The Lighthouse at the End of the Hudson
in a finished and composed book?
For some time, I went down to the edge of the Hudson, to run along a path that then reached north to 125th Street and now extends up to the George Washington Bridge. Heading south, the path borders the river through Battery Park, at the tip of Manhattan. My home is near the river, on West 106th Street, named Duke Ellington Boulevard. Duke Ellington lived in the mansion around the corner on Riverside Drive. An old newsreel shows his funeral procession heading up Broadway to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. Almost every day the weather allowed, I would pass Duke Ellington’s mansion’s corner in my running clothes and shoes, and I would cross the park, Riverside Park, to go down to the river’s edge. At the park, the esplanade covers the tunnels for the railroad line that begins at Penn Station and heads north to Albany, the state capital, to Niagara Falls, to the border with Canada.
The vault of the bridge, almost a tunnel, frames the first sight of the Hudson, confined by the ugly apartment towers and the cliffs of New Jersey. A Willem de Kooning painting titled Door to the River: to push a door and suddenly find oneself before the glow of the river. At the end of this arch of shadow lies a brightness that changes each day. Gray brightness of cloudy days, blinding on sunny mornings, red and golden in the afternoons, arctic on snowy winter days when the landscape disappears underneath the whiteness and naked trees become the black scribbles of Henry Callahan’s photographs. On sunny days, the river lights up beyond the arch of the tunnel like a sheet of steel waving in the wind. Spring, summer, autumn are the luxurious seasons of colors. Winter is the austere age of drawing. But David Hockney says that there is color in winter too: Even in dull days there is a lot of color if you look. The trees only go black when it rains.
If you look. I would run and think I was seeing everything. It took me just a few years to realize I was barely noticing anything. A few years and the pain on my knee and the sole of my foot that forced me to stop running. How I’ve longed for the elastic pounding of heels against hard but not rigid soil that gives in gently under each step, unlike asphalt; the passage from fatigue that seems undefeatable to a sudden burst of unexpected lightness; the flood of endorphins that widens the lungs and makes one sensitive to the smell and texture of air in dilated nostrils. Once I was running up the river’s edge and a storm surprised me. It was summer, and I was grateful for the first tepid drops that hit my face, the smell that came up from the earth and the river. The agile fingers of the rain drummed across my shoulders, on my chest. The wet cotton of my shirt stuck to my skin.
A moment later my hair was dripping and my shirt was soaked. I shielded myself under an immense elm that covers the path with its crown. Toward the river, its branches reach over until they touch the water. Sheltered by the tree, I felt gratitude for its powerful and benevolent presence. The rain clinked against the leaves. Parallel to the path by the river flows the other incessant river of traffic on the West Side Highway. Beyond that, higher, over the crowns of Riverside Park’s oaks and maples, the towers of Riverside Drive are outlined as cliffs and lighthouses, with rows of windows where the last red glow of the afternoon fades away. When the rain stopped, I continued to run, and I quickly recognized the pain in my knee and the sole of my foot. From that day on, I would look at the elm for a moment each time I ran past it and almost greeted it like the friendly stranger one becomes used to recognizing on the street. When I ran, I did pay attention to the trees, and I liked knowing almost all of their names, in Spanish and English. The eye truly discerns a tree only when we are aware of its name: the elms, the oaks, the acacias, the maples, the cherry trees that give their name to that stretch of the esplanade, the Cherry Walk. I would think about the tradition of trees as a source of wisdom in so many primitive cultures.
I thought I saw the river. I absentmindedly imagined its monotonous course to the sea. When I ran heading north, I could see the silhouette of the George Washington Bridge in the distance. Le Corbusier used to say that it was the most beautiful bridge in the world. I never went too far on these runs. I didn’t even know that the path extended to its very columns. Or that there is a lighthouse under the bridge that has been there since long before. Now that I know that the lighthouse is there, and I’ve visited it many times, my gaze has focused, and I can make out its shape from far away. We see things if we know they exist. I would see the silhouette of the bridge soften in the mist or sharpen in days of luminous clearness. While I ran I would look at the flattened soil or the stretches of pavement ahead of me and at the buildings on Riverside Drive. The Riverside Church tower and the round structure of Grant’s Tomb served as markers of distance covered. I didn’t know that peregrine falcons nested on the top of the church tower. I didn’t know that falcons in New York fed on sparrows and pigeons and on small rodents. I had never looked at a falcon, perched on a branch in front of me, still, his round eyes fixed on mine, solemn and condescending as a god, like the black obsidian falcons from the Egyptian wing at the Met.
As I ran I would notice the things people dispose of as they leave the river’s edge. Food containers, plastic bottles, soda cans, beer bottles, newspapers, plastic bags, religious pamphlets. A plastic bag or bottle takes about five hundred years to decompose fully. I loved the path so much I was offended by the lack of respect towards a place of such beauty. Sometimes I would pick up a bottle or a can and take it to the nearest trashcan. As a gesture of restitution to the path and the river, of respect to the elm that had sheltered me from the storm. Once I carried a half-finished beer bottle, and the runners and cyclists that passed me shot disapproving glances in my direction: a wanton runner quenching his thirst with beer.
But I didn’t see much more. During that time my own obsessions enclosed me, and I ran as if inside a bubble or a bottle. The obsession with keeping track of time as I ran, with how long it would take me to become exhausted, with making it as far as Grant’s Tomb, with feeling the beginnings of pain in my knee or the sole of my foot. My own obsession with being foreign: passports, visas, legal procedures, the wait for the green card. Faster runners, cyclists would leave me behind with the murmur of wheels after a warning bell. There is no stealthier machine than the bicycle. Or I would pass slow runners with faces red from exertion who seemed to drain their last reserves of energy attempting to escape death as it trailed closely behind. The afternoon’s final ray of sun would shine across the highest windows of buildings, and just before it dissipated, it seemed as if the river stream was set ablaze.
Thoughts flow not to the rhythm of a race but to that of a walk, says a book I am reading. Our hunter ancestors often prevailed over animals not by shooting arrows but through their endurance, running after them until they collapsed. My only comfort is in motion, writes Dickens in a letter. When not restlessly imagining his characters in motion, pen hastily scratching paper, stopping only for a dip in the inkwell, Dickens continued moving, walking through the streets of London, and the rhythm of his step punctuated the creations he would pour into his novels as soon as he returned to his desk. Dickens’ novels are full of people who walk the streets of London. Before him, Thomas De Quincey had walked through that city best, intoxicated with opium, terrorized by the multiplying faces of strangers, by the multitudes of faces in which he could never find the only one he wanted to see, that of his beloved Anne, the young prostitute who had taken care of him. The pain forced me to stop running, and I rarely frequented the path by the river. Meanwhile, I got used to taking long walks. There is a different flow to thinking and seeing when one walks instead of running. It’s more difficult to remain in that trance one disappears into while running, in which there is actually little thinking and not much seeing beyond what is needed to avoid falling or getting lost. Walking fast and noticing what I see without reducing speed, I’ve managed to write a whole article or section of an essay or a novel in my head. My only comfort is in motion. In the morning, as soon as I’ve finished breakfast, I’m agitated by the desire to go outside. I stir around the house like a nomad burdened by sedentariness. Sorrow most easily condenses into a cloud in domestic air, especially during winter, in a city of exaggerated heating. Walking fast, one can escape. Depression loses one’s trail for a while.
