways of talking about the world that made no sense in our lives, what is this, grand central station? (we didn’t even know what that was, and had never been on a train); if that happens I’ll kiss your ass in Macy’s window, whoever Macy was . . . well, when my parents met on a photographers hike in New Jersey, my father took my mother’s arm and never let go. He drove her home. The problem was, she had never been in a car, and had never been in her neighborhood on city streets. She always took the subway. So she could not recognize where she lived. They drove round and round.
Of course she did not drive, this New York girl, so there we were stranded in this redwood house, surrounded by cactus, two stories of glass windows looking at mountain and sea, and when my grandmother from New York came to visit, she said, My God, my God, where are all the people? She stopped a car on our street and begged the driver to take her back to the airport so she could return to her Joey, my rascal uncle in New York. I’ll share this poem with you, called “At Last, Kissed in Macy’s Window”—where our country’s manifest destiny and my manifest destiny are “bridged.” We’ll hear about the Roeblings, Hart Crane’s 1930 “The Bridge” (countering T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland, “so damned dead”), Amy Clampitt’s whirling poems on motion, vibrant Brooklyn in contemporary poems, and the way Brooklyn is at the center of tragic and comic visions of America by its greatest playwrights, film-makers, and epic poets, from Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape (“Yank,” of course, is from Brooklyn), to Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, to Herb Gardner’s 1000 Clowns. We’ll hear Whitman’s Brooklyn voice, literally, and his heir in Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and W.S. Merwin’s poem of thanks, revealing the way the Brooklyn aesthetic mourns “the gone world” and nature, the price of progress in urban development. As we explore the meaning of Brooklyn as everyone’s hometown, where we start from and end up, we’ll continue our series on the impact of how poets render our world and the laws and policies we construct to save or restore it or redeem it—and ourselves. Next week I’ll be reporting live to you from Alaska, and while I don’t think I’ll remember a family history, or make the case for Alaska as core to our country’s consciousness and conscience (well, maybe), prepare for joyous poems of aurora borealis, arctic life, snow and ice, cranes, fragile and mighty terrain and spirits. Meanwhile, the country’s east-west trajectory is played out in the poetry of Brooklyn, Part Two, in which I have come to face my ancestral past, along with an entire curriculum of America’s writers and creative minds, who all seem to be from Brooklyn, or hail from there, or straddle the Bridge between “the twin cities,” live in both at once, or live the tension, the passage, in our minds, not the destination of Manhattan, but the humble place we actually live, have pride in, and bemoan (and don’t forget the Dodgers-ya-bums!).
© Barbara Mossberg 2011
I am the daughter of manifest destiny,