Carlie Hoffman's "The Women of Highbridge Park"

Thoughts on attention and astonishment.

The Women of Highbridge Park

It’s noon on Sunday and they gather 

around black milk crates placed in a circle 

on tattered blue fishing tarp. It’s not quite 

March, but it’s one of those fluke 

hot-weather days, and they are so prepared

for spring: swapping old records 

packed in cardboard cartons, 

daisies tucked behind their ears,

gossiping in the kind of Spanish 

from the kitchens of my past. Last night 

at the bar in a flurry of bitterness

I chucked my full beer

at the bathroom wall, then walked

the thirty blocks home. Today 

I am thinking about the significance

of grass and how I came here because I want

to get better at being a person, 

but every day I begin to know less 

about who I am to America. All I know 

is a small girl emerges from the trees 

waving a stick, hollers to her mother 

that the large scrap of rock she’s been resting on 

is lake water, bottle shards scattered 

across its surface like glittering

jagged pieces of a life. 

I have been trying more each year

to be comfortable, and maybe 

a little bit proud of how I’ve learned

to make a home, all this daylight 

kicking toward the lawn to give 

what little it owes.

from This Alaska (Four Way Books, 2021)


I should preface all of this by saying that, if you love this poem, you should order Carlie Hoffman’s book, This Alaska, which came out not too long ago. I should also say that I know Carlie, and have had the unbelievable pleasure of hearing her read this poem not just once, but maybe three or four times. If not more. Carlie read at one of the first editions of a reading series I used to help run — Dead Rabbits — and I still remember the first time I heard her. You could tell, as you sometimes can when you hear someone read, that the poems she read came from some internal music within her, this kind of calibration of the soul. As if the words themselves were the sheet music the soul left in its wake as it moved through the world.

This poem, as Carlie probably knows, has always been a favorite of mine. Part of that is sentimental. When I first met Carlie, I lived near Highbridge Park — this thin, long strip of green bordering the eastern side of the northern tip of Manhattan. The bridge it’s named after — Highbridge — is this beautiful structure that used to be a part of the Old Croton Aqueduct, which carried water from way up yonder and down into the city. The bridge arcs its way over Harlem River Drive and feels, while you’re atop it, closer to the sky than most bits of land.

And so I love this poem because of what it reminds me of. But I also love this poem because it does what Carlie’s poems so often do — they transcend the seemingly simple act of noticing into something approaching astonishment. They make the everyday glimmer softly: a miracle of tenderness and light. You see that just in the first six lines:

It’s noon on Sunday and they gather 

around black milk crates placed in a circle 

on tattered blue fishing tarp. It’s not quite 

March, but it’s one of those fluke 

hot-weather days, and they are so prepared

for spring

There’s a whole world conjured here — a world bursting physically, temporally, socially. It’s a world that has been given the value of true attention. As people who read this newsletter occasionally probably know, I love any poem that lingers, that begins its energy from the simple act of noticing. There’s those oft-quoted lines from a poem, “Sometimes,” by Mary Oliver:

Instructions for living a life:

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.

I don’t know what your reaction to such lines might be. Maybe you find them beautiful, or hokey, or maybe your reaction is one of cynicism, or maybe some mixture of cynicism and love. Regardless. I love their generosity, their gentle nudge toward witness. The lines serve as a reminder that the world is worth looking at, worth noticing. It’s from such an act of noticing that Carlie grounds the reader in today’s poem, and places them within a moment — which is to say any moment that is described with any worth, as this one is — that has the possibility of beauty within it. It’s a kind of generosity of attention. What I mean by that is that you feel the humanness of the objects of the poem’s eye. You see the women of Highbridge Park. You see them for who they are, and what they do, which is to say that you see them:

swapping old records 

packed in cardboard cartons, 

daisies tucked behind their ears

But, this being a poem, you also feel the deep humanness of the poem’s speaker. It’s not simply a poem of attention. It’s a poem, too, of feeling. Immediately after the noticing that comprises the first half of the poem, you — the reader — bear witness to the speaker:

Last night 

at the bar in a flurry of bitterness

I chucked my full beer

at the bathroom wall,

I love this move on Carlie’s part. I love the craft of it, the wordplay that lets the poem echo against itself as it moves downward — bar, flurry, bitterness, full, beer, bathroom — these words filling and then blunting the mouth.

But I love these lines especially because they refuse what I think can feel like a relatively prescriptive kind of writing, which is to say that the poem refuses to be wholly obvious about its connective tissue. It denies the common phrases that link ideas, phrases like this made me think of, or because of this, or as a result. Instead, the poem simply jumps from the act of attention to the act of memory. And though that might seem like a jump, it’s actually not, because that — at least to me — is how memory works. Memory doesn’t announce itself. It doesn’t give a quick prelude to its arrival. Rather, it finds you. You’re alone, staring into the wide field of your attention — maybe on a riverbank somewhere, maybe overlooking some cityscape, some green field — and then memory is there. The memory of last night or the memory of many nights ago. A memory you wish hadn't caught you off guard. Or maybe a memory you cherish. But a memory nonetheless.

It reminds me of the way Marie Howe plays with memory in her poem “What the Living Do.” First, she writes:

For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking,

I've been thinking: This is what the living do.

And so, as the poem begins, one thinks that what the living do is simply a kind of mundanity — shopping, driving, moving through one day and the next. But then the poem ends:

But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass,
say, the window of the corner video store, and I'm gripped by a cherishing so deep

for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I'm speechless:
I am living. I remember you.

