Poet’s corner: A ferry ride is a passage loaded with images

Riding the Staten Island Ferry in a Thunderstorm
We’re only on it for the excitement, we
elders: the thrill of riding the East
River like a bucking horse in driving
rain, lightning flash – and maybe
a hurricane. A woman wants to turn back.
Swim, then, her man says. Dime-sized
hail dices the waves, but we’ve come a day-
long trek on Amtrak to see Ms. Liberty –
and there she is! to starboard,
arm thrust high as if ready to shake a fist
at anyone who’d knock her off base.
Beyond her crown, the sun is a red hot coal.
A fireboat, just off-island, spews out
ropes of water as if in salute.
                                                We dock and
the crowd shoves off. But there’s little
now to see on Staten Island and so we soon
veer about, like riding back and forth all night
on the ferry. The poet’s boat, she wrote,
smelled like a stable, horses below – but I smell
only an onion sandwich, ketchup and pickles.
The wind comes cold, and thunder
grumbles over in Queens; lightning forks
the roofs. Milady lights her torch
as we pass. Night falls on the water. High-rise
windows wink, a half-moon squints
through a veil of fog. We were very merry, yes,
but Millay’s sun was young, and ours
is beginning to set. It’s time now to disembark:
Get your coat. Got your subway pass?
— Nancy Means Wright
*Italicized lines from Edna St Vincent Millay’s Recuerdo. The last line is a riff on Ruth Stone’s poem Second Hand Coat, and an allusion to the mythological, underground ferry passage to the ‘world of the dead.’
Nancy Means Wright’s work appears in numerous journals and anthologies, including Green Mountains Review, American Literary Review and in a full collection, The Shady Sisters. She has authored a dozen novels for adults and won a YA Agatha Award. A former Bread Loaf Scholar, she lives in Middlebury with her spouse and Maine Coon cat.
This poem of Ms. Wright’s feels like an adventure in itself, so many worlds it seems to traverse. There is the post boarding of the ferry off the tip of Manhattan, the various phases of the voyage, and the journeying to destinations known and unknown. Her skillfully chosen words and sensory imagery carry the reader swiftly along this journey that feels both familiar and unfamiliar, moving through fire and water to places known and unknown.
There are hints early on that this is no ordinary ferry ride with the image of the river as a bucking horse, the sun as a red hot coal, and the fireboat just off island.  Even by stormy sea standards there is a lot going on here: driving rain and lightening, unsettled passengers, and in the distance over Miss Liberty’s torch, the deep red glow of sun. With such strange and intense weather, it is hard to not feel a presence that feels a bit like the realm of the gods.
The poem’s evocative lines gradually transport us through their metaphors to new levels of place and experience. There is the physical location of New York Harbor as the ferry pushes through the water, but en route, we arrive at another place, one that merges this 21st century harbor with one that feels much older and worlds away. Even if you’ve never read, or if it’s been a long time, as in my case, since you’ve delved into the Greek myth of the underworld and the River Styx, it is hard to not sense a bigger story unfolding. While there are no deceased characters in the poem, as there are in the Greek tale, waiting on shore for the ferryman to usher them to the other side, there is enough drama, fire, and allegory to make you think there are.
In the tales of many cultures, it is often a body of water that separates the land of the living from the land of the dead, one that must be crossed to arrive in the next realm. Besides Greek mythology, variations on the idea are found in Norse, Japanese, and Aztec tales, and likely many others. Sometimes the island itself is the other world. In some religions, too, water is similarly symbolic, as in Buddhism where both life and death are spoken of as crossing a river, and where there is less separation between the two. Zen Master Suzuki, in his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, writes “to reach the other shore with each step of the crossing is the way of true living. And in each step of the way, the other shore is actually reached.”
Ms. Wright’s poem seems to me to embody aspects of the Greek myth, but maybe even more so this latter idea. It does so by inviting in everything, including the idea of the underworld and the fire imagery, the fellow passenger who wants to turn back, and the smell of onion.  The speaker rides that rail between worlds the entire time and does indeed seem to arrive anew in each moment, both on the shore of this life with full aliveness and on another shore less definable, one we are invited to through her rich imagination.
Near the end of the poem we are introduced to some new characters, those of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem “Recuerdo.” Our speaker and her companion match Millay’s characters in ebullience and youthful energy, even though she lets it be known they themselves are no longer young:
We were very merry, yes,
but Millay’s sun was young, and ours
is beginning to set.
But there seems no close end in sight, at least in this story, to their aliveness, awareness, and presence. I feel I could ride the ferry back and forth all night with this poet and her companions.
Susan Jefts is a poet and educator living in Cornwall, whose work has been published throughout the state and country, most recently in the Vermont Anthology Birchsong. She is currently finalizing a book of poetry and will be offering workshops this fall using poetry both indoors and out to explore our lives through the energy and lens of nature. For more info, contact her at [email protected] Her website is manyriverslifeguidance.com.

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