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Allison Cobb has written a terrific book on, through, and with the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. The book, Green-Wood, an instantly compelling and fluid read I’m finding thus far, made of prose and poetry driven by a thoroughly researched and idiosyncratic historical sensibility in combination with six years’ worth of daily walks through the cemetery as well as a fierce passion for environmental defense, is one of the newest books from the Heretical Texts series, which seems determined to pump out five high quality books per year of varying nature and shape without telling anyone how to think (i.e., I don’t read all them don’ts: “don’t be difficult”, “don’t be creative”, “don’t be lyrical”, “don’t be personal”, “don’t make up your own music,” “don’t be political”, “don’t be strange”, etc., etc. coming out of their shit).
Went over to Green-Wood Cemetery this afternoon, in fact, to hear Allison read from the book to a crowd of nearly one hundred and lead a very sharp and decidedly un-academic question and answer session afterwards that delved into her process in putting together a book that necessarily moves back and forth through time while encountering a wide range of large subjects (life, death, war, the European settling of the northeast, the development and constant threats to the ecosystem supported by the 478-acre cemetery & its approximately 600,000 denizens, the blurring of the line between natural and unnatural, the reality of personal experience – Cobb’