I again found myself outside, filling up my lungs with the first medicinal gulp of cold air on a January morning, and I took off, stepping on crunchy snow, headed toward Duke Ellington’s mansion’s corner and the stone steps that go down to the park and the path by the river. A day or two before, I had returned to New York after an absence of many months. I didn’t pass a single person. I was bundled up like an Arctic explorer. Hands in gloves and gloves in jacket’s pockets. Hat on my head, covering my ears, under the hood. Collar up and buttoned over my mouth, breath dampening the coarse fringe of my scarf. The crunch of steps on snow as marked in the silence as the naked shapes of trees in the whiteness or in the low and smooth gray of the sky. Bird calls reverberating as if in a vault. Each distinct and all pronounced by invisible birds. Only a few times have I walked through a park or the woods in the snow, and I’ve barely ever stopped to identify the songs or species of birds. I see one, atop a scrawl of a naked branch. I see it because its plumage is blue and its crest is black. Seeing a bird or a tree and not knowing its name is not really seeing it. I now know that these blue birds are blue jays.
To the south, a handrail encloses the path by the river. When someone is leaning on it, it seems as if he were looking out on the deck of a transatlantic ship. In the distance, the parallel lines of the handrail and the path get lost in fog. There are no footsteps on the snow. The fog has also erased the other edge of the river and the bridge. The river emerges, immense, from the very fog, limitless like the ocean it flows into farther down. A ship’s siren howls in the fog. A moment later the ship emerges from the fog, a blunt and black barge carrying mountains of minerals or junk. A beautiful word materializes in the imagination like the ship or the sound of its siren: foghorn. We would have to search for a Spanish translation that definitive and exact, a drumroll of two syllables that would not be possible in our verbose language. Cuerno de niebla. Claxon de niebla. Sirena de niebla. Nieblasirena. Sirenaniebla. Kindred sirens can be heard far away, especially at night, when American trains sound their horns.
I remembered, in previous winters, seeing large ice floes going downstream. I remembered or, rather, I thought I had seen them. But what I see today I have never seen before. It is not a river flowing downstream, dragging flat ice blocks. It is not a river flowing downstream. It is a lake of sorts or a still ocean because there is no edge in the horizon. It’s not still: it undulates like a spine. It’s an extension of blocks, of pieces of icebergs, stuck to each other, juxtaposed, colliding, something like a valley of marble shredded to pieces after a cataclysm, a prairie of ruins getting lost in the fog. Like noticing the arrival of a glacier with a casual glance. It is the ruins of a city’s palaces and temples, of an entire civilization. Sometimes piled one upon another, as columns or roofs, as facades broken into pieces, or separated by cracks that still maintain an outline where they were fractured. Moving, if I look carefully. Moving very slowly toward the ocean like the glacier that millions of years ago lodged this same channel in the Hudson. Moving with the slow undulation of the robust, primitive backbone the width of the river might possess. The words come back to me: ice floes.
I only stop noticing the movement when I’m not walking. Once the noise of my boots crushing the snow and the whooshing of my pants and jacket stop, I’m able to hear something. When the river sounds. What you hear is the ice. Fragile collisions between ice blocks, brushing, crunching, something being torn apart, rushes of water or compressed threads within ice cracks. That secret murmur comes from the whole river. There is nobody else along the path, and that makes it more forceful. I can hear it better as the path gets farther away from the highway and traffic. Even better when there are no airplanes crossing the river in the direction of LaGuardia Airport. In the halt of my footsteps, in the silent parenthesis, emerge crushing and crackle and grazing and fracturing and the crash of the colossal traveling city of ice ruins.
Yesterday I could not recall the word, témpano. Wanting to conjure it, I could only get close, bloque de hielo, plancha de hielo, even its equivalent in English, ice floe. And I needed it so I could really see what I hadn’t seen before: the whole breadth of the Hudson, as far as the opposite edge, turned into a great plain of ice, yet not smooth but as if made up of ice debris of every size, some like sunken walls of houses made of ice collapsed into themselves, like ruined cities of ice unraveling as far as the eye can see, to New Jersey, in the direction of the ocean, or upstream, toward the silhouette of the George Washington Bridge subtly drawn in the fog.
Témpanos: finally, the exact word. Témpanos of all sizes, dissolving into splinters or into a gray pulp of ice, broken into uneven blocks, covered with snow. I was walking on the path along the river, and it was only when I stopped that I perceived it: the plain of ice was moving, with mineral sluggishness, the current dragging it, and as I paid more attention, the movement became more singular: the blocks near the edge remained motionless, or almost; they advanced more rapidly as they drifted away to the river’s center, or more accurately, less slowly. And each ice floe had its own movement, distinct from the rest, colliding with others, brushing against them. If just slightly slower, the movement would have been imperceptible to the eye. And as I stopped I noticed something else: you could hear the ice. In the interludes between bursts of traffic on the nearby highway or between the sound of airplanes climbing over the river, there was a permanent sound, a rupturing of sorts, scrapes, cracks opening deliberately, quiet blows. I remembered that background noise that according to astronomers is the Big Bang’s fossil reverberation. It seemed as if I were listening to a geological murmur, like that of tree roots trembling under the earth. There was no one else listening to that sound in the whole length of the snowy path.
From memory emerges the accuracy of a scholastic definition, explained and learned word by word, copied with meticulous calligraphy on a blackboard, on a wide-ruled notebook. There are crucifixes above the board and on the teacher’s desk, and on one side a portrait of Franco and on the other one of José Antonio Primo de Rivera. There is a globe in the corner. Old oilcloth maps hang on the walls. Their cracks blend in like geographical accidents: the shaded outline of mountains, the palest river valleys.
—What is a river?
—A river is a continuous stream of water that flows into the sea.
—Or into another river.
Nuestras vidas son los ríos
Que van a dar a la mar
Que es el morir.
Allá van los señoríos
Derechos a se acabar
Allá van los ríos caudales,
Van los ríos medianos
E los chicos.
Y en llegando son iguales
Los que viven por sus manos
Y los ricos.
Childhood memory deposits, fixed with awe, with the strangeness of half understood words. Iceberg. Témpano, with its coldness and its ice shape. Carámbano: in bleaker winters past, icicles hung like stalactites in the gutters. The large earthenware pot, broken in half, that served as cistern in our corral at home would awaken covered with ice. The green water became hazier under its strigose surface. A river. A continuous stream of water that flows into the sea. Or into another river. We would learn the names of all the main rivers in Spain and recite them from memory. The Miño, the Duero, the Tajo, the Ebro, the Guadiana, the Guadalquivir. Continuous streams of water in the brown and ochre of a dry country’s map, the oilcloth quartered as if with slopes of ravines without water, just the northern front shaded in green, where the ocean’s blue was also more intense. Spain borders north with the Cantabrian Sea, west and south with the Atlantic Ocean, east with the Mediterranean Sea. The blue of the Cantabrian and the Atlantic looked like the fake blue of the sea in adventure films. In a few films, white men were outfitted in red coats and three-cornered hats and the natives in leather pants and jackets and moccasins, carrying axes with feathers, Mohawks on their shaved heads. They would run, gliding through thick forests, or row canoes across very wide rivers that at some time could have been the Hudson. Typical Westerns took place in sun-flooded, desert landscapes, but the most mysterious ones featured the deep dimness of the woods that for us could only exist in the movies.
