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East River

If you stand on the shore of the East River, under the broad berth of the FDR,
you can just make out, in broken neon on the river’s surface,
dim letters from bodegas across the avenue:
Platanos, Mariscos; red and green
lights from the overpass.

Nothing in the long black sheet of the water to tell you more than the direction it’s going.
Less than that, even, if it’s midnight or later, and you can’t read the map
waves make under tankers and signs,
long sidles in the current
a tugboat pushes upstream.

The East River remains as they must have seen it that night:
two men—boys, really—half-drunk on whiskey
half-drunk on beer—
I’ll race ya…
Here to the other side…

I know what you’re thinking. And it wasn’t even the trip across
that took them. When they reached Brooklyn they found
high concrete walls, docks like ladders
with the rungs cut loose,
too steep to climb.

Bodies burning with cold, the black thrill of the water like a promise
turned animal now, fear and consciousness
sliding beneath them, the beams of passing ships
touching their wakes as
they vanished—

On a night like this when the air is warm and bridges
make rainwater patterns out of oil-slicks
and burnt feathers, you can walk
right down to the river’s edge,
iron twisting in the water.

It’s not even a river. They call it a strait, a piece of the harbor
that “abandons its body and finds it again.”
But there’s nothing it would tell you
even if it could. No answers
for the one who survived.

Posted 08/21/11
Previously published in New England Review (Volume 31, Number 1).
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