To César Chelala
They say Thoreau lived on Staten Island
and that he had a mad woolly dog
that would walk happy and gentle, along Fifth Avenue.
They say his camera
would burn the ruminating trees of Central Park
and that the rickety horses would cry over the distant smell
of the glamorous melancholic apple.
Old, forgotten Thoreau
once you used to live among the arduous sites of Concord,
at the rundown, splendid house of Emerson
and you dried your hands of hay in muddy water.
Your white voice of a beautiful bearded farmer
tread upon the morning leaves
among complaining frogs in the pond.
You didn’t know
if you knew it
that your island was facing a hellish Babel
the harbor of unusual criminals
and of nostalgia ridden Jews
and of ruddy lonely Italians
and of unknown, difficult poets
hidden in the invisible arteries of misery.
It’s 6 AM. A furious heat kicks upon the window panes. My wife is sleeping. My son is sleeping. But the city isn’t. A slight beam of light gets through the shy threshold under the door. I quickly get what I want from the bathroom. I put on a windbreaker. Wrong choice.
Outside, not only purple-looking blacks are wearing sleeveless undershirts and shorts, but dampness crawls up on walls and bodies, unbearably. There is so much humidity that it’s like a feeling of rain on the skin.
I take 104th St. and walk towards the Hudson River. I cross one, two avenues and get at the inexplicable Riverside Park. It’s a luxurious garden next to red, huge buildings. Anxiously, with fear, I go inside the park. I can see some light and I hear repetitive noises that flow nearby. I go down a grass and earth slope. And I can see the unmistakable riverside and the dark water extending its hands towards me.
There are no birds. The trees sing like silent mermaids and stretch their arms towards the river like dumb, green columns. There are no people. Only the confused breathing of the city. Down there, along the coast drive, thousands of cars go by, anonymously, and they produce the metallic, deep purr of the metropolis.
I look towards the Hudson and I think of the hundreds of men who were swallowed by these gentle, divine waters. I think of Heraclitus and this unsoundable river which the Hudson is and it becomes all the rivers of time; I think of the rundown ships and of the spotless ones that crossed this very way, and of the suicides that jumped to listen to the deep voice of the black bottom of the river, of the god of all the gods that reign in New York.
The Hudson is not a river. It is the silent, anonymous and deep witness of the misadventures of the world. This muddy, kind river, reflects the suicide planes of September 11, on this river the intimate, anonymous quarrels of young lovers can be seen.
The Hudson is not a river. It is an unsoundable trunk which keeps the secrets of the city.
The Hudson is not a river. It is the involuntary mirror of the skyscrapers, of the battles of neon and asphalt, of the defeated, of helicopters, of dogs, of machines, of fears, of the silent victory of the Chinese man who lives thanks to his tiny shop, of the extinction of Little Italy, of emotional outbursts.
The Hudson is not a river. It is a messenger of dawn, the one who brings the deceitful news that the city changes, that life changes, that time remembers the dead and creates the lost time of the living.
The Hudson is not a river. It is the invisible clock that gives me back my face and tells me that I am not facing the Hudson but facing a wall of silence made of water, time and agonies. I am on the Upper West Side and I have only seen one percent of this inaccesible city. I already feel that I am the king of loneliness facing these warm, green and terrible waters of the most beautiful Hudson.
The ferry stops at Liberty Island. But we decide not to land. We think it might be better to get off at Ellis Island. Right we are. I am now at the museum of the immigrants. In those vast halls I can follow the various steps the immigrants had to go through in order to be admitted to the U.S. The narrative of the audio-guide is heartbreaking. Thousands were not admitted. Many died, killed by the Island. A little plot in the ground keeps the pain and the illusions of many foreigners who left their remains in the water.
I sit down in the quiet grove that guards the Island. Close to this place, I think, on Staten Island, the poet and philosopher Henry David Thoreau lived for a short while. Thoreau was a fanatic defender of a return to nature. He strongly criticized the evil effects of civilization upon the human soul and he wrote a defense of peaceful resistance that influenced the policics of the Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi.
After having lived at his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house in Massachusetts, Thoreau lived just across from Manhattan. From the island you can see the cement masses of that marble palace-like jungle. From the little harbor of the island the air thickens and the city that doesn’t sleep becomes wrapped in a foggy halo. The city looks like a mountain of cement with never-ending stairs. It is a Kafkian version of one of Xul Solar’s paintings. From this privileged position, from that invisible lucid camera, Thoreau saw New York. What might young Thoreau have imagined on those nights, close to the muddy water and with the stars overflowing the heavens? Which books did he read on that silent island? Who did Thoreau talk to there, facing the harbor? I think the philosopher came with his theories of civil disobedience right there. Over there, among blind birds and trees besieged by smog, he got the idea for his resistance. Right there, among the future ghosts of the immigrants and the silent stops of the seagulls he got the idea for his resistance for the first time.
Thoreau got tired of looking at Manhattan. He got tired of seeing the same grey and brown face of the buildings and he decided to sink in the countryside and get lost in the meandering ways of living in nature. Thoreau could not put up with the hard blow of masonry and he fled to an island of his own, that intimate green room of the woods.
Variations of New York – extract from «Ciudades escritas» (Eduvim, 2015)
Translation by Eugenia Flores
Photo Credits: Oisin Prendiville
“A menos pensamiento, pensamiento más tiránico y absorbente.” - Miguel de Unamuno