In the summer, on Saturday afternoons, when the hot and humid air acquires a tropical density, there are musical performances by the river’s edge, at the foot of a slope next to the tennis courts. The slope itself functions as an acoustic box. Musicians play with their backs to the river. Jazz music sometimes scatters in the wind. The human voice that sounds like a sax and the sax with the quality of a human voice dissolve in the river’s breeze and blend into passing ship sirens and the squawks of seagulls. The sun sets as the music continues. The crowd is scattered across the slope, sitting in groups, with the static calmness of a Seurat painting, colors dissolving into light fog, women’s print dresses. When it becomes night and the musicians start putting away their instruments, luminous scribbles of fireflies fill the air. Virginia Woolf: the idea of some continuous stream, not solely of human thought, but of the ship, the night, etc., all flowing together: intersected by the arrival of the bright moths.
Past rivers of my life. The Guadalquivir was not that river from maps but a brightness as of sheets of broken mirrors in the bottom of the valley that separates my native city from the Cazorla and Mágina mountain ranges. North of the Jaén province, among hills with red soil stitched together with olive groves, the Guadalimar was a slow and ochre river one would see on the train coming back from a trip. My father gave it a name that was not on the maps or in the school encyclopedia: el río colorao. In Granada, the Darro is an agile aquatic snake at the foot of the hill from where the Alhambra rises, and soon after, a river buried below asphalt, under slabs of pavement at Plaza Nueva and the provincial narrowness of Reyes Católicos Street, under the path known in Granada as the Embovedado. Poor Ángel Ganivet, a local from Granada, saw his native irritation flare up in his Baltic exile with the felony of covering up the river. Los dos ríos de Granada, says Lorca. Uno llanto y otro sangre. When my oldest son was only a few months old, and I was a municipal employee who wrote in the afternoons, I lived in a building by the edge of the Genil River. Its precarious stream was visible from my window. One winter it rained and snowed a lot over the Sierra, and with the melting ice the Genil flowed so tumultuously you could hear it in the background all night long. In fiction, experience transmutes according to laws similar to those that originate in dreams: once I wrote a story about a man who lived alone on a high floor near a river, and the roar he heard in the darkness when he couldn’t fall asleep was the same that had kept me company on nights of insomnia that winter when my oldest son wasn’t even a year old.
The great European rivers: those from my first trip outside Spain, to Italy, at twenty two, backpacking, with my friend Nicolás Latorre, closest of friends at an age when friendship is truer and wiser than love, as it is learned first. I had never seen broadness as majestic, force as solemn, the Arno in Florence, first, and then the Tiber in Rome, its water ochre and greenish, as monumental as its bridges, creating foam as it crashed into the pillars’ angles, the Arno and the Tiber accentuating the pure happiness of being in Italy, awe and the desire to see more leading me, as if the rivers were carrying me. In the mornings, my friend Nicolás and I would sit on the parapet of the Ponte Vecchio to warm up under the blond sun of Florence, so it could take away the humid cold of the tent where we slept, so poor in Italy we couldn’t even pay to stay in the campgrounds. We fed ourselves on canned sardines and cured meat we had brought from Spain, the cheapest mortadella, on grapes we bought by the pound from any street vendor. Sitting in the sun on the parapet, we would look at the Arno as we passed between us the milk carton we would get for breakfast.
Alluring names of rivers. On the dry land of our town, the world maps at school nourished our imagination and, without realizing it, we tasted the poetry of river names as we recited them from memory. There isn’t any great river that doesn’t have a memorable name: the Arno, the Tiber, the Seine, the Thames, the Nile, the Rhone, the Vistula, the Elbe, the Danube, the Yangtze Kiang, the Ganges, the Mississippi, a name so long and full of i’s and s’s it’s as if it begins flowing in saliva inside the mouth, the Río de la Plata, the Paraná, the Orinoco, the Amazonas. I conjure up names, and I’m carried by the currents of remembrance: the Somme, the Loire, the Volga, the Amur. We would learn its source and its mouth and the sea or ocean in which it ended and the kilometers of its expanse or its width. Which one was the longest river in the world, the Mississippi or the Nile? The Nile began in the Mountains of the Moon. They were verbal rivers, sinuous lines on maps, names. Back then there were a lot less images. The rivers of literature: the Thames, when I went to London for the first time, it was Dickens’ river, and it belonged to Conan Doyle and Chesterton’s enigmas of dazzled reason; the one the sailor Marlow traveled upstream on a boat in Heart of Darkness; in Buenos Aires, at the Costanera, the first time I visited the city, in the apocalyptic spring of hyperinflation and election propaganda and streets covered with wood planks and shaken by the constant roar of generators, I leaned to look over the river’s edge and recognized the precision of a verse from Borges:
Y fue por este río de sueñera y de barro
Que las naves vinieron a fundarme la patria.
I’ve learned the name given to the Hudson by the Lenape people, who inhabited the island of Manhattan when the first Dutch settlers arrived: Muhheakantuck. River that flows in two directions. River that comes and goes. But the intensity of meaning weakens when it has to be distributed among more words. Muhheakantuck. Rioquevayvuelve. I had the reason for that name in front of me, and it took me long to see. I didn’t see the river before me but the abstract image of a river, the definition of a word. The Hudson sometimes goes to the sea and other times comes back. Muhheakantuck. The word itself says it. It took walking there and transiently exiting the hermetic bottle of my obsessions to see that sometimes the river’s stream goes backwards, pushed by sea currents. That close to its end, it ceases being a river to become an estuary, and much of what I see is salt water. That, and not just because of the direction of the wind, is why it sometimes smells so powerfully like the ocean on days when the tide and fog come from the south. The air tastes like salt and algae. The objects the river carries downstream come back the same way. The coming and going of its name is that of a breath. Also that of the tides and of seasons. Systole and diastole. Night and day. Any objects thrown in the river will remain there a long time. Going up and down. Returning just before reaching the ocean. A storm throwing them against granite blocks piled up at the shore. Sent sailing by a high tide. The blow of a wave or a low tide leaving them once again stranded ashore. Staying there for weeks or months. The sun dries them and gives them the texture of bones.
Each day, the river is the same, and it is a different river. It’s many rivers simultaneously. I hadn’t noticed that the river can go up and down not in a successive way but at the same time: the tide pushes up, the current goes down; the water ripples in the wind from the northwest to the southwest, the current flows at the same time. A garland of trash and dirty foam circles parallel to the shore between a current going down and one going up. Currents are thin rivers circulating within the river. You will not walk by the same river twice. Every hour of the day changes the wind and changes the light, and the river possesses a different color and moves in a different way. Today a powerful wind blows from the other shore, northeastern wind, and great waves crash against the slope of rocks on this side. Metallic sparks jump from them under the slanted afternoon sun. Instead of flowing along the riverbank, the water breaks against it like the sea against a boardwalk. And since the tide is high, the waves splash my face and almost reach the path. The foam sometimes leaps to windshields on cars on the West Side Highway, the other incessant river that goes in two directions, tires giving off a sound like that of fabric tearing as it adheres to the wet pavement. The river of burnt gasoline and carbon monoxide runs day and night along the Hudson. But looking more closely, I notice two simultaneous movements in the choppy water: while coming to the shore propelled by the wind, the current continues to travel down. River that moves in two directions. And when it hits the shore it carries with it old tree trunks and broken-off branches that crash against the rocks with the fatalism of shipwrecks. The wind violently bends naked shrubs and tree branches that curve toward the water. The inclination of branches modeled by the wind’s persistence is a photograph or an x-ray of its invisible and constant thrust.
