The Ghosts of New York Harbor

by Maya Miro Johnson

In A Way,            

it is here that i and this country were born and it is here that we will die but




the harbor smelled nicer than I expected

(or perhaps my nose was bleeding      with the unlearned memory of seasickness)


a smoggy sunset descended upon the water;

her grey-green robes billowed out as waves but

my great-grandmother felt skeptical, as her skirts

were so much the more easily ripped


and what did this tempestuous iron lady know about life in the shtetl

on the street in the ghetto-


-she was much smaller

in stature

than I expected;

an apple-eyed idol bobbing in the breeze with a stern, parochial


yet somehow I felt that she was my mother whether I liked it or not


(such luck with mothers this family has)-


and later, in the stony depths of the city,

among the futurist pines and constructivist elms:


/the asphalt dripped with tar, and עלטער-באָבע, she thought it tasted like honey/

the summer-baked, winter-cracked cement

“would make a fine foundation for dreams”, she supposed,

a dream from which no one could ever be woken by virtue of its iron gates and hellish hounds and chain-locked doors and guarded lunchrooms



what a sheen, from the outside, has this peacock-land!!

[like a beetle]

so that its fleshy gut would not ordinarily be suspected (by anyone but her) of course

for her blindness let her see the truth, though now and again a delusion might slip through,

refracted on

the golden-crested waves, a specter of home

a ghost of the past, a shadow of the future




I blinked my ears against the thrum of the DJ   shouts and whistles and beats and ringtones     we all huddled close to see, a mass bedraggled for different reasons              my concentration was not to be

broken       as I contemplated my privilege underneath the sun from which I refused to protect my eyes out of fear that I might miss some sad little wave from lady liberty

A nod of recognition

A vague salute to my plight to remember

[In the                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   midst

              of so many distractions]


the sense of fear and exhilaration and relief

in one’s bloodied mouth                 – what do teeth taste like, I’ve always wondered –


I noticed there were no seagulls, though their feathers litter the water;

I now suspect they have been relocated for the duration of our visit


But what an acrid haziness has come over me,

                An embryonic warmth, generated by generations of dead bodies rising up elevators

80 flights

To the crematorium of dreams               souls released fly out as pigeons, dybbuks inhabiting the ambitions of young stars, singers, and sergeants


Roosting in the metropolitan opera house and the attic of the guggenheim

Hidden in the coughing, cemented maze                              a mural



this smog-suffused sunset becomes my Sistine chapel

This was her stainedglasswindow- her first and last and only-

And her Madonna, a jaded matron wielding fire:

I have been anointed by the salt-water spray of her torch

It has set my mind ablaze, each potentiality of past a spark


99 years and more than 23 chromosomes later,

we extend out our right root from the edge of the gangplank (prepared to feel the magma-infused rattle of the sewers beneath our feet)

–      disembarking, it’s called-  


And feel a yank




Something will always hold her by the nape of the neck:

Perhaps? she was first plucked from the womb that way by some insensitive Polish doctor onehundred27yearsagototheday


For me, instead: a twinge at the meeting of the shoulder blades,

like a loosened leash-

I was compelled to turn and look back at the scene which came before me in the darkening evening and which will come after me on some brilliant, crowded morning: the only thing one should never do when




And I, by the realization of the pearly bones that cling to the bottom of the

sticky-slick oil-sickened sea

Was stupefied




I set off on my greyhound stallion

Into not the sunset but the twilight, surrounded by iron-winged, steel-tinged trees

With the same sense of hopefulness that

mirka masha mary platov platoff rashinski roshinskaya

Would have dreamt of feeling



Also on a creaking boat






 how can I

or god                                        be hopeful

  when we already know


how it ends…