5 Poems
by Russell Jaffe

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American Museum of Natural History on the Ptolemaic Upper West Side

There is an easy-access elevator, but the path of evolution
spins on a ramp and is covered in pictures of eras, dust, voids

and something like ice cream,
like the kind in the pushcarts ringing outside
swirling like it’s fallen on the sidewalk as bird feathers

turn white and grey and molt in spirals to the sidewalks,
blow away, and are covered in snow, salt, then ice,
and then back to the beginning again: this time a carcass in the street people point at,

she universe was filled homogeneously and isotropically
with an incredibly high energy density, huge temperatures and pressures, and was very rapidly expanding and cooling, even now in winter.

After the big bang, a phase transition caused a cosmic inflation,
the universe grew exponentially and instantaneously.
After inflation stopped, the universe consisted of a quark-gluon plasma, as well as all other elementary particles, so I’m pretty grateful for that.

There’s more matter than anti-matter in the universe these days
and I’m hungry to eat dessert, and I don’t care if it’s cold outside
because we can eat ice cream if we want,

and the museum is filled with Italian families and Japanese families
speaking quickly and pointing at things, and the Upper West Siders
collectively look a few neurons past them, just enough to scrape by

and talk about how they aren’t New Yorkers and will never get it.
They wouldn’t try something off the street because they know a great place.
They step away from the masses of birds at the short starting line of winter.

They draw themselves away from the unknown matter that expands outwards.
They are a superhot mass ready to blow but quietly holding on, and then
they are a 10 second transition of a universe no one quite gets.

I would be interested to know more about it but not live there,
and I would be willing to eat something so cold and unexpected,
but you should probably know that

I’m allergic to the
the cosmic dust at the
core of creation.

Bay Ridge

When we first came here, everything was many years behind,
and we liked being thrown off. We left Chicago in my car right
after breakfast. After dinner, we wandered around
as we got fuller, our eyes gleaned garbage bag street corners and our
stomachs ached. I will say the drive back through New Jersey was
like the glass of water before bedtime, which was dry and then ineffable,
spiraling from the sink to my gullet and back to the toilet, and the process
was like the way the city itself came pouring out like a multi-course meal
and slammed to the table, only to be drawn back again. We were going to
move to Bay Ridge. When I first saw it, I knew, my mouth and teeth hurt.
I used every limbic portion of sense memory to lick what remained of the bowl;
you only remember the good, which is why the dessert portion comes at the end.
I would have pulled off the highway if it hadn’t been for
the expansive density of the city, like a carrot cake
behind a shop window. The moist air blew in sweet notes
from the sea, Staten Island’s best gathered around the docks
near an ice cream truck to watch the barges pass the Statue of Liberty.
Old Russians with their fishing poles in the water slept next to buckets
of dead worms, their fingers beery and oily, their hats dangled off their
heads as the surf dusted the planks beneath their thousand year old shoes.
The guide book said the culture here is rich, little notes of languages
quicker and jauntier, thicker and more mixed in. Little men with poppy seed
mustaches, women with crinkled wrapper headscarves.
These are berries in the center, mixed, a fruit salad which adorns the table
as much as it adds a validation to something that isn’t good for you, but
something –love, a dream of a career, being young, or bored, or just not
thinking, or thinking way too much—tells you to keep eating and keep
ingesting, and if you do, you will get a stomach ache before bedtime quiet
time and you’ll need a glass of water, the regulation of your own patterns,
and out my kitchen window you can see the Statue of Liberty.
Beyond that, on a clearer day, the walls of Manhattan’s exterior are syrupy
on their reflective glass faces, and crunchy on the inside. Their tied and shirted
workers are building their own miniature identities in frosted comb. On most other
days, smog’s like window panes.