A very large man or a very large woman approaches, arms swinging. From a distance, the very small head and the enormous oscillating and shaking body don’t let me identify sex. Neither do the loose breasts spilling over the stomach under a workout shirt. Arms swinging, puffing, sweating, and closer up I can see that it’s a woman and not a man. White iPod headphones hang from her ears.
Seagulls flap their wings and squawk high up in the wind, as if under the arteries of a vault. They motionlessly glide in vertical air currents. They plummet to a floating island of branches, dry leaves, garbage. With still majesty, they swing over whirlpools at the river’s edge, their shapes like spindles sharpened by wind and water, pieces polished and rounded by millions of years of evolution, much more slowly than the old tree trunks that have been in the water for long, eroded by it, soaked, thrown against rocks in high tide, run aground for days or weeks or months, drying in the sun, later rescued by the current, going down to the sea but not getting lost in it, returning, in the direction of the same forests where they originated, where they were chopped down and turned into beams or torn off from the trees by a hurricane or by the blow of lightning.
Pascal: Les rivières sont des chemins qui marchent et qui portent oú l’on veut aller. Henry Hudson traveled up the river in September 1609 believing it was the road that would allow him to circle around the north of the American continent and reach China. Just a few years later, as Henry Hudson led another voyage searching once again for the passage to Asia, he fell victim to a mutiny by his crew, who finally abandoned him at the bay that now bears his name. Nothing else was ever known about him. When he was abandoned, his son was on the boat with him.
Odd people by the river’s shore. The ones who seem transplanted from another world. An elderly man advancing to the edge with slow and brief steps, opening his legs in a particular gesture. Before the water, his legs apart, his eyes half-closed, he moves his hands horizontally in delayed tai chi movements. An old man in a black suit, wearing a black hat, a black tie, black shoes, his hair white and his face very red, his legs bent, wiping a handkerchief over his forehead, looking as if he had come from a wedding or a funeral in a small town on the Mediterranean coast. For a moment, that grandfather, with his reddish peasant’s face and his faint white hair, with his bent legs, has become the ghost of my paternal grandfather, who died twenty-five years ago.
Cry Me a River. Write Me a River. Write me a river, don’t describe it to me. Narrate it, make it sound in my ears, let the smell of mud and algae inundate my nasal passages, let its current take me away. The voice of many waters, says the book of Genesis. The magnanimity of accepting everything and carrying it. The river as that old well-built bearded man from Roman mythological sculptures. The Old Man River of the blues. And the movable darkness that must be at the bottom, the silt between gray and greenish, sunken objects, the heaviest, skeletons of dead bodies never found, the drowned ones and the murdered ones, old electrical appliances thrown into the river under the cover of the night, the gun a murderer threw over the railings of the G. Washington from a moving car or from the edge of a dock, the millions of leaves from all the winters that were so soaked and sinking and have rotted in the silt in the bottom of the river and are part of it, blind fish feeding on debris, the submarine plains and slopes of oysters, if any are left, that for centuries filtered the river water to maintain an extreme purity and were then harvested or extinguished because of pollution, gigantic tires that sometimes surface when the tide is very low, entire tree trunks that have been simplified and petrified, shoes missing their mates, shells from zebra mussels that invaded the Hudson in the eighties, and having colonized everything and exterminated almost every other form of life, then extinguished themselves by eating each other because there was no other food left. Write me a river. Write rivers of ink. Writing as a river that hasn’t stopped flowing since I’ve had use of reason, a river of chalk on blackboard, of pencil on ruled school notebook pages, of typewriter ribbon, of fountain pen, of cheap pen, of extra fine Pilot marker: how lengthy and sinuous must be the river of all the words one has been writing throughout one’s life, the river of each and every one of our steps.
On September 9, 1609, Henry Hudson captained the Half Moon as it headed for the first time through a river that as far as the crew was concerned didn’t have a name and gave no indication of where it led. The river, already as wide as an estuary, measures almost two kilometers from one edge to the other. The Half Moon measured less than thirty meters from prow to stern. We can no longer imagine what it would be like to venture into a landscape that has no familiar characteristics or names, that does not exist on maps. An officer named Robert Juet kept a journal onboard: This day the people of the country came aboard of us, seeming very glad of our coming, and brought green tobacco, and gave us of it for knives and beads. They go in deer skins loose, well dressed. They have yellow copper. They desire clothes, and are very civil. They have great store of maize or Indian wheat, whereof they made good bread.
The smell of nature on the American continent at that time was so profound that navigators perceived it even before they had spotted solid ground. The smell of the woods. A sweet smell of flowers came from the earth, writes Columbus in his diary. Glimpsing the tree-covered coast in the distance, Giovanni Verrazzano says he sensed “the sweetest odors.” Verrazano is now the name of another extremely beautiful bridge that unites Brooklyn and Staten Island, a bridge of lines so simple it could be a Platonic bridge, a bridge that could be a Brancusi sculpture. After a long voyage and the surely foul odors emanating from the ship’s interior, the crew of the Half Moon smelled the grass and flowers as they went upstream. Dutch settler Adriaen van der Donck writes in his diary: The air in the New-Netherland is so dry, sweet, and healthy that we need not wish that it were otherwise. In purity, agreeableness, and fineness, it would be folly to seek for an example of it in any other country.
The country is full of great and tall oaks. Robert Juet’s journal aboard the Half Moon, September 4, 1609.
Going down to the river has become a habit, a mania, an idée fixe. If I don’t have a lot of time, I cross Riverside Park and the tunnel and stop for a few minutes by the shore and return home as rapidly as I’ve come. I don’t take more than half an hour. I check to see whether the tide is high or low: when it is very low, blocks of algae-green rocks and heavy objects that are usually submerged appear, truck tires, for instance, iron beams, an entire engine, a refrigerator stripped of its door. When the tide is very high the water almost reaches the path and the river is swollen like the belly of a woman about to give birth. I stand at the edge for a while: I examine the current, smell the air, look to see if there is a lot of trash. Sometimes the Hudson looks so clean, it would seem to be a river that precedes human presence, and other times it’s a junkyard, depending on the day, or on the tides, the wind, who could know. A lace of foam extends across two or three meters from the edge for many days. The foam is the color of snow on the sidewalk that won’t melt after a few days: a filthy white that is almost gray, a gray of filth and of a rat’s back. Owing to some principle of fluid mechanics, the foam adopts shapes akin to leopard or zebra spots.
As I walk, very closely to the handrail, I don’t take my eyes off the garland of dirty foam, the thin river of trash that circulates parallel to the edge, swinging in the current, sometimes broken by it, disarranged in discontinuous threads. When I find myself engrossed in the catalog of things that make up the garland of trash, I walk without seeing anybody I pass, cyclists and runners I could crash into. If I had a notebook and a pencil with me and I could write without diverting my eyes from the water and without stopping, I would make a complete list of everything I’m seeing. Sometimes what I do is take quick photographs with my BlackBerry, so many that I never get to review them and even less to transfer them to the computer or to attempt a selective classification.
