Sometimes with you I still feel that noose,
the striped blue tie of the Catholic schoolboy,
and my own footsteps haunt me, following
close behind, the squeak, squeak, squeak-shoosh
of cheap black shoes with plastic soles—I'm
trooping down the locker-trussed hall again.
Sister played local Agnes, habit dropped
straight from shoulder to knee, double
mastectomy. Her lectures against the senses
spread seeds under the manure I'd sown,
and I left her office blowing trumpet flowers,
lashed to promises of Easter's morning glory.
So what if the sun's gone down and mid-life's
blankets hum? Turn off the TV, come to bed—
there's no relief for schoolmates I've undone.
My wife likes to call Jersey the old country. Peterstown, Elizabeth, Price Street and Seminary Ave. in Rahway—that's it for you, she says. The old country. She's more than half serious. I grew up there with my mother's family from Sicily. Cusumanos, Catalanos, Frangiamores and Federicos. As it is with other émigrés, my old country, my New Jersey, is gone, colonized by time and change, made unrecognizable by a tyrant present. I wasn't around to see it happen. To observe without noticing. I go back as often as I can, but I'm a shade there, almost as out of place as I am in Sicily, even though I visit family in both places. Before Elizabeth and Rahway, we're from Agrigento, Akragas, a former Greek, then Roman colony. According to my grandfather, our family house of worship began as an altar for Phoenecian traders, others from the Eastern Mediterranean, some of the earliest visitors to the island. Later the Greeks raised a temple around that altar, offered their own sacrifices there. The temple was rededicated by the Romans, consecrated as a church after Constantine Christianized the empire, converted to a mosque in the time of Arab rule, and re-transmogrified into a Roman Catholic church under the Normans. Even if it is in the old old country, I pass many days feeling very much like that building.
W. 10th & W. 4th Streets
With money charmed from Liberty Island crowds
performing skateboard stunts—long taxi-vaults
over a line of garbage cans I'd lie across—
we drank cold beer from paper bags, followed
the deli's shade past rusted window grills
and fire escape, climbed ivy-covered ladder—
and jubilant blessed the pier, the dock, the silver
and orange dusk, the living movie-stills,
clean-cut boys in jeans, white T-shirts, chic or klepht
transvestites—their kitten heels, leather boots—hiked up
from Christopher Street, and making every stoop
a Path-Train stop we praised pedestrian life:
unlikely spot—glory to its Spartan grass—
where even parallel lines might meet and cross.
JOHN HENNESSY is the author of two collections of poetry, Coney Island Pilgrims and Bridge and Tunnel, and his work appears in many journals and anthologies, including Best American Poetry 2013, The Believer, Poetry, The New Republic, The Huffington Post, and The Yale Review. In 2007-2008 he held the Resident Fellowship in Poetry at the Amy Clampitt House. Hennessy is the poetry editor of The Common, a new print magazine based at Amherst College, and teaches at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.