Monthly Archives: February 2012

Poems from El Yunque

Puerto Rico

time arcs wildly
over brackets of relativity
a roar ’round corners
every last inch alive

-descending el yunque

summit

3526 ft.

shutter to be here
vaporous earth bump

air upon air upon water upon air
nature or self keeping from standing
the maelstrom arrayed to topple within

saying hello now
as close as can get
no more up to clamor to be found.
cause and effect dissolve into nearness
and maybe it’s true
i always knew you.

21 years of having to wait.

Amsterdam! Amsterdam!

To a vast number of people, the name “Amsterdam” conjures up visions of a rampant emporium of drugs and sex.  Rest assured, the vice is here in ample supply, but if you have even a tad of interest beyond getting royally knackered in a red-light district, then it will be clear to you that there’s so so much more going for this city.

Amsterdam is a grande dame of sorts – sophisticated in taste, and refined by prosperous centuries.  However, despite having impeccable table manners, she hasn’t forgotten how to be warm and precocious – to get down on the floor and play with the kids a bit.

It is appropriate then that Amsterdam has been a mother city:  a mother of modern capitalism, a mother of tolerance, a mother of the modern republic, and for a New Yorker, still fondly remembered as the mother city of NYC.

Begijnhof of Amsterdam

It’s a proud city- full of life, confidence, positivity and openness – a rare place of  “live and let live”- Though, truth be told, like any metropolis, it’s not without its downsides.  Organized crime has taken hold of the town’s legal vice “industry”, most heinously in the red light district, where it engages in human trafficking and exploitation.  And, for all the city’s openness, I know of someone who was attacked on the street because he was gay.  Bad things happen everywhere, unfortunately.

The neighborhood around the train station is best missed. This is where the unadventurous, hedonistic day-trippers hang out:  Stumble off the train, get stoned, get laid, come-to in the morning and stumble back on the train.  On weekends, mobs of drunken, young, British men make a zoo of his area.

The further one heads into the tangles of street and rings of canal, the more even-keeled the place becomes – hidden little squares of book sellers, cloistered medieval convents, the famous Bloemenmarkt (tulips!), stately churches, modest cafes and bars, and of course, the magnificent houses of the Golden Age’s well-to-do.

It’s an ambling sort of city – no straight lines, no hard angles – even the old mansions lean forward slightly to facilitate the hauling up of goods to upper-floor storerooms.  The canals wrap around the cityscape in tree-lined ribbons of water.  Without the canals, the city would be impossibly cramped and dark – The presence of so much water gives the place gills –  breathing room and light.

(Speaking of canals, someone has to clean them, especially all the bikes that fall in)

Bikes dominate the streets here. When you see them piled up in squares or along canal fences, tangled all together, it's not hard to think that Amsterdam might have more bikes than residents. No one locks them up, because everyone has one. In order to recognize theirs among all the others, some cyclists take to decorating their vehicles in unique ways. When they move, they move in swarms, plying the streets silently, ready to take down the next clueless pedestrian, tram, or car.

Quiet conversation emerges from cafes and weed smoke occasionally wafts from a coffeeshop.  The daytime is certainly not lazy, but definitely not hectic.

Amsterdam, in general, is full of sensuality, but the night bears it especially well.  In one venerable sidestreet bar, old men may be drinking jenever, and in another place, ramshackle bookshelves and colorful art may line the walls…  The streets themselves are an enticing labyrinth by night, with lights reflecting off the canals, and hundreds of dark nooks.  And the red light district…

De Wallen has been catering to the carnality of the waterfront for centuries.  It’s a strange spectacle – women writhing in windows, while hundreds gawk in curiosity and desire.  The scene is made all the more surreal by the tower of Oude Kerk (built 1306)  looking down from on-high.  This is the heart of the old city, and nearby also stand De Waag, Nieuwmarkt, and other medieval locales.

Not far from here is the Begijnhof, a line of homes surrounding a large courtyard completely cut off from the rest of the city.  Dating from some time around the Black Death, it was a home for widowed and single women of the church who, while not sequestered nuns, did charitable works and took vows of chastity.  When we passed through, the morning before leaving, there was a soprano duo singing at the altar of the church here – –  piano and crystal clear singing.  Sobering and sublime.

(SCROLL DOWN FOR A HISTORY OF AMSTERDAM)

Amsterdam had one of the greatest runs in history.  It’s a relatively new city- settled around the 1200’s, when the Amstel River was dammed.  (The place of “The Dam” still exists).  It remained relatively obscure for a few centuries, and so, was never a center of Medieval culture, and thus, never firmly established the feudal institutions and extreme religion of that age.

The city didn’t rise to prominence until after 1588, when the Dutch Republic drove out the Spanish Empire during the Eighty Years War.  As the first modern Republic, it was not bound by a totalitarian religious and political regime.  Its policy of relative religious freedom drew in Europe’s misfits- Huguenots, Jews, and traders and artists driven out of the cities of Southern Netherlands (modern Belgium), especially from the formerly prosperous Antwerp.

Its policy of free trade inspired the city to become an economic powerhouse- the first major mercantile city of the Modern era.  It spread its influence far and wide, establishing bases and colonies in Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas.  At its height, it was the most prosperous city on Earth.  The magnitude of the city’s wealth at this time can still be seen along the canal rings, where the houses of the merchant class still stand proudly.  Its stock market, founded in 1602, is the oldest continually operating exchange in the world.  Accordingly, it was also an intellectual and artistic center of Europe- the home of painters such as Rembrandt, and philosophers such as Spinoza.

