City Roofs 1932
A city roof down in Greenwich Village.
Hopper’s haunts. Without a single tree
or blade of grass to show, this could be
New York in any season of the year:
winter, summer, spring, the late-day sun
soaked now into those skylights and rustbrick
chimney stacks, with that orange obelisk
filling up the foreground to the right.
It’s all abstract and yet so real, just like
those tar-splayed buckled roofs you ran on
as a boy back in the Forties. In this roofscape,
though, there’s no one to be seen, no human shape,
not even someone’s shadow, as if the scene alone
revealed itself to the beholder. And now, once more,
those ghosts drift up from the caked and sunbaked tar.
And look, there’s your mother, at twenty years of age,
as she tries her best, while managing a smile, to engage
you long enough for the click of someone’s camera,
those shadows edging toward the Fifty-ninth Street
Bridge below, your toddler’s steps making their retreat.
And there you are two years later on that windy rooftop
in your army outfit, East Fifty-First your backdrop
now, as your father looks up to wave as he heads off
to war. And there’s that ziggurat rising half a mile south
they call the Chrysler, replete with its art deco motif,
your one sure beacon when you, six years old then,
walked those winter evenings down Second Avenue
back home, reliving still those flickering scenes
of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans as they yodeled on and on.
Or Autry on his horse riding those western plains.
But what are you to make of all of this? The truth
is you still don’t know, though time is running out
to find some answer. Those stoops and railings
long since turned to dust. Gone too those rows
of rooftops with their narrow alleys in between,
where you learned to jump from one tenement
to the next to escape mad Harry and his gang.
Or that roof my father told me once how the cops
flung some poor kid off when they found him
hiding behind a chimney in the shadow of the El.
Dear God, tell me how to summon up once more
that boy (long gone) in black knickers and starched
white shirt, grinning as his mother snapped
his picture that warm spring day he made his First
Communion. Oh, to feel again if only for a moment,
a moment only, a moment only, that sense
of peace you find here in Edward Hopper’s sun-
drenched rooftop, empty of everyone
except the blessed eye of the beholder, as now
that light and shadow gather here to greet you.
Copyright © 2023 by Paul Mariani. This poem originally appeared in North American Review, 2023. Used with the permission of the author.