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Ellis Island, How It Looked, What It Meant

How It Looked

Age fifty-two, I went to Ellis Island for the first time. Someone had asked my opinion about the old hospital buildings. I had often heard of them. My mother was in quarantine there when she was not quite four years old and never forgot the place. When I came down the gangplank from the ferry, the first thing I saw was of course not the hospital but the Great Hall, where the immigrants would wait to be inspected and accepted or rejected. That sorting-bin, site of so much anxiety and hope, had been dazzlingly restored. Outside, it looked like a French Renaissance palace; inside, like a Roman bath. The hospital buildings stood deserted and untouched on the south side of the island, opposite the entrance to the Great Hall. Just now they seemed to lie in a shadow of their own, though there were no clouds in the sky. The Immigration and Naturalization Service had simply locked them down in 1954 and gone away. Now the Landmarks Preservation Commission was asking, "Should this complex be torn down, restored, turned into a hotel, made into a museum?"

Leave it alone, I thought. Let it rot. This was the Ellis Island of nightmares, the one that had haunted my mother all her life. Her own mother, twenty-five years old when they left Italy, had been sick during the entire crossing, not able to eat, not able to sleep. She was so ill when she arrived that she would be weeks in quarantine before the doctors finally decided to let her enter. In the children's ward, they shaved the little girl's head and she looked out the window at the back of the Statue of Liberty.

A place where you think about freedom but can't touch it. A pause in the plan. You crossed the ocean to escape and they stopped you just before you made it.

This was the Ellis Island I inherited. You may know it too. It is the hour just before you succeed in changing your life. In it you hear the voices of what you feared and what you hoped, what you remembered and what you imagined. You may live that hour many times.

What It Meant

The ocean took them to pieces. In America the immigrants were expected to reassemble themselves on a more generous pattern. Larger limbs. More capacious lungs. Straighter backs and clearer vision. They came to Ellis Island and the doctors looked them over. Anthropologists measured their skulls. Five years later the same anthropologists measured them again to see if America was working. Just to the southeast of the Island stood the Statue of Liberty. They called it The New Colossus. Any American could be bigger than life. It did not matter how wretched, how tired, how poor they were when they arrived, so long as the doctors thought they were healthy enough. Anything was possible here in America. And they believed it, many of them. My father's parents worked all day every day and accumulated more money than they knew how to imagine. Their children became full believers. The French hypnotist Emile Coué visited America in 1923 and gave to his followers, among them my own father, a method of self-suggestion. My father would repeat Coué's assertion, "Every day in every way I'm getting better and better."

This poem is a Book of Changes. I kept it during a period of thirty months when I was trying to improve. It's full of assertions like my father's. Full of plans, failures, paradoxes, the mind of an American, constantly decomposing and recomposing. It's a long poem of small parts. It is made of 624 sonnets. Twelve of these in a book suggest the hours of a week. Fifty-two books suggest the hours of a year. The poet is trying to build himself as a colossus. No luck, but he keeps trying, since he is a typical Ellis Island American. Even his sonnets are made of smaller fragments. Every single line of this poem is written in such a way that it will make sense if you read it alone. There is a website where these lines can be reassembled by random number into chance sonnets, more than a duodecillion of possible sonnets. Many of the fragments are things the poet sees, things he hears, things he thinks he knows. As you read the sonnets, as you watch the random fragments recomposing into new sonnets, you are looking at a man in the process of remaking himself.

You will laugh at me for believing in America. I don't blame you. It was what I learned from my father. We were obsessed the future but could never stop thinking about Italy, a place where people were defeated and destroyed but where they had remained somehow whole, as we imagined. We had no such illusions about ourselves. If an American, even an Italian American, could make himself a colossus, it was because he had all these broken pieces to hand. All he needed to do was to have a pattern, to have a belief, and to return to the work every day. When he was done, there would be a million tiny seams, but the result would be big. Too big, really.