A condom. A faded tennis ball, torn like orange peel. An inverted water bottle. A large yellow plastic lid like the ones from big jars of olives. A red construction hat that oscillates like a half-shipwrecked canoe. Another condom. A ripped bag of potato chips. A large bag from Duane Reade drugstore, the red and blue of the logo already somewhat dull. A plastic cup from McDonald’s that still has a straw stuck through the lid, like a small mast. A baby’s stroller’s seat pad. A Tetra Brik that has lost any traces of branding. An almost new tennis ball, greenish yellow and shiny. A golf ball atop a wave’s crest. A woodblock with burnt borders pierced with a large rusty and crooked nail. A double page with New York Post headlines so soaked it is starting to disintegrate. A gasoline can. A plastic watch with a pink band. Half a compact disc. A thick biker’s glove that surfaces in the water like the open hand of a drowned man. A shrunken athletic shoe and its sole coming apart. A condom that must have been in the water so long it has dilated to impossible dimensions.
The day after Valentine’s: a long-stemmed rose with great red petals half plucked and the remainder of a cellophane sleeve floating in the river with the ghastliness of a suicidal woman.
Among the blocks of granite and concrete that compose the shore are holes filled with rat nests and cracks that have trapped some of the smallest objects that the river tosses or that were left behind when the tide got lower. Bits of chip bags, toy car wheels, chopped-off Barbie doll heads, pen caps, pens advertising restaurants or banks. Plastic bottles, mostly. Encrusted in almost every crack on the rocks at the Hudson’s shore are one or many plastic bottles in various degrees of decay. Small water bottles, some still with a quite visible label, others opaque and fractured by the passage of time, by the constant cycle of water immersion and sun exposure that makes the material more rigid and takes away its transparency, after erasing any labels. Water bottles that evoke bottles with messages from a shipwreck. Bottles, lids, plastic lighters, hotel minibar liquor bottles, cut up shoes, old sneakers, shrunken, sneakers that have lost their shoelaces or that have lost everything except the sole. Pieces and lumps of plastic that have lost any recognizable shape after many years between the shore and the water. And much closer, if you crouch down and dig in the cracks, always with the fear of encountering a rat’s snout, increasingly smaller flakes of plastic, rusty and deteriorated coins, particles that get mixed with grains of sand and splinters of granite, that will return to the water and end up in the stomachs of fish or of seagulls or of the geese that go up to the path to sunbathe, chemical components that never dissolve, that will reach us through a chain that begins with plankton and fish.
But what the river takes and brings most, more than plastics, the river that comes and goes, what it leaves ashore when a wave breaks and what it recovers later when the tide rises, is wood, wood in every stage of transformation, from the closest to its origins to the most degraded, from a swollen sage branch full of leaves that are still green, cut off by the wind, to a tree trunk that already has the texture of fossil matter, to a beam from a building built a century or two ago that remained standing for a hundred years and was demolished or destroyed by a fire in such a way that it still shows black burn marks. Pieces of wood drift up and down the river: sometimes aligned in a current that crosses precisely through the center of the river, beams and trunks and sheets in a severe formation that looks like an invading army, in water that is between green and gray and under an opalescent sky of bellicose metals.
Time, great sculptor, says Marguerite Yourcenar. The river is the great sculptor of wood. A whole tree chopped by a storm or toppled by lightning falls into the river; after some time and going up and going down and almost reaching the ocean and being pushed back upstream by the tide, it slowly becomes an abstract form, the naked sculpture of a tree. It loses all specificity: its leaves, of course, its slight branches, its bark. It will take years or decades. It gradually dismantles until it bears the extreme starkness of a tree silhouette. Drenched with water, dried in the sun ashore, later dehydrated by the sun, polished as it brushed against water, returned to the current by the clash with the edges of stones at the shore, it finally acquires the whiteness of raw bone, the light gray of ashes or minerals. The trunk, the forked crown like two arms amputated at half length, nothing more. The tree is no longer elm or beech or maple or any of the tall and great oaks that covered the island when Henry Hudson arrived. It is nothing more than a tree, the vestige of a tree, the fossil testimony of a tree. How to know which hillside upstream it sprouted from when a seed that fell on the ground, was nourished by the organic rotting of leaves that accumulated through the years, autumn after autumn, winters of snow and rain and animal footprints. How could I possibly trace the biography of that tree trunk that I’ve seen for the first time this morning, catapulted near the edge of the path in the tempest, still drying in the sun, well built and cast away, like Ulysses on the shore of the Phaeacians.
A woman stands atop the concrete blocks that jut from the river’s edge. People usually sit there to read, or to look at the water, or to type on an iPhone. There is also the occasional sunbather in the summer. One season, at that same spot, as I ran I would see an older man meditating in perfect lotus posture, his back straight, his legs crossed, the nape of his neck lightly angled, the palms of his hands on his lap, thumbs touching. Today I see the woman who is so close to the edge I’m afraid she might jump. She has her back to me: she holds something in her hands. Since I’m carrying my BlackBerry, it occurs to me to take a picture. I get closer and I see that she has thrown into the water whatever it was that she had in her hands: something white, with thick pages, a notebook that sways on the foam of waves breaking by the shore. The woman turns and sees me. She has curly hair, a round and tranquil face. I say, “Can I ask you something?” She nods. “I saw you throw something into the water. Could you tell me what it was?” “That’s between the river and me,” says the woman, polite but conclusive. That’s between the river and me.
I continue my walk, and I hear somebody call me. It’s the woman with the notebook. “I’m sorry if I was rude. Why were you asking me that?” “I come to the river almost every day. I observe what people do.” “It was a manuscript for a book. I’d take notes and write drafts on that notebook. I have the complete book on my computer. Now that I’ve finished it, instead of keeping the notebook, I brought it for the river.”
Yesterday fog covered the Hudson, after several sunny days. The bridge and the opposite shore were practically invisible in a gray that in the distance blended into the calm gray of the water, almost as still as a lake in the windless afternoon, in the freezing point of the tide. Unmoving river that doesn’t come or go, swollen river, broadened, almost overflowing at the shore, almost reaching my feet on the path, bulging and heavy as the belly of a woman about to give birth.
Driftwood. Wood drifting, branches by the shore dried to the gray whiteness of bone, whole lengthy tree trunks going down the current’s center like vessels and run aground between two rocks and oscillating perpendicular to them, with the agitation of docked gondolas, beams of fallen or burnt down or demolished buildings, squared shoes with bent nails that went through their soles, logs insects drilled for years that then fell in the water, sticks like the knobbly staffs of prophets in the desert, their cylindrical pieces like drums or like buoys, sheets of bark that have acquired a mineral texture, sharp splinters with missing points that became holes that suddenly turn them into the head of an animal with sharp pupils and a large snout, the organic shapes that the drift itself has modeled from wood: bare sticks with a serpent’s wave, with a serpent’s eye, with a fissure at the end that is the serpent’s mouth. One afternoon, among the rocks on the shore, a piece of a beam, broken in a peculiar way and grazed by the oblique sun, appears exactly like a whale’s head, its round eye almost under its hump, its lower jaw narrow and hanging. I get close, I take a photograph, another photograph, from another angle, so absorbed it takes me a while to notice that a smiling black woman is curiously watching what I’m doing, an expression of anticipated tolerance on her face.
