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Anton Kisselgoff Photography

Signing the Kills

That might have been me, the boy you saw
walking below the smokestacks. All night
he crossed the bridges between boroughs,
hitch-hiked rides beneath the rivers.
He stood spread-eagle in the silver webbing
on a dare that came across the airwaves
of his own voice, climbed Hail Mary
up the ladder of enormous cylinders,
fuel tanks and water towers, sprayed
the several syllables of invented names,
tagged overpasses and the underbellies
of train trestles. He walked until it seemed
his voice could mimic even the sound
of shoes slipping on roadside gravel,
the belt rubbing skin on his hips, the straps
of his singlet, the chain clinking against
the Saint Christopher he still believed in.
He baited pigeons and seagulls to play
Saint Francis and he would have tagged them
too, if they’d come. He walked until morning
smoke clouded the stars above the Kills
and doused the distant city’s lights.
He tossed the rattling empty spray-can
and walked until he couldn’t be distracted.
He walked until that voice was finally quiet.
He walked until those slow clouds started
to billow like offerings at matins and he
was emissary of a generous silence.


Anton Kisselgoff Photography

Mike Devlin

The dairy light, he called it, in any weather
when he delivered—fog eddies from Arthur Kill,
sun half an hour high over Merck, the morning
divided by smokestack. Temper’s teacup, a man’s
no more than a punter’s error, he liked to say.
He hummed “Ave Maria” through the baritone
kazoo of tracheotomy, circus shadow
of his church choir tenor; for kids, he buzzed
the Yankee Doodle like electric razor
or flexed his arm and blackened ship tattoos
dropped anchor under a war wound’s purple chop.

After the dairy cut his route, he became our oldest
paper-boy. Sack slung around his shoulder
and cradled like a headless cello, we saw him
more often, his walk an economic waltz.
Warm afternoons, he propped a shoe-shine box
beneath the awnings of Truppa’s deli, bullied tips
from all his customers. He slipped his gauze,
pulled the patch off his blow-hole, neck-smoked
a hot-boxed Camel to win the hardest cases.

The night Mike died, men emptied out of Pete’s:
Knights, Vets, Legionnaires, Sons of Italy. They parked
a phonograph on the fire-escape and played
his seventy-eights. Crackling Irish tenors
rose along rusted, ivy-covered slats, zigzag
ladder and window grills, to sing us to sleep.
Later bottles dropped, a pipe burst, the record player
smashed in the alley. Beat-cops broke it up
before morning twilight, his old delivery hour.


Anton Kisselgoff Photography


And the LORD said to Satan, Behold, he is in your hand.
The Book of Job (6: 2)

I. Comforter to Job

Silt the kills with creek-bed sand
when morning branches from tree of heaven

Catch crab apples floating tidal wash
cordgrass cattail and the common reed

Vault trolley car cables flattened barges
gray caboose with rusted couplings

Start shorebirds from their hidden nests
or wind-cropped birch and stunted locust

Dry cattail punks on rotting docks
the tarpaper roofs of pilot shacks

Span bars and flats and brackish streams
the spits and shoals and marshwort strands

Pass oil tank farms and leaning beams
kill-bottoms dredged for sunken cars

Cross railroad yards where flatbeds haul
median blocks bulkhead slabs and loader cranes

Scale caving roofs of gutted mills
the paint factory’s empty window frames

Stand evenings under broken skylights
where elder bends and spike grass grows

II. An Audience

Pick up a rifle—wrist rocket—or just a rock—
for God’s sake, knock me down mid-air. These kills
are filled and bilked. I’ve flown over the smoke

like kingfisher come for morning offerings,
more flights from Newark, tower lights, and lights
which blink in answer on the airplane’s wings,

and ringing the city’s throat, or girding its waist—
its gilded waste—a whole necklace of lights,
a belt of tiny bird hearts, in turn replaced

by one rude stone, the sun rising through mist
behind the harbor. There’s no relief in drink.
Drag me through cattail punks, tie my wrists

to gun racks, ankles to pick-up bumpers and quarter
me—lay me down in landfill, marshwort take
me under, weigh me down while suckers plunder

flesh from my arms and legs, nibble my toes—
just toss the undertow whatever’s left.
And where I come to rest, let thistles grow

instead of barley, cockle instead of grass.
He sees my ways and counts my steps—He gives
no answer—though it’s all I’ve ever asked.

III. Answer to Job

Have you kept watch beyond the skyline of blue fires
rippling from steel towers, squat brick chimneys
belching jetties of yellow smoke, the networks
of PVC pipe and signal lights, train tracks
and bridges, tug-boat docks and loading cranes?

Have you conjured kelp from the rivermouth, steelheads
to swim the canal’s still water, turtles to amble over car doors
and batteries? Have you towed horseshoe crabs in your wake,
the silvering over at evening, grey-backed wingspan of herons
landing, low-tide along the marshwort strand, rose-lit and blinking?

Where were you when I carted sleep through the kills?
When I rode horseback, did you canter up the river path
and circle the refinery? Have you shied at the lights
of chimney fires, reared up and been bridled? Can you
wake men when they’re strapped to your back like saddles?

Do you rust girders of Leviathan plants with rain you
drive from the sky, tide you draw up past sinking barges?
Who can stand before me? And who will wade the kills to jimmy
factory doors, start old assembly lines, who fix gutted
walls, caving roofs, when everything under the sky is mine?

IV. Settling Up

I’ll wear self-loathing like sacking sewn from weeds.
I’ll cake my face with mud, the foulest grit,
killbottom silt. The road I’ll hitch exceeds
the Turnpike’s reach. I’ll cross Route One and slit
some dragon’s throat, blood-soak the old stone paving
on Saint George Avenue. Crows will circle, raving.

Wait. Highways, billboards and oil drums, the raw
lamplight around refineries, the distillery
with towers flaming, lovely, deadly—you see
(though beautiful at night) they’re less than straw.

Brooks, rivers, creeks wash inland seas with silt
and chem-plant seep. But I am a tide which fills
the empty spaces. I spread beyond the kills;
I come like water, restoring where you’ve built.