I am living. I remember you. To be alive, then, is to remember. It’s to be caught — so often, in the midst of the ordinary — by memory. To be alive is to live forever in between the present moment of where you are and all that the present moment might remind you of.

And it’s that introduction of memory that gives today’s poem permission to wander into the universal. Just as memory can intrude upon the specific attention of daily life, so too can the universal intrude upon the specific. That’s life, right? You spend your life avoiding a thought until it hits you upside the head, and you can’t stop thinking about it. What you obsess about is, sadly (or happily, or whatever-ly), what you obsess about.

This is why I love the way this poem today turns through memory into the lines that follow:

Today 

I am thinking about the significance

of grass and how I came here because I want

to get better at being a person, 

but every day I begin to know less 

about who I am to America.

I remember the first time I heard those lines aloud — I came here because I want / to get better at being a person. Who doesn’t resonate with such an idea? Who doesn’t have a here where they are attempting to become a better person? And who doesn’t have a here that they want to travel to if the here where they are is not making them better? And who doesn’t feel that pain, that struggle, that deep, immediate challenge of trying to get from the here where one is to the here where one wants to be? For all my life, I thought this journey of being alive meant some kind of journey from here to there, but I think I know now that it is so often a journey from here to here. We live here, and try to make of here a better place to be where we are.

In another poem, Carlie writes the following:

Impermanence

is the first way of knowing the world, the second

a love of it regardless.

And isn’t that related? That the here is always changing, that it is never fixed.?And yet, and yet, and yet: the love can be fixed. And the love can be maintained regardless. In all of life, maybe love is a constant. Despite the uncertainty, despite the anger, despite the flux of emotions that constitute a life, there is — or can be — love, just as there is, as Carlie writes, the “significance / of grass.” This ongoingness throughout the uncertainty of life. This small reminder of love that — for what it’s worth, even if its worth is small — continues to grow.

Reading today’s poem now, I’m struck by the idea of home, the way that the poem’s speaker says they are a “little bit proud of how [they’ve] learned / to make a home.” I think maybe I’m struck by that because, in the opening unit of my 11th grade curriculum, we’ve been reading Gabriel Bump’s novel Everywhere You Don’t Belong, and talking a lot about what it means to have a home, and what it means to evolve in your understanding of what home is or could be. One chapter ends with the following sentence:

And my life went on like that: people coming and going, valuable things left in a hurry.

In my classes, we talked about this line, about how hard it might be for someone to find a home in a place where so much left, and not just left, but left in a hurry. I think so much of life feels this way. There is an emphasis on various kinds of mobility in our world, so much so that it rarely seems you encounter someone willing — like grass — to remain in the same place, to commit to an idea of growth that is rooted. Our society often prides transience, or flexibility, or a willingness to move. What happens, though, when someone wants to try to grow exactly where they are, when someone wants — as the speaker of today’s poem does — to “make a home,” even if it’s not perfect at first glance?

And so, I think about stillness when I think of today’s poem. I think about attention. And I think about the ways in which our world so often privileges immediacy over sustained witness. The ways in which our world privileges first impressions, which are, sadly and so often, influenced by past experience or idealistic present conceptions. But what happens if we stay within the moment of our attention?What happens if we notice, as Carlie so beautifully does in her poem, the women of Highbridge Park? If we stay in the long moment of our attention, what do we remember? And if we remember, what do we allow ourselves to admit? To feel? Without noticing, who is there to witness “all this daylight / kicking toward the lawn”? It’s hard not to think of Carlie’s poem in conversation with Larry Levis’ “Elegy With a Darkening Trapeze Inside It,” which ends:

Every revolution ends, or it begins, in memory:
Someone remembering her diminishment & pain, the way
Her scuffed shoes looked in the pale light,
How she inhaled steel filings in the grinding shed
For thirty years without complaining once about it,
How she might have done things differently. But didn’t.
How it is too late to change things now. How it isn’t. 

The speaker within today’s poem lives, it seems, in between that moment that Levis articulates, where what is done is done, and yet so much is still to come, where what could’ve been is no longer, but what could be is still on the horizon. But what I love, too, about Carlie’s work is the small line, the admittance that the speaker is “maybe / a little bit proud.”

So much of life means holding onto some small joy when confronted with the feeling that rises within us when, as Carlie writes, we don’t know who we are — whether that’s to America, or to some kind of structure, or system, or person. Noticing can be a lonely thing. Sometimes paying attention can make you feel like you are the only one who is paying attention.

What is the answer to that loneliness? Maybe the answer is to continue to pay attention, to notice one’s way into loneliness and then to notice one’s way through it, into the communal life that makes up the everyday. To harbor the same willingness to be astonished by what might seem simple. To be among the women of Highbridge Park. To make what one makes out of the various “jagged pieces of a life” that one encounters. And then, perhaps, to notice those same pieces of a life in others. When that happens, maybe the reservoirs of memory within us fill up with the small, substantial moments of the ordinary. And when that happens, maybe what we pay attention to in the present feels in communion with so much else. So that when we are struck — while walking, while moving through the world — we are struck by the deep and rich complexity of humanness. And when that happens, maybe, the connective tissue does not have to be fabricated. It might just be there — one moment reaching back into the past, one person in the field of your vision holding on to one person in the storybook of your mind. And when that happens — I want to say, I want to, I really do — you won’t be alone.