Ellis Island



Neighborhood: Ellis Island

Ellis Island
Photo by Karri Ojanen

The following sonnets are excerpted from Robert Viscusi’s forthcoming book, Ellis Island, which will be published in March 2013 by Bordighera Press. Random arrangements of lines from the 624 sonnets that comprise this epic work can be discovered via the Random Sonnet Generator at ellisislandpoem.com. This is the first time these poems have appeared as written by the author.


i have been thinking how they designed the place
as a ritual entrance into the imaginary universe
using the masonic formulae for a rite that would change you

did they mean it as a spectacle of purification
they wanted to quiet the fears of nativists
who feared infection as if it were as evil as cheap labor

or did they mean to work magic on all these calibans
he immigration police played prospero and used masonic spells
to tame and to tag the incoming flocks of workers

living organisms the immigration service saw as homer saw armies
generations of leaves flash brightest on the trees just before they die
important to ship efficiently off to farms and mining camps

this jeffersonian church could rename a parish priest a son of liberty
and a figment of the continent’s imaginings

in the piazza of singing and dancing we sit listening to the band
eating and drinking all look different if you fall in love
are you ready to inhabit another country altogether

you came to ellis island to leave your thousand dried out selves
at ellis island you forswear the personal past
the entire ritual consists of dismissing objections

the old rules of europe dissolve in the salt of the harbor
spend the rest of your lives telling each other what they were
and you still will remember nothing of what they meant

you remove your coat pulling the thick zipper one tooth at a time
you remove each sleeve separately there are twenty zippers
at last you lay the heavy mantle on the sand

now you disappear into the air of the brilliant bay
the air like the water has its own laws its own domain

i need to pursue a certain task but i itch all over
no reason to stop now you shriek the water is over the dam
a pause slowly becomes the void against which you make each gesture

who knows what the nature of meaning is as you turn into a bubble
hey I thought this was a concrete anchor you shout flying off
at the landing platform after these trips you eat lots of popcorn

now another sack of loosely tangled bodies falls gasping to shore
praise jesus after leaving for work or do so during the acid shower
anyway rituals of cleansing often do get things cleaner than before

you walk down the center of the room your arms out balancing sides
you bow to the center and then to the sides and the front and back
unpack your bag and dispose every item in it and then replace them

even brief adjustments of these small things make huge differences
going from place to place you perform these rites of arrival

parrots have colonized brooklyn college and the tree lined side streets
they have the green a leaf has as a shaft of light shifts between two shadows
turning the corner I heard a raucous dispute emerging from a lofty maple thicket

slowly i approached the sound and stood looking up at the cloud of squawking
green confused abundant early summer did not want to reveal them to me
but eventually i saw five or six hover conversing under and over a single branch

they live on the tops of mercury lamp stanchions alpine over the playing fields
each nest holds many of these tropical birds who control the flowering campus
cherry lilac magnolia elm and chestnut walnut weeping pine and bitter apple
they investigate the flowering cabbages in december and they never go away
what were they saying among the maples where avenue i meets ocean avenue

the young who have not seen alligators or tree frogs believe nothing he says
they believe god made brooklyn college and made them with it

Novelist and poet, Robert Viscusi is a professor of English at Brooklyn College and Director of the Ethyle R. Wolfe Institute for the Humanities. He received the American Book Award in 1996 for his novel, Astoria

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