—What do you see there?
—That piece of wood. It looks just like a whale’s head.
—You can see some strange things when you look through
somebody else’s eyes.
And when I put away my BlackBerry and continue along the path, the woman stays back there, still looking at the block of wood in which she now sees a whale.
My memory serves me well when trying to recall the moments when I learned certain words. I first found driftwood in a book that I bought in a secondhand store in London, twenty years ago, during a very rough time in my life; I lacked any fixed center, I, who so poorly tolerates irregularity and uncertainty. It was John Franklin’s diary of his first Arctic expedition. My English was much poorer then. Driftwood was one of those words that appear and reappear until the lazy reader has no choice but to look in the dictionary. Finding pieces of wood drifting in that arctic solitude could be a matter of life or death: the difference between having fire or not. I was going between transitory housing and hotel rooms, and Franklin’s book was a pillar of sorts. It was small, hardcover, with very clean typography, with a particular smell of aged paper, as it must have been over a century old. I would bring it with me in my coat pocket and at nighttime would leave it on bedside tables that rarely ever belonged to the same rooms. Driftwood.
Driftwood is wood that has been washed onto a shore or beach of a sea or river by the action of winds, tides, waves or man.
Driftwood: n madera f de deriva.
But translating one word using multiple words, two dry syllables into seven, would be to relent. One day, during a walk by the river’s shore, I coined an exact equivalent, a word that doesn’t yet exist in Spanish: maderiva.
To drift. To let go: led by the river’s current, by the impulse of steps, of the elastic pounding of heels against flattened soil, soil thick with humidity and leaves that the same steps have been pulverizing, transmuting into fertile ground: to let go in the fortuitousness of thoughts, in word associations; in the liquid river sprouting from the tip of a pen, sharp as a burin, in the murmur it produces when it slides across the smooth and solid pages of a notebook. To let go so that writing might happen by itself, so that it may unfold without a design like the dirty foam garlands and soaked leaves and wood drifting along the river’s shore. Writing that walks and flows, stream of consciousness, river novel, novel river, flujo de conciencia, flow of ink forming words like a meander, a humble substitute for the Chinese or Japanese calligraphy pen brush, writing and drawing both, instantaneous writing, shorthand of the here and now.
Writing of somnambulism and rapture: Howl, Paterson, Leaves of Grass, El don de la ebriedad, Livro do Desassossego, Dirección única, Le spleen de Paris, Poeta en Nueva York, The Bridge, The Day Lady Died. William Carlos Williams, so reticent, his exterior manner that of the respectable New Jersey pediatrician, immediately celebrated the hallucinatory excess of Howl. The generosity of this veteran and consecrated poet toward a practically unknown young man, from the formal doctor with his gray suit and his tie to the practically unknown young man, the bearded homosexual beatnik from the Village, recognition imparted by Williams from profound fellowship, indifferent to appearances, or rather respectful of them, the two men accepting the differences between them, recognizing themselves in the other not in spite of but precisely because of these, because they widen each personal condition. It is Haydn’s generosity toward Mozart: the humility of the teacher who recognizes the eruption of a much younger talent.
Preparations for a walk. I wake up early, and as I look out the window, the block across the street is drenched with sun. The clothes people wear along the wide and tranquil sidewalk of 106th Street, along Duke Ellington Boulevard, are my weather indicator: somebody wears just a shirt to walk the dog; a cyclist passes in a light athletic jacket; a young woman with bare legs. The poplar in the patio behind the kitchen hasn’t yet sprouted new leaves. In spite of the continuously mild weather of late, the trees of New York preserve their naked branches, scribbles against the very blue sky. On some branches, plastic bags trapped after the wind has picked them up undulate like Tibetan flags for months or years. More or less faded or torn, unthreaded from being out in the open, some like algae hair, like submerged albine heads of hair. Plastic that infects the air just as it does the river’s water and the shore’s soil and roots.
Provisions for the expedition: an omelet with two eggs, bought the other day at the farmer’s market, sunny yellow yolks, whites so thick they leave a visible trace in the bowl I’ve used to stir them. I make a sandwich with the omelet and a few slices of ham. The heat from the omelet transfers pleasantly to the bread. I fill half a bottle of water with red wine. I fill another bottle with tap water. I put the sandwich and the two bottles in my backpack. I pack a bag of seeds and dried fruit that will quickly alleviate the midmorning crash. I pack Katherine Mansfield’s diary, which I bought a few days ago from a street vendor for two dollars. It’s incredible how cheap the best things in life can be, water and food along with books. I have to choose a notebook, and that demands more time. I consider many, searching for them through the cardboard boxes where I usually keep them. Notebooks with sturdy cardboard covers, with flexible black covers. Notebooks with lined, squared, blank pages. The notebook you choose can be decisive. I open them, I feel them, I’m not sure which one to take with me. Inspiration arises not from our consciousness but from our hands, from tactile pleasure and the fluidity of pen on paper.
The last notebooks I purchased came from a stationery store on the corner of 12th Street and University Place. A bell rang as I pushed the door, and it smelled intensely of ink and paper. Carpeted floor attenuated footsteps and made the silence more hospitable. Stationery stores in New York are always quiet. A whole wall was lined with shelves stacked with all types of notebooks. Notebooks with black covers, school composition notebooks, notebooks with yellow sheets and blue lines, which they call legal pads. A display with reduced price postcards of New York. Shelves with envelopes, with piles of blank paper of diverse sizes, of various colors. Behind the counter, a very tall and very formal salesman, with white hair, with a young dark-skinned face, with very dark eyes. I said: “What a beautiful store you’ve got here.” He thanked me, smiling sadly, with an accent that could have been from Pakistan or India. “This is a dying business,” he said with resignation that seemed to endure against bitterness but was vulnerable to melancholy. “With iPhones and iPads people don’t write on paper anymore. Somebody like you or me, yes, but not young people. Young people don’t know how to write by hand, they don’t care about that. They don’t know what they’re missing. Ten years ago I never stopped selling pens like these”— he pointed to the glass case under the counter displaying fountain pens—“Expensive, important pens. Montblanc, Waterman. There wasn’t a day when I sold less than thirty. You don’t want to know how long it takes me now to sell a single pen.”
After putting everything in my backpack, I’ve tightly tied the shoelaces of my black walking shoes, a pair of New Balance sneakers I haven’t stopped wearing in the last two years. They should have kilometer markers in shoe heels. I don’t know how many kilometers I’ve covered in these shoes, in New York and Madrid, in all the cities where I’ve walked for hours without a break. I make sure I have the house keys, my BlackBerry, my wallet. It is ten in the morning on this sunny March Friday, and I have a whole intact day before me, with no other assignment or purpose than walking south along the Hudson’s shore, with the sun on my face, for as long as it takes me, walking without stopping to Battery Park, to the extreme end of the island.
