Crossing Brooklyn Ferry: An Elegy
Published on Saturday, December 15, 2001 by Common Dreams
Crossing Brooklyn Ferry: An Elegy
by Eric Wertheimer
As Walt Whitman often liked to do, one evening in the mid-1850s, he joined the rush hour crowds to make the journey across New York Harbor, a habit that gave him awing views of the great city.  In the middle of his beloved public, workers of all types, he reveled in the ways history might be made to speak in the idioms of everyday life.  Taking in the awesome skyline of Manhattan, the ships, the sea-gulls, the water, the boat itself, he later produced his psalm not only to the heroism of commuting, but to the places we move to and from, places which are both physical and temporal.  "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" is that psalm, and its lyrics seem to speak to the collossal absence we feel in the sights of September 11, 2001. 

What is it then between us?
What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?

Whatever it is, it avails not -- distance avails not, and place avails not,
I too lived, Brooklyn of ample hills was mine,
I too walk'd the streets of Manhattan island, and bathed in the waters around it,
I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me,
In the day among crowds of people sometimes they came upon me,
In my walks home late at night or as I lay in my bed they came upon me,
I too had been struck from the float forever held in solution

Rather than offer silence to the statesmen, as Yeats would have it, we ought to insist-as progressives, as artists, as scholars, as people of faith-on hearing poetry now.  Because now, in moments of great pain when nations seek to gather their voices and de-pluralize them, is when language is most burdened, most distorted, most cynically employed.  Whitman advises us to perceive the "evil" in each of us, to remember that those who we might not know are more like us than we might admit.  

It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall,
The dark threw its patches down upon me also,
The best I had done seem'd to me blank and suspicious,
My great thoughts as I supposed them, were they not in reality meagre?
Nor is it you alone who know what it is to be evil,
I am he who knew what it was to be evil,

I too knitted the old knot of contrariety....

Surely there is a nationalist register in the poem, but it is the kind that progressives need to hear and echo in these moments.  We need to recognize that the people who died and those who work to rescue them are the citizens of a democracy, the very catalogue of culture and class, not of centers of corporate trade.  They died working in a society that finds some of its best emblems in the artifice and the scenes of modern cities.  Whitman does not celebrate the commerce and finance generated by the skyline, he sees the labor that made it.  This is the democracy that seems to get lost in the grind of daily commutes and in the crush of enormous collapsing towers, not to mention the misrepresentations of the conservative media.  But Whitman's solution is still floating near the mass grave that is lower Manhattan.  Poets can remind us what to do with what we've seen--to not let death leave us speechless, to think ahead into life, to look into an absence and somehow see our friends, and our history.

Appearances, now or henceforth, indicate what you are,
You necessary film, continue to envelop the soul,
About my body for me, and your body for you, be hung out divinest aromas,
Thrive, cities -- bring your freight, bring your shows, ample and sufficient rivers,
Expand, being than which none else is perhaps more spiritual,
Keep your places, objects than which none else is more lasting.

You have waited, you always wait, you dumb, beautiful ministers,
We receive you with free sense at last, and are insatiate henceforward,
Not you any more shall be able to foil us, or withhold yourselves from us,
We use you, and do not cast you aside -- we plant you permanently within us,
We fathom you not -- we love you -- there is perfection in you also,

You furnish your parts toward eternity,

Great or small, you furnish your parts toward the soul.


Eric Wertheimer is an Assistant Professor of American Studies at Arizona State University West and the author of Imagined Empires (Cambridge University Press, 1998).