from Beloved Young


Thinking of Ellen on Cornelia Street

Ellen’s dying, Nan’s friend from childhood,

and since we’re visiting the city we’ll see her,

though I’m dreading it, if she’s thin and frail,

unable to walk these streets.  Unable

to visit on the Cape this summer.  If it were me

would I find it harder to leave this city forever

or the ocean?  Manhattan, I think.

Because the ocean’s endless anyway,

while these sidewalks and doorways

promise entertainment.  From Perry Street,

on our way to the movies, we pass new-planted flowers

passers-by with dogs are urged to respect.

In the film, a beautiful woman thinks life

is best at deluxe hotels and shops.  She sleeps

with older men for their credit cards.  But the city’s

more than glitz.  So modestly glamorous!

These brownstones out of Henry James

cost fortunes beyond imagining.  But see—

they go up for sale!  The cord is loosed,

the vessel lies broken.  While here everything’s

blooming.  Our friend Ellen is dying.

On Mondays people come to sing with her,

so many they have to stand out in the hallway.

Singing, her first love.  We’ll be there on Monday. 

She once taught us “Big Tom is Cast”

and “Don’t Throw Your Trash in My Back Yard”—

rounds we used to practice on our little boat

to pass the time when the wind was mild,

songs we’ll sing forever—“forever”

as applied to ourselves.  But our daughter

will teach them to her child, who loves to sing—

little Zoe, with her excellent memory.

We’d like to bring her along someday,

to get to know this city and its streets,

so I’m glad not all of them are numbered,

like uptown, where Ellen is dying, on 111th.

Here we have Barrow, and Jones, and Christopher

and Leroy, and Bleecker, all streets

named for people who lived way back,

maybe on farms.  And Cornelia Street?

Did the property owner name it for a wife, or a daughter,

or even for a stranger, who stayed with him

only for the sake of his money?  Cornelia!—

so far away now, on some endless sea . . .

while here they’re digging up the pavement,

and the leaves flicker aloft in the gingko trees.

“Thinking of Ellen on Cornelia Street” was originally published in Southern Review.

cover art:  Zoe in the Bedroom, oil on panel