The illusion of natural movement is achieved at a speed of twenty-four frames per second. Not one more, not one less. For the film of the city to be intelligible, it must be projected exactly at the speed of a human walk. The bicycle gets close, but it’s too fast. The speed of the car threads images of a great open space. The texture, the peculiar grain of the city, the flow that both allows images to be intelligible and at the same time organizes them in succession, can only be revealed through footsteps. Not slow footsteps, but neither too fast, the kind that demand what is unchanging about the straight line, the kind that impose their destination over traffic. Their simple, binary rhythm ends up becoming hypnotizing. Heels hitting the ground harmonize with heartbeat and with the coming and going of breath, air in nostrils, charged with molecules of sea breeze and forest soil and river silt, microscopic bursts at nerve ends, traveling to the brain at the speed of light. Solid shoes, with cracks from heavy use that are like age lines on a face, wrinkles that the shape of my feet and my walking habits have drawn on them, the way in which the heel has worn off, step after step, kilometer after kilometer.
Virginia Woolf: Oh the joy of walking! I’ve never felt it so strong in me. Virginia Woolf with her cane and her men’s boots walking in the British meadow with a river that runs through it, quickening her step to escape from depression, anguish pursuing her, listening to engines of German planes that crossed the Channel to bombard London, the RAF fighters that fought an unequal battle against them in the skies of England, much higher than the clouds. She had made a pact with Leonard: if the Germans invaded, they would take their lives together. She had as much of a disposition for joy as she did for darkness: It is a general sense of the poetry of existence that overcomes me.
Truman Capote: I wanted to produce . . . something on a large scale that would have the credibility of fact, the immediacy of film, the depth and freedom of prose, and the precision of poetry.
Baudelaire: Qui est celui de nous qui n’a pas, dans se jours d’ambition, rêvé le miracle d’une prose poétique, musicale sans rythme et sans rime, assez souple et assez heurtée por s’adapter aux mouvements lyriques de l’âme, aux ondulations de la rêverie, aux soubresaults de la conscience?
A big refrigerator stripped of its door floats in the river, near the shore, nodding along as the tide pushes it upstream. An enormous beam with two shoes nailed to its extremes at last advancing as a ship which has just set sail, just reemerged from the rocks where it was stuck for so many days after a very high tide. A green plastic chair, upside down, its four legs sticking out of the water rippling in the breeze coming from the west. A pair of silver balloons, heart-shaped, like kites, tied to a rope that connects them with a somewhat burnt trunk. Or perhaps what has left them there is not the water but its secret collaborator, the sculptor of driftwood, the artist of the Hudson, a misanthrope and mostly invisible, who leaves sure signs of his work and also possible traces, bits of wood arranged in a way that could be his own design or simply the impersonal action of the river, of the current and wind. His personal works are unmistakable. I’ve been noticing them since back when I rarely noticed anything, since I would run by them: a long and thin tree trunk nailed vertically in between rocks and at a third of its height a horizontal stick, tied with rope equally worn by the elements: two poles of a cross that suddenly gives the shore the roughness of Golgotha, and a third line that seems to be coiling around it as it climbs up, a serpent of fossil wood and sinuous shapes causing the ruin of Humanity that only the cross could redeem. In a day or in a few hours, the wind will demolish it or the river will drag it down as it rises: what was branch, driftwood, cross, sculpture, will again become amphibious wood returning to the water after a stay on solid ground.
The sculptor must work very early, because I’ve never caught him in action. He makes crosses, windmills, sea monsters with open mouths emerging from the water or from cracks between rocks, altars raised on four or five fragile poles upon which a curved branch rises with the unmistakable shape of a cobra. Other times his presence can be detected from a small pebble, cubic like a cobblestone, vertically positioned right on the edge of a bigger rock. Or just as well, two interlaced fragments of wood, like the heads of two primitive animals with open mouths and flat snouts: their mouths the splintered end of the wood, their eyes the round holes of a nail that rust has pulverized, their muzzles the edge of a plank or of a beam detached from who knows which ruined building upstream. The artist is anonymous, an ascetic of the accidental and the ephemeral, a solitary river inspector. I follow his trace, I search for him, I wait for him to appear, but I’ve only happened upon him once or twice and only the last time was I able to exchange a few words with him. His hands were large, square, hardened, red in the cold; his face rough and flushed, with a broken nose; his head was shaved; his eyes elusive and very blue. There was something about him like an old convict or a war veteran tormented with grapeshot, something like a shipwrecked sailor: like the pirate Ayrton, driven mad after five years of solitude, whom the very sensible settlers find on Tabor Island in Verne’s The Mysterious Island. I saw him pedaling down the path, arduously dragging with his bicycle a cart loaded with all types of wood from the river: trunks, branches, beams, square blocks. Some fell, and he stopped to pick them up. I helped, and he looked at me with suspicion without thanking me, as if fearing he had been found out, fearing he could be robbed. I asked him if he was the river artist. He nodded without saying a word, glancing obliquely at me with his very pale eyes. I told him how much I admired his work, and just a moment after saying that it sounded absurd to me: as if I were congratulating a vain artist at a Chelsea gallery. He gestured, tightened the ropes to secure the load, and went back to pedaling, getting away as quickly as possible.
Baudelaire: Mon cher ami, je vous envoi un petit ouvrage dont on ne pourrait pas dire, sans injustice, qu’il n’a ni queue ni tête, puisque tout, au contraire, y est à la fois tête et queue, alternativemente et reciproquement.
To see everything, to hear everything, to pay attention to everything. To the sounds of the river water crashing against the shore and of car tires sliding across the wet asphalt on the highway, of runners’ soft footsteps and of stealthy bicycle wheels, and of airplanes flying upstream over my head, one after another, coming from the ocean, climbing in a straight line until turning east when they’re up by the George Washington Bridge, on their way to LaGuardia Airport. To see the small Mexican immigrant sitting alone on a flat rock in front of the water, keeping close to him the old bicycle which he might use to do deliveries for a restaurant, immersed in what longing, in what solitude as unapproachable as the scale of the landscape and the width of the river. To see the young blonde woman leaning over her book as she reads, instantly acquiring a possibility of beauty that actuality might refute if she were to turn in my direction. To hear the wind among still bare branches that lean toward the water, or the others, the ones that could be x-rays of the direction of the wind, the ones that have straightened as they’ve grown. To listen to the murmur of splashing water and of soaked beams hitting the edge of rocks at the shore, over and over again, with each wave that pushes them, just as it models them and wears them down.
Fernando Pessoa: By art I mean everything that delights us without being ours—the trail left by what has passed, the smile given to another, the sunset, a poem, the objective universe. To possess is to lose. To feel without possessing is to preserve and keep, for it is to extract from things their essence. I have walked along another estuary, wider even than the Hudson’s: Mar da Palha, with its gold straw radiance, across the stairs of Lisbon, the mouth of the Tagus.
