“Soldiers of the Bridge”

by zunguzungu

As he crosses Brooklyn Ferry, Walt Whitman sings of the flood-tide below and the clouds of the west, and the impalpable sustenance he draws from all things at all hours of the day. He sees “the similitudes of the past and those of the future, the glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and hearings…” The future and the past are one, he says, as he stares out at his fellow passengers and out onto the unchanging harbor:

“Others will enter the gates of the ferry and cross from shore to shore; others will watch the run of the flood-tide; others will see the shipping of the Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east…fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high, a hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence…The simple, compact, well-joined scheme, myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated yet part of the scheme…”

AMERICA. Only a few short years later, the ferry will become the Brooklyn Bridge, one of the great symbols of AMERICA. It was a far more expeditious conveyance for the growing population of (not-yet incorporated) Brooklyn into New York, great melting pot, great incorporater, great jewel in the crown of an empire state.  And although Whitman walked across it, it was a structure which maybe required Hart Crane as its bard.

Or maybe not. Today, I find myself drawn to Jose Marti’s little essay on “The Brooklyn Bridge,” a piece of writing which has haunted me for a long time. For most of it, the great Cuban-American prophet of Our America can sound positively Whitmanesque, as he “leads the readers of La América by the hand” across it:

“Watching this vast, well-scrubbed, teeming and ever growing multitude gather to swarm rapidly across this air-borne tendril, you can imagine that you are seeing Liberty herself seated on high, her radiant head at the summit of the heavens and her white hands, large as eagles, spread open in a sign of peace on earth: Liberty, who has given birth to this daughter in this city. Liberty, who is the mother of the new world that is only now dawning. It is as if a sun were rising over these two towers.”

You can imagine it. You can imagine that this is what you are seeing. But a funny thing happens by the end of the piece, the same way Martí slipped the word “rape” into his wonderful little essay of praise for Whitman, introducing an unspeakable word for paeans to the great American poet, but which I find I can’t now think of Whitman without remembering, now that I’ve heard it. José Julián Martí Pérez never let his love for Our America blind him to the violence of theirs, the horrible perversion of love that was always the eternally returning repressed of Whitman’s America.  And so, as he took the readers of La América across the bridge, strange metaphors begin to intrude, snakes are biting into the land, and suddenly the ground buckles and rises up:

[A]t the foot of one of the towers, thousands of sobbing women, screaming children, and shouting policemen are piled into a blockade without exit and fighting to make their way across, the cables in their grooved beds at the top of the towers, will move no more than a lordly inch, like giants giving a nod of greeting.

Thus they have built it and thus it stands, the monumental structure, less beautiful than grand, like a ponderous arm of the human mind. No longer are deep trenches dug around embattled fortresses; now cities embrace one another with arms of steel. No longer do sentry posts manned by soldiers guard populations; now there are booths with employees bearing neither spear nor rifle who collect the penny of peace from the laborers that go past. Bridges are the fortresses of the modern world. Better to bring cities together than to cleave human chests. Today, all are called upon to be soldiers of the bridge.