I Speak of the City: Ernesto Cardenal

It doesn’t take long to get from Grand Central Station to 125th on the Metro-North and the brisk elevated run from the heart of Midtown up to Harlem can be real pretty at times. But if you’ve ever hung around Park & E96, what in my recollection of Manhattan was the Mason-Dixon line between the Upper East Side and El Barrio, it goes from pretty to pretty-fucked-up real quick. Again, this is the NYC of the 80s and 90s, right before the ole dilapidated brownstones became fixer uppers and Harlem started getting carved up by the real estate speculators.

Still, I’m thinking the areas around the Metro-North tracks probable haven’t changed much. Walking trough the narrow granite pathways under the tunnels was always an adventure for me. If an unfriendly face popped up on the other side, do you quicken your pace or try to mug a mean face? And if you start hearing more footsteps behind ya, do you look back in fear or just get ready to bolt at the first sound of real trouble?

The closer ya got to 125, past the remnants of the Marqueta of better community times, the worse it would get as seedy motels would start poppin up and the few homes still left around looked like crack dens.

So I’m wondering if times have changed or is it still the way Ernesto Cardenal brilliantly portrays it in this poem? Does so much history happen and wash away in the same second? Do folks still prefer to walk past the scene of the crime and wait to read about it later? Do we let the lights of Midtown wash out what’s right in front of us? And if we stop and look, do we really want to see what’s around us?

It’s always tough asking these “we” questions when I know I won’t be returning to NYC anytime soon but I think about the BART and how its shadow hides so much. Those spots where it’s tunnels find their way back into the ground and how in my rush to get to where I need to be, I seem to be missing out on the real Bay Area.

Star Found Dead on Park Avenue

The bolts of lightning woke me up
like the noise of furniture being moved and rolled across a floor upstairs
and later like millions of radios
or subway trains
or bomber planes
and it seemed that all the thunderbolts in the world
were hitting the lightning rods of the skyscrapers in New York
and they stretched from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine to the Times Building
                Speak not to us, Lord. Speak not to us lest we die
from the Woolworth Tower to the Chrysler Building
and the flashes were lighting up the skyscrapers like photographers
                Let Moses speak to us.
                Speak not to us, Lord, lest we die
“He probably died last night around 3 a.m.”
the New York Times later said.
I was awake then. The lightning woke me up.
The sky made starry by apartments and bathrooms
the lights of lawful and illicit love affairs
and of people praying, or robbing a safe right upstairs
or raping a girl as a radio plays full blast
or masturbating, or not being able to sleep
and people getting undressed (and drawing their curtains)
And the noise from the 3rd Avenue El
and the trains that come out of the ground at 125th Street
and go back down again,
a bus stopping and starting at a corner
(in the rain), the scream, perhaps, of a woman in the park,
and the wailing of ambulances in the empty streets
or the red fire engines for all we know speeding to our own address
“…His body was found by Max Hilton, the artist,
who told police he found him on the bathroom floor,
the floor’s pattern pressed into his wet cheek
and he was still clutching a vial of white pills in his hand,
and in the bathroom a radio was playing full blast
no station at all.”

© Ernesto Cardenal
from With Walker in Nicaragua and Other Early Poems, 1949-1954 translated by Jonathan Cohen

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