Early this summer, I was asked by MoMA educator Laura Beiles to write a poem responding to the show Rising Currents for a Modern Poets reading that took place aboard the New York Water Taxi on June 29. When I first walked into the gallery space, I was struck by the measuring sticks painted on the walls, showing how much the water will rise in the next century.
Seeing a mark that indicates how high the water will be in, say, 2080 made the exhibition’s goals particularly vivid and intimate. This idea of measuring the water rising ended up being the backbone for my poem (titled with an image of a ruler underwater), in which a speaker talks to her lover about the water rising at a greatly accelerated rate and—along with other New Yorkers—tries to implement plans to slow the water rising, when it’s already much too late.
I used details from some of the plans in the poem—the retired subway cars, the artificial islands, and the sunken forest (my own bonsai version)—and invented a few others, the least practical of which is, perhaps, the lobster boats piled with biscuits. As a poet, I was very drawn to SCAPE ’s Oyster-Tecture, because linguistically it was so charming. I didn’t manage to get their invented word, “flupsy” (a dual-purpose oyster nursery and raft), into my poem, but I referenced their plan in the “oyster extravaganza”—one of the dioramas that gets washed away at the end of the poem, right before everyone drowns.
Unwedge the ruler you use to prop up your
window and meet me in the street. I’ll bring
the measuring tape curled in the desk drawer
like a sullen snail, and hand in hand, we’ll watch
as the water creeps up an inch, then two.
The river’s a baby, it’s a toddler, it’s grown.
The lecture series never made it past Puddles.
When the water is at our knees, will someone
please pick a plan? Plan A: A fleet of sunken
subway car reefs where fish with oil-clogged gills
can find some relief—hovering in the newly-calm water
as eels coil around silver poles still smeared with
commuters’ coughs and fingerprints. When the water
is at our waists, Plan B: Let loose the artificial islands,
one squirrel per. Also, the giant lilypads and the piles
of ash some of us have been saving for this occasion.
When the water is at our shoulders, the officials will
roll out the boulders and we’ll throw our bonsais in
the river to simulate that underground forest they said
might help—a miniature, misplaced effort, it’s true.
Our codicil to Plan C’s a bust. Years of scrupulous snipping
(my bristly little juniper, your tiny sugar maple) sink
with nary a bubble or clank of ceramic pot hitting rock.
Someone’s child goes bobbing by in a flotation device
made of empty milk jugs and waterwings. A dog, no two, go
under. Now, as the last bit of ice melts and the water laps at
the balconies, I can see in your eyes that it’s too late for Plans D
through Z, the oyster extravaganza, the lobster boats piled with
biscuits, all those dear dioramas with their rescue dramas
and baby-blue waves the size of a doll’s hand, that approach,
but never reach our once-dry land.