Bridges to Somewhere
by Katherine Jackson
As a resident of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, I live within striking distance of an American Lit hot spot. Just around the corner and down the street from me is the rather aesthetically challenged distinctly non-iconic Williamsburg Bridge, which I walk briskly across in quest of that perfect mix: cardio and sweeping views of what can only be, to an Am Lit devotee, hallowed ground. From the screened-in, antisuicide walkway along the edge of the bridge (no Bedlamite tilts there, in Hart Crane’s phrase, no shrill shirts ballooning) one can see not only the “choiring strings” of the ever-inspirational Brooklyn ferry and perhaps Bartleby’s actual wall (certainly many plausible stand-ins). On a bright, clear day, one might almost get a glimpse of Marianne Moore, as conjured by Elizabeth Bishop, floating past over the East River:
From Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bridge, on this fine morning,
please come flying.
In a cloud of fiery pale chemicals,
please come flying,
to the rapid rolling of thousands of small blue drums
descending out of the mackerel sky
over the glittering grandstand of harbor-water,
please come flying.
At night, Lorca’s appalled vision disturbs these precincts, especially along the riverbank, where he prowled from the Brooklyn Bridge to Battery Park, gathering sordid details for his ironic “nocturnes” (his word). Such gleanings included night-crawling human insectoids, lunar creatures who sniff and circle buildings, hearts broken before they have a chance to be whole, squalid alleys with their bouquets of piss and vomit, the East River in the form of an immense gray sponge.
Hardly what Bishop found on her fine morning, and yet, for both poets, inanimate structures seem to breathe with animal life. One could surely imagine Bishop or Moore likening the Brooklyn Bridge to an “incredible crocodile” as Lorca did. Jack Kerouac, too, saw the Brooklyn Bridge as a “c r o c o d i le” (typography his).
Inland a few blocks, there’s the Jewish Daily Forward Building, not a glitzy condo with the dubious honor of claiming as a resident Tatum O’Neal, caught last year buying crack cocaine on a neighboring street (shock!). The paper it housed until the 1990s published Isaac Bashevis Singer’s stories and weekly columns, Mani Leib’s Yiddish poems, and no doubt many other wonderful Yiddish poems. Close by stood the Garden Cafeteria, known to the Daily Forward crowd who hung out there as the Jewish Horn & Hardart. It’s easy to see why from a photo of this establishment, its giant art-deco, neon signs, which run along the top of its two glass facades, proclaiming in big letters: CAFETERIA. The place is gone now, but glimpse the photo and presto! There sits Singer at a Formica table, eavesdropping over a glass of hot tea.
Chinatown begins ever so slightly west. The first Chinese settled there around 1880, in an area known at the time as the Five Points—or more tellingly, the “Five Points slums.” Needless to say, here and throughout the country these new arrivals were scarcely made to feel welcome; they were too enterprising, too hard working, and their community too supportive. Plus their language was unintelligible. In 1882 the U. S. Congress (charmingly) enacted something called the Exclusion Act, legislation pretty well summed up by its name; the act wasn’t repealed until 1943. (Finally during the war, when the Chinese were after all helping us defeat the Japanese, it seemed a bit mean-spirited not to let them in the country.) Still, during the long period of exclusion, a thin but steady stream of Chinese found ways to get in. It has occurred to me that in all that time a few Chinatown residents must have been poets, the equivalents of Mani Leib or Jacob Glatstein, each sustained in this new world of dislocation and massive difficulty by his or her prized language, probably Cantonese.
When translated, the characters [that I used in a drawing] read: “Wolf tiger sea swallow us.” The phrase came into my life quite by accident a few years ago. More recently I learned of the Golden Venture, a ship transporting illegal Chinese immigrants from the Fujian Province to New York that ran aground in 1993 off the coast of Long Island. Ten people drowned, those rescued were found traumatized and starving. The five characters seemed suddenly all too appropriate—and not only to the Golden Venture catastrophe. Couldn’t the words also suggest any immigrant’s dread of setting forth or sense of engulfment once arrived? I offer them as a protopoem in honor of the Chinese Glatstein I haven’t yet found.
Traveling uptown now, a bit east toward—well—home, how can I not mention the murder that gets everything going in Richard Price’s novel Lush Life? The event takes place just up the street from my apartment (though Price has scrambled the street numbers); the bodega on the corner, owned by two Yemeni men, figures in the book’s opening pages. Starting right here and ranging through the territory I’ve mentioned, Price has been fashioning the neighborhood’s new mythic landscape. He’s likened the shabby, old Lower East Side to the “Byzantium,” which maybe it is: an ever-elusive empire of the mind, at times a tad schmaltzy, somehow coexisting with the nightly infusion of upscale club-goers and the half-empty glam condos—to say nothing of the cheerful (if also schmaltzy) salsa music pulsing through my window as I write this.