Today I walk north. Yesterday, I went down to the island’s southernmost end. Yesterday it was warm and the wind brought sea mist with the smell of algae. Today it’s cold again and the wind comes from the plains and the interior lakes, from the Canadian frontier and the Arctic Circle. I put on my coat, and if I take my hands out of the pockets, they freeze. I have on my black sneakers and the seventies style coat that I bought at a secondhand store ten years ago and haven’t stopped wearing since. I like the tenacity of things that last. Using them wears them down, cracks them, models them, like the weather and the sun do to my face and the river to the tree trunks it carries from one place to the other and deposits at the shore and retrieves from it. The coat is missing a button, and there is a hole in the right pocket. The shoes have carried me with invariable equanimity during times of darkness and of elation that wouldn’t attenuate. They have stepped across the Atlantic dunes of Doñana, the dried leaves of the forest in Inwood, the sidewalks of Barcelona and Bilbao, the well-trod ground of Parque del Retiro and the Botánico in Madrid, the fragrant meadows of the New York Botanical Garden. When I take them off at night, I leave them at the foot of the bed. A Zen teacher said that shoes must be taken off at night with reverence, in gratitude for all the leagues they have covered for us.
Looking down at the ground. Stepping on soil freshly moist from rain in Riverside Park. The path has become a great puddle. The soil can’t absorb any more water and overflows with it. The rain has soaked and tenderized whatever leaves are still left in winter. By now, the dried leaves from the fall have accumulated in successive layers and have a consistency close to dust, to the fertile ground they’re becoming. Fallen, pushed by the wind, drenched in the rain, buried under ice, softened when ice has melted and mixed with mud, stepped on by people and animals, hardened and brittle once more, covered in snow, soaked again more slowly and gradually as it melts. The patchwork of leaves possesses a materiality that can only be discerned when walking with our eyes on the ground, absorbed in it, lost in its baroqueness of diverse species of leaves, lumps of soil, rocks, broken branches, innumerable fragments of the most tender branches broken under the weight of the snow or with the blowing of the wind, branches that fell this winter and past winters, a good amount eaten away by parasites, drilled into by insects, flakes and splinters of wood, bits of tree trunks, warped more as they increase in size, as if bearing medieval manuscripts, crunching under footsteps as they keep drying. Pieces of branches, thin and short like human fingers, sometimes forming angles and taking on shapes of reptiles, of birds, of animal snouts. A hole in a knot turns out to be exactly the round eye of a bird, of a snake, of a horse, of a seahorse. The point where the wood splinters is the sharp beak of the bird.
In my left coat pocket I always carry something I’ve picked up from the ground. If I put anything in the right pocket, it falls through the hole inside. Small objects that fingers can play with, that can be grasped in a fist. Half a pencil in perfect shape, hexagonal, yellow, its eraser end not too worn out; a pointy pinecone with polyhedron sides reminiscent of Egyptian column capitals; a rusty door hinge, showing the effects of being exposed to the elements, with two empty screw holes; a piece of wood that is very polished, perhaps from a long stay in the water, that has the shape of a tooth belonging to a primitive carnivorous animal, a consistency of extinguished animal fossil tooth; a very thin dried branch that is like an entire diminutive tree. There are other things that I examine without actually picking up, or that I take with me in a BlackBerry snapshot: a black comb, old, plastic, a few strands of hair noted with disgust or alarm; sunglasses somebody has hung by a thread from a cherry tree branch that move gently in the breeze; a glove or a pair of gloves fallen among the leaves like abandoned hands, disjointed from a body. As a child, I would always keep my eyes on the ground to see if I could find something, any of the many things I wanted and didn’t have. It’s incredible all you can find if you look down. I once found a handful of coins that was only small change but to me seemed like part of a treasure. I found untouched comics featuring my favorite superheroes, crystal marbles shiny as diamonds that we called cristalas, the most precious kind. One day as I returned from my father’s vegetable garden, I found an intact, gleaming five duros coin, worth almost an enormity then, and I squeezed it in the sweaty palm of my hand all the way home, scared to lose it, and I hid it with combined wonder and guilt.
A friend told me that there is a lighthouse at the foot of the George Washington Bridge, and that I could get there if I kept walking uptown past Harlem, straying from the shore for a bit, going under the great iron bridges of the West Side Highway and of the train. One day, I got ready for the expedition. Coat, black shoes, backpack, notebook, book, water bottle, water bottle with wine, sandwich, the whole day ahead of me, the decision to do nothing else. It was mid-March and the trees on the Cherry Walk were starting to bloom, spots of pink foam against the river’s horizon. At the beginning of the walk, the George Washington Bridge seems very far. New works from the river artist repeat the monotonous variations of cross, mast, coiling serpent, sheaf tied with old ropes. The repertory is so limited and at the same time endless: like my fixation with repeating the same walk every day or almost every day, like the fence of fish eggs and seaweed that marks the descent of the tide in the stones, like the traffic along the West Side Highway, or the flight of airplanes over the current, or the flight of seagulls, or like the plastic bottles encrusted in every crack among the rocks, or the plastic bags hanging from tree branches. The monotony of footsteps and heartbeat and the swelling and emptying of lungs thread the rhythm of my life. I walked for more than an hour, the wind against my face, the tide high, the river rippling with Atlantic waves. At the end of the path, over the highest treetops, arose one of the pillars of the George Washington Bridge. The sun gave the iron beams a silver gleam. The distant roar of traffic was fainter than the sound of water crashing against rocks. The river widened, and on the other side there were no more apartment towers or sports complexes or ports, but instead the magnificent cliffs they call the Palisades: the bare trees allowed a view of every angle of the living rock, schist black and tough like flint.
Then, a bit closer, I distinguished the lighthouse, almost negligible at the foot of the colossal structure. The lighthouse at the end of the Hudson. The lighthouse at the limit of my walks along the shore. The lighthouse driven into living rock, in an area where the river widens and currents create many simultaneous rivers within it, where the tide lowers revealing beaches that seem as if they belonged to the remote geography of expeditions and adventure books, of names on world maps, beautiful names of places one will never see: Cabo de Hornos, Patagonia, Greenland. The small lighthouse has the epic dignity of its own name and the resonance it creates: the lighthouse at the end of the world. The lighthouse I once visited on Cape Creus, wind so strong it forced me practically to walk on all fours and to hold onto the edges of rocks as it pushed me. Under the George Washington Bridge, by the lighthouse, feeling the trembling of traffic emanate from each one of the intersecting iron beams, I notice something: the entire surface of the rocks is splattered with paint spots. Silver and ochre, red spots, streaks of paint, as in a Jackson Pollock painting: drops that have fallen over the years when they paint the bridge beams to protect them against rusting: ochre, red, silver, against the rough surface, the texture of pachyderm skin, against gravel, where a lowered gaze finds treasures and garbage: plastic lighters, plastic bottles, remains of driftwood. But there are also screws that have been dropped from the bridge: screws painted the asphalt gray of aircraft carriers. Screws heavy as lead inside my pocket that feel as if they could crumble in my fingers, utterly crafted by rust and exposure to the elements.
[Translated from the Spanish by Martina Broner]
Illustrations by Miguel Sánchez Lindo
 Our lives are rivers, gliding free
To that unfathomed, boundless sea,
The silent grave!
Thither all earthly pomp and boast
Roll, to be swallowed up and lost
In one dark wave.
Thither the mighty torrents stray,
Thither the brook pursues its way,
And tinkling rill,
There all are equal; side by side
The poor man and the son of pride
Lie calm and still.
—Jorge Manrique, trans. by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
 Which of us has not, in his ambitious days, dreamt the miracle of a poetic prose, musical without rhythm or rhyme, supple enough and striking enough to suit lyrical movements of the soul, undulations of reverie, the flip-flops of consciousness? Trans. by Keith Waldrop.