Ingredients of sorts

-Location: Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, NYC. Winter afternoon.
-I’m careful not to present something as a portrait.
-Crumpled wrappers in grates, I walk to the Korean market on 72nd and 3rd where
-the fluorescent lights are on when it’s sunny outside
-and the sun’s a lot sharper when it’s cold.
-The vegetables, rich as freshly spray painted walls.
-A man in a gray coat outside sprays lush red arrows onto the streets
-where piles of rocks form the construction.
-But I am trying to find the grass of early spring poking through the rocks
-though they are heavy.
-The light in the apartments
-makes the air soupier.
-Steaming pots of vegetables leave me feeling waxy around them,
-like their smell beads off me, like their water lands gently on my skin
-like fruit flies do. They love the sticky sugars in the warm market,
-where the smells come together like a wall against the cold that waits outside.
-If you were to cut the access tiles off the roofs of the houses you can see from
-my apartment window, if you were to
-peel away the sills from the windows and the weather stripping,
-you’d find a warm familial flesh, but it’s withering, it’s
-protecting itself from wild New York
-but waiting around within it. Families cook and stew things, families yell at each other
-in East Coast accents. Kids play video games, screens inside glow like
-lighting bugs in half a green pepper at night.
-Cilantro bunches in my hand on the way home stain my fingers green
-when I clutch them.
-The ingredients make a recipe, but in a community with a population
-this diverse that dates back to the 17th century, it’s expected that some things
-boil off, some flavors are stronger, and no one has enough money to start moving
-out old china or serving dishes, but enough to wash a plate or bowl after it’s used
-and left in front of the TV to decay until the rainy season sweeps in into the sewer,
-and seeds will clump around the bags the fruits and vegetables were taken from
-the market in and left in the gutter.
-NYC apartments’ electric energy making smoky winter trails in the afternoon.
-Streets almost empty, but I can hear cars going by anyway.
-Peppers are shinier under the Sulafane.

Leave us here as parting ships do by night from the docks

I walked the planks under the Verrizano.
The off cries, skateboards hitting the wet pavement,
the leaves a tame blanket.

There are big ships going.
The harbor water is filled with plastic bags:
to these gelatinous, bodiless infants I say
don’t leave us.

A toe wiggling cold. A finger grasp of curiosity.
I am dumbfounded like I’m crib bound,
I watch the hulking colossi sulk with metal knuckles
beastily dragging across the water into the night where
they left us.

I am born to the winter docks,
to the movement of big boxes slit open and spilling
Styrofoam peanuts. I am born under the iron green
skirt of liberty. We looked into our Mother’s green eyes
but they were verdigris iron.

We sobbed salty when we were taken away.
On Roosevelt Island around umbilical bend of water
that threads out of the bulging ocean there are empty hospitals
and abandoned single-family apartments. There are areas where
ancient infants rocked in rows but are now gone. I’m a part of them,
they are still a part of me even though like twins we grew apart
and I can feel neighborhoods in New York when they get poked,
or when they smell and need to be cleaned.

They’re parts of me.
I am abandoned in greater Brooklyn’s
dumpster, or I just grew up and moved away;
though I occasionally call, my miraculous luster has dulled.

The drive and the dark

We left Brooklyn that afternoon when the sun was still up

          but felt like it was waiting unnecessarily. When the roads became the inner workings

of the small intestine and the mountains swelled like great colons I noted that

                        we were out of the city.

Presented with a stream, we considered each other.

You are the water around the logs,                        the soup around bones.

          the effort in the push towards

                                                    a car, alone, headed back towards the city

          as it grows darker, a

                        cockroach on a cable wire making i’s way, antennae leading, toward

the TV and then                        towards the bed- it’s a

different kind of sick, it’s the bloodlessness of

organs, your nose stuffed with green,

                        the swell of pine as the snow melts away.

Before we left, swirling and rushing next to the layers of the creek

          I held a bottle of wine: those warm contents pushed to hold on to their bottles’ walls.

We walked together. Unbound momentarily by waiting, we instead clutched hands.

Unknowingly, we both silently counted stars as New Yorkers,

          bearing in mind our bleak alternatives.