Sunday, February 06, 2022

Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn, NY: Prison Ship Martyrs Monument

 12 or 13 years ago, they completed the restoration of the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument, a 149-foot tall Doric column with an ornate metal urn and an eternal flame, almost as though someone had grabbed the flame from the Statue of Liberty and hoisted it here, the green was such a familiar color. 

The initial enthusiasm has clearly given way to indifference, or the tedious attention of true believers; somehow this place is not exciting the passion of those who visit. The small visitor’s center and museum is a single room with a brace of hand-held muskets on the wall, some curling, fading cardstock maps and lists, and then a blurry parchment document with fuzzy, hard-to-read list of names of the men held in the fetid bowels of rotted wood. 

As for a small nature center, there is a small glass case with a tree branch that has dead leaves on it, and placard, “Our Marvelous Cockroaches” (or something like that). I did not lean in close to the glass to see if I could see them.  I just assumed they were those magnificent waterbugs you often see in Houston after a flood, which have a sleek amber husk and are the length of my pinky finger. Welcome, Grigor Samsa.  You’re telling me magic happens here. I believe you. 

Over the course of 6 or 7 years, 11,500 men and women prisoners died here – by 2s or 3s or tens at a time, all depending on the degree of ice, mosquitoes and outbreaks in general. “Bring up your dead!” and there you’d roll up your buddy in his hammock, the same buddy who had been asking for his wife or his mother, and a small sip, please, of water. 

Wrapped in his own hammock, and slung over your shoulders, you’d tremble under his weight, even though he was at this point, a sad bag of bones. Then you’d tremble again because your own thin tendons had become like stiff rawhide and because your mind had become a hard, dark, flat emotionless mirror of the brutal way the fragile being on the floor becomes a cockroach and not a brother with a name; a vector of some infectious, toxic regicidal idea, and not an open-hearted dairy owner’s son with a dream and a soft-eyed girlfriend the next farm over.  

I’m walking up the steps to the monument. I stop and pause at the small columns with golden eagles perched atop them. My eyes fill with tears.  I do not know why. 

Flash memory.  Cold December evening. I’m on the tram back to Roosevelt Island, where my cousin, Elizabeth, has graciously invited me to stay with her a week or so, as I have job interviews, order wholesale items for my fledgling business, “Perfumes Plus” and, attend training for the products I’ll be representing in Latin America, commission only. The lights of the city reflect in the river. My cousin can see her parents’ building across the East River. Her rent is $2,500 per month for a luxury apartment. It’s another $400 to rent a space for her car. She thinks it’s a bargain. That was 25 years ago. It is probably $5,000, but she has long since married and moved away to San Francisco. 

I moved on, too, earning my Ph.D. and breaking out of my own prison ship of self-hatred and doubt, where the only escape was a Dionysian frenzy of sweat and loss after loss after loss. Heartache is not really good for the soul, no matter what the Heidelberg ruined-castle Faust & Co. wants to sell you. 

Did I simply move from one prison ship to another? Yes, of course, that’s what happened. But, at the same time, I don’t want trivialize the true prison ship experience by metaphoricizing it, although I probably need to spend a bit of time looking at what happened and trying to understand why. 

Let’s just say I gave up. 

Urban Rangers. I’m so grateful for them! My moments in the miniscule Prison Ship Martyrs Monument museum and Nature Center did little more than provoke more questions. How did Walt Whitman get involved? Did he write a poem? How could he live with himself, with his deep, deep sense of compassion and connectedness?  Oh, my. 

When I was in Heidelberg I felt that this was the absolute birthplace of German Romanticism. 

Now I have the sense that the Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument is the true birthplace of American Transcendentalism, but even as I say that, I sort of hate to do so, because I run the risk of intellectualizing something that is so emotionally compelling and intense, with bones and skulls washing up onto the river’s edge, onto the cutbanks and point bars, each time there was a flood or a crazy high tide. 

Did Walt Whitman encounter a human remain in his walks along the East River in Wallabout Bay? Did he see a skull?  A tibia bone?  I suspect he did. 

As Heidelberg was the birthplace of German Romanticism, I suspect Wallabout Bay was the true birthplace of American Transcendentalism – at least Walt Whitman’s transcendentalism. Walt Whitman believe, more than anything, that we’re all connected and that there is an ultimate of unity. 

I mean, how could you ever go back after you encountered washed up bones on the banks of the East River during your daily walk?? And, you would have known that the bones you were seeing were those of those who died without ever being able to let their loved ones know where they were, and being able to tell them they were not rejecting them; it was just that they were detained incommunicado due to circumstances beyond their control 

Oh, my. If you were inclined to believe in the interconnectedness of all souls and all beings, how could stumbling upon bones not affect you. Suddenly, Shakespeare’s scene in Hamlet that features “Oh Poor Yorick” seems trivial. Yorick was at least known at one time during his life. What can we say about these prisoners of war? 

What can we say about the way that they, too, caught the viral dream of liberty? 

My Uber driver’s name was Suleyman and he was from Mauritania. He used to spend weeks in a small town outside Shanghai where they would custom-make t-shirts and other clothing for him to ship and sell in Mauritania.  He speaks French, Arabic, and English. Now he drives for Uber and lives in a two-bedroom, 1-1/2 bath apartment in a part of Brooklyn near the COPE Institute. His brother and his wife use one bedroom. He and his wife and child live in the other. Is this better than Mauritania?  I am quite certain that it is many, many times worse than his lifestyle there. But, ironically, perhaps he has a surplus that he can wire back home.  I am only guessing. 

Walt Whitman is walking along the East River. He is rounding the curve to Wallabout Bay. He looks down and he sees the whiteness of a bone pushing itself, birthing itself through the sand, and then he sees a skull crowning itself through the slimy muck of a tidal flat.  

And suddenly, I ache, ache, ache as though I were giving birth with my heart as well as the rest of my body. Is this what Walt Whitman felt, singing “the body electric” connected to not only the souls who live but the collective energy of those who suffered and died alone, invisible. 

Somewhere along the trajectory of the bone-voyages, the owner of a Long Island farm where a hundred or so were interred, passionately refused to let anyone disturb them, and only relented when he was promised to be able to be buried with their bones, wherever that might be, however that might take place. 

And so it was. 

But, I wonder if he ever saw the boundless, transcendent Doric column, the eternal flame, the leaf-rustling of oblivion as the west wind takes hopes and dreams into the drizzly gray soft sinking into night. 

And, if you inhale, hold it, and pause, you’ll hear the whispers behind the bones.