Walking is a form of drawing. What matter if pathways are described by the fingers or the feet—or numberless other drawing tools? Drawing is a way of moving through the world, or many worlds, and tracing—mapping—this motion. Drawing, even the stillest of still lifes, always implies motion. And walking always implies mapping, describing—in the mathematical as well as verbal sense. As one whose primary creative medium was once poetry and is now visual expression, I can’t walk the stretch of city I’ve been “describing” without traipsing through a heady nimbus of 160 years’ worth of poetic mythologizing. For me, this landscape remains hallowed—despite the inevitable encounter with contemporary New York’s various forms of ersatz, corporate rip-offery (the South Street Seaport alongside the Brooklyn Bridge a particularly egregious example).
Of course, I’m hardly the first to notice the bustling literary production to have come out of this postage stamp of soil and water. There are annual walks over the Brooklyn Bridge that celebrate the many odes, and non-odes, written in its honor. Other locales with their associated writers have been commemorated in myriad ways. Still, it’s hard not to marvel at how so little acreage has fertilized so many imaginations from Whitman’s time until now, imagination which find it somehow redolent of mythic content, even if the redolence is piss and vomit and decomposing bodies. Although where I walk the riverbank is more likely to smell of garbage and general grunge, no doubt there are bodies too. But I’ve been lucky.
These walks have led to many drawings and sketches, two of which appear earlier. I’m also working on a paean to the Manhattan Bridge, in celebration of its one hundredth birthday later this year.
Bridges have their own metaphorical content, and I became interested in them when I submitted a proposal for a public art project in Pittsburgh. There are lots of bridges in that city, since its central business district is located on a narrow peninsula between two rivers. I began drawing these bridges and was surprised to discover that in my drawings they sprouted fins and wings. Mine were bridges that had lost their function as mere, literal transport. Maybe because I did these drawings in the last days of the Bush presidency, with what looked to be (maybe still does?) another Great Depression looming, these bridges began to seem friendly creatures, guides more alive than our inert, doom-dealing leaders and who could spirit us away into an alternative universe, a dreamscape. Or maybe it was just that, as an American, I instinctively discovered local deities within those human-engineered structures that preside over so much of our landscape. Even I couldn’t avoid mythmaking, on however personal a scale. It’s in the cultural DNA.
Perhaps underlying this growing collection of bridge imagery is the simple fact that there’s a bridge virtually at the end of my street. Each time I go out my door, down the block to Delancey, and look left, there it is a short walk away, the Williamsburg Bridge, rising, beckoning—shimmering even (with its nightly illuminated cables)—into the nowhere beyond. Delancey Street transforms into a grand boulevard rising to the stars. What matter that across the river it descends into ordinariness again. I can’t see where it ends up, just where it takes off. Inexplicably, I feel a lift in my heart every time I look left at the end of my block—a lift in spite of the monoxidic air and belligerent horns of the traffic bound incessantly to and from Brooklyn.
Maybe I’m just victim of the ever-welcome illusion that you can get out. Get to who knows where, but out. In college, we learned about the Turner thesis, the infinite American frontier. Closed, of course, but here it is, en route to Brooklyn!
What attracted me to bridge imagery was the sense of how the stolid structures and other seemingly inert feats of engineering can slide so easily into the realm of the mythic, can come alive in the imagination, filling the void that the death of an animistic landscape in this most pragmatic of cultures has bequeathed us. Maybe reading Crane years ago got me started, but every time I catch fractional glimpses, from my rooftop, of the light-strung cables of the three bridges that connect Bishop’s “and & and”s of faraway, there’s this same strange leap of the heart.
Drawing is a form of walking. When I set forth across the Williamsburg Bridge on a summer evening, I describe a path that mirrors in space the temporal distance between earliest dusk and that moment when the lights come on all over the city. Everywhere there are drawings with light: along the bridges, on the sightseeing boats and in the dance of their wake. (Aren’t the Circle Line boats that circumnavigate Manhattan enacting the process of drawing?) The river itself becomes one big light drawing as it reflects the suddenly illumined world rising above it.
Drawing is also a form of thinking, the kind of thinking that engages fingers and mind in a silent, ongoing feedback loop. If from the drawing process there emerges the figure of a bridge, it is only because the figure of the bridge spoke first to the eyes and then to the fingers. If it’s a “good” drawing—one that carries the viewer beyond the literal bridge to an expanding array of associations, reflections, tempos, bodily identifications of one kind or another—one should be having an experience akin (if rarely equal) to crossing the Williamsburg Bridge as its cables of light come on, as the city’s lights come on above and in the river below. By this definition, isn’t Hart Crane’s poem one of the most ravishing bridge drawings ever?
Copyright © Katherine Jackson 2010. This is a portion of an essay that appeared in SOUTHERN REVIEW, Vol. 95, Nos. 1&2, 2010, pages 209-215.