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Motorboating in Harlem

Mar. 24, 2014
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We kept the boat in a knocked-together backwater marina

            down in Edgewater—

a Grady White Pacific Offshore, twenty-one feet

            of mahogany-on-oak, lapstrake hull.

It had seen better days, had sat too long ashore—

            a slew of rotted ribs needed sistering,

            the deck in the bow was shot, the engine worn out—

but over that summer, we got her afloat and running.


We cruised around Manhattan, up the East River,

            down to the Kill van Kull, the Statue of Liberty.

One night, cruising upriver by moonlight,

            playing guitars in the stern, Monica on sax,

the looming towers of the city sparkling like an oversize Oz,

we were passing Spuyten Duyvil—saw that the pivoting

            railroad bridge had been left open,

allowing access to the Harlem River,

so we cruised in, glided downriver,

sounds of breaking glass and distant sirens echoing

            through the dark buildings, the derelict docks,

here and there a stray fire in a steel drum,

            people huddled round.


We motored on, alert, gliding noiselessly,

feeling like a gunboat in Cambodia,

all the way down through Hell Gate,

            careful of the treacherous currents.


In a dark cove, we dropped anchor beside a barge,

            switched the engine off,

the hum of the city a kind of tangible silence,

the glow of Manhattan lighting up the low clouds.


We settled in, jammed around for awhile,

the strumming guitars amplified by the lapping water,

Monica’s sax echoing off the broken glass of deserted warehouses.


Then, from out of the blue, a kid with a sax appeared

            on the barge,

sat with his legs dangling over the side

and began playing along with us, he and Monica trading off

            riffs and solos,

his sax gleaming in the shifting water light.




And this kid could play—leaning into each note—

soulful crooning, disconsolate wails, jubilant snarls.

He was amazing—looked about sixteen—a gangly kid

            in a sweatshirt and torn jeans, eyeglasses and a ‘fro.


When the first rumbles of thunder came—

            the sky suddenly a roiling black menace—

we hauled the anchor up fast, started the engine,

            got underway, lightning flashing.

He stood on the barge and waved, holding his sax high.

We blew the horn, waved back,

a single lightning flash catching his pained expression,

            as if we were the last helicopter out of Saigon.


Back through Hell Gate, we raced, the sky a confusion

            of lightning, thunder rumbling,

our wake a luminous vee widening behind us.

Roaring through Spuyten Duyvil, back into the wide Hudson,

I saw his face in the rain the whole way back,

lit by lightning,

            as in a photo flash.







Timothy Walsh’s most recent poetry collection is When the World Was Rear-Wheel Drive: New Jersey Poems (Main Street Rag Publishing). His awards include the Grand Prize in the Atlanta Review International Poetry Competition, the Kurt Vonnegut Fiction Prize from North American Review, and the Wisconsin Academy Fiction Prize. He is the author of a book of literary criticism, The Dark Matter of Words: Absence, Unknowing, and Emptiness in Literature (Southern Illinois University Press) and two other poetry collections, Wild Apples (Parallel Press) and Blue Lace Colander (Marsh River Editions). Find more at: http://timothyawalsh.com/

On March 30 at 2:00 p.m., Timothy Walsh will be reading with Tom Boswell at Arcadia Books in Spring Green, and on April 3 at 7:00 p.m., Timothy Walsh will be reading with Susan Elbe at Mystery to Me in Madison


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