Unplanned Beauty in Dirty Waters: Brad Vogel’s “Find Me In The Feral Pockets”

"Find Me in the Feral Pockets"

Brad Vogel’s Find Me in the Feral Pockets is a Whitmanic yawp for Gowanus. Often known as Lavender Lake, Gowanus became infamous as a dumping ground for local industries in the late 20th century and for the Mafia, if you believe the urban legends told of it.  Now, it’s a Superfund site with a patron saint poet.  Vogel’s poems come to life with glimpses of subway tracks above and the looming skyscrapers in the distance. The work ranges from pondering and playful to dark and depressive, as the voice takes careful stock of the strange hypnotic beauty of Gowanus, whether it’s roaming the streets on foot or floating down the canal via canoe.  In “Black Mayonnaise” we see “Sick rainbows swirl/ Deep secrets bubble up/ Past percolating at low tide/ -And here I stand/ Bulkheaded, reeking/ Ancient timbers bowed/ A sponge garden/ With a runoff problem.” The stanza sets in motion so much of the volume’s energy; this place leads the voice deeper into itself. “I envy you, Gowanus/ We envy you, Gowanus/ You have an EPA/ To rid you of your PCBs/ A Superfund/ For your black mayonnaise/ Would that I could/ Would that we would/ Dredge ours up/ Omissions and failings/ Dredge ours up/ Half lives and toxic words/ Mix sludge with mountains/ With concrete/ To stabilize/ And cart it all away/ To some other state.”  Poems like this one show the reciprocal relationship between speaker and setting—a longing to dredge up and cart away the toxins of the past to find some other state of being, to be strangely healed by regenerative powers of nature even in a state of pollution.

I was drawn into so many of these poems, with their dark, comic allusions, as in “Questions for Gowanus Whitefish”: “Well hello there, Gowanus whitefish/ What stories do you tell tonight/ What floating takes of interactivity?/ Did you come from a penthouse lair?/ From a public housing stair?/ From a place of hope, a place of despair?”—there’s a blending between high and low, a meeting place here in the Gowanus of rich and poor, where the speaker sees the floating condoms as emblematic of the contradictions of human connection. Gowanus becomes for Vogel a place of startling questions—a place of odd beauty, a miraculous accident for the poetic voice, and yet a place where one’s being and existence can often feel like the sludge of accidents and generations of disregard.  In one poem (“I Wonder If The Julius’ Hamburger”), we catch a glimpse of the speaker’s conundrum, “I see myself in skyscrapers/ nonchalant but/ built privileged/ popped into existence not/ by me/ DNA here spinning/ out useless I guess/ wondering if I/ need to be more/ radical to justify/ brief buffeted ballast blowing/ existence/ a boy/ who dreamed of empires/ now wary of them.”  These wonderful self-interrogations and doubts about authenticity echo Whitman in Song of Myself: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”  Gowanus provides the perfect grounds for the poetic voice to face the contrarian lurking inside us and to find ways forward to embrace beauty and love, despite the dark inconsistent currents surrounding us. 

In “The Unplanned Place,” we see a lasting image of Vogel’s project in this volume. There’s a reference to the phoenix springing not from the fire of its own ashes, but rising green, as if from the remnant piles of rusting metal debris and detritus. It’s a wonderful encapsulation of the project here, to find rebirth in a place of industrial castaways. This stanza particularly stood out to me: “In a megalopolis/ Our minds thirst for/ The unplanned/ For the feral pockets/ the water remains unbound.” This image displays something important—the need for the happy accident of the unplanned, even in cities like New York, where the imagination can roam and recover what has been discarded and find romantic hopes and possibilities for the future. Find Me In the Feral Pockets is a reclamation project of voice and environment, fused together in a single volume of poems, sketches, and even a small map of the area covered.  Herman Melville said that meditation and water are wedded forever, and Vogel delivers just that in this homage to Brooklyn’s most complicated canal.  


Find Me in the Feral Pockets: Poems from the Gowanus Interregnum
by Brad Vogel
Euphrosine Publishing; 66 p. 

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