In 1609, the Dutch West India Company, one of two major arms of Dutch trade, hired the English explorer, Henry Hudson, to find a northerly route to Asia.  Instead, he found the American river that still bears his name.  In 1624, on an island where that river meets the sea, a colony was established called New Amsterdam, which eventually became a city that had its own unprecedented run in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Dutch only held New Amsterdam for a few decades, but the similarities between the mother and its child are striking.  Historical Amsterdam is huddled around a ring of canals and has a bustling, congested feel, full of pedestrians, trams, cars, and bicycles darting here and there.  In its heyday, the city was the preeminent commercial city of the world, much as New York was in its prime.  Amsterdam drew the misfits of the world under a spirit of openness, much like NYC has done.  As an artistic and intellectual center, it is home to world-class museums and orchestras, as well as ambitious and successful artists.  The two cities also draw a constellation of tourists.

sunset birds – San Juan

sunset birds
a gathering collective
a glance of breeze
two be one
 a meeting of minds
and alone together
an old house in a new world.

please bless us
us who sit in  the changing light
and hope for all hopes
that serenity comes to those
who dream.

and us who strain in all that longs
for peace to grace those who
 refuse to leave the light

-san juan rooftop, feb. 15, 2008

If you arrive in Old San Juan in the middle of the night, with men sleeping on the dark silent sidewalks and the smell of piss in the dank air, the first morning is brilliant.

Old San Juan

Bright sky and the comforting blanket of vegetal heat.  Color splashes everywhere – aquamarine water, shaded gardens, sea-weathered walls, and pastel on every building in sight.   The green carpet of El Morro’s vast Campo.  The paving stones, carried over as ballast on colonial Spanish ships, are a metallic blue.

The smell of coffee and breakfast pepper the air, mixing with the scent of sea and earth.

The city was founded only 16 years after Columbus’s first voyage, by Juan Ponce de León, the man who searched for the Fountain of Youth.  For centuries, it was a stopover on the Spanish galleon routes, and an occasional target of English pirates and privateers.  In testament to the city’s former stature,  Old San Juan is surrounded by a wall and protected by two mighty forts.

Castillo San Felipe del Morro

Evening in San Juan is golden light, ice cream, and cigars in parks.  The breeze becomes sublime as the sun drops in glorious orange and yellow.

Night in San Juan is music and life.  Restaurants overflow.  Teenagers fill corner stores, drinking rum punch from “Capri-sun” pouches.  Salsa pours out of the Nuyorican Cafe, bomba y plena from hidden bars and at outdoor parties.  (Bomba y plena is a precursor to salsa using a variety of hand percussion and call-response singing.  It is not so much performed as played communally.  The dancing interacts intimately with the rhythm and the melodies are thrillingly hypnotic.)

At the impromptu party on the waterfront, cake is passed out liberally to guests and by-standers alike.  The experience of San Juan is not observational.  When you’re here, you become a part of the town’s fabric.

Rum is everywhere.  Bacardi, of course, but also del Barrilito, Palo Viejo, Don Q, and scores of others fill supermarket shelves and stock bars.  They well fuel mojitos – but it’s most tasty on the rocks, as in Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary.

Frozen in the 18th century – New Castle, Delaware

Hidden away only 5 miles or so from the I-95 artery of the East Coast, the small town of New Castle, Delaware (pop. ~ 5000) has more colonial buildings packed into it than any other American town I know of.  Not a single structure within the historic center seems to have been put up after the 19th century, and never have I seen so many pre-Revolution buildings so immaculately intact in one area. The only things in town that look of this century are the cars and the people. Most of the streets retain their original paving stones, and especially since it’s such a quiet place, it really is easy to forget Modernity..

What is best about New Castle, though, is that it’s an actual town and not a museum piece as many other colonial areas have become.  Regular families inhabit the centuries-old houses, and people still frequent pubs that have remained largely unchanged since the 18th century. One can still visit the house where, in around 1680, William Penn supposedly spent his first night in America, the homes of two signers of the Declaration of Independence, a house where the Marquis de Lafayette attended a wedding, and the modest 1832 ticket booth for the New Castle-Frenchtown Railroad, which was the 2nd railroad built in the United States.

Dutch House, built late 1600's

Founded by the Dutch West India Company’s Peter Stuyvesant (whose more famous post was that of governor of New Amsterdam), its strategic location on the Delaware River meant that it changed hands a number of times in its early days- the main players, of course, were the Dutch and the English, but surprisingly it was also controlled for some time by the Swedish, who once held a bit of sway in this region. In fact, the Old Courthouse, built in 1732 (and one of the oldest still standing in the country) still flies the Swedish flag. Its situation and initial influence had New Castle poised to become a city of some significance. However, despite having one of the first railroads, sometime around the mid 19th century,  the main freight routes shifted to Wilmington and the town stopped completely in its tracks.  It failed to keep up with industrialization and missed the train, so to speak-

Immanuel Church, built 1703; Nighttime in New Castle is dead-quiet.

And this is where the town just froze in time. A more upward moving town would have destroyed its old buildings as it marched into the modern age. A town with less initial influence and history would have receded into poverty.  New Castle, however, just stayed right where it was, and largely remains there today, even as millions of travelers on the highways bypass it by with only miles to spare, completely unaware.

Old Courthouse, built 1732. Delaware's round border with Pennsylvania and Maryland is an arc that was surveyed along a 12 mile radius from the top.

Immanuel Church, built 1703

Immanuel Church

Jessup's Tavern - If I remember correctly, this building was once used to make sails in the early 1700's, then became a tavern sometime before the Revolution, which it has remained ever since. Fun patrons and lots of good stuff on tap here

Amstel House, ca. 1730

Old Library, built 1892

Van Dyke House, site of an 1824 wedddng at which the Marquis de Lafayette accompanied the bride to her marriage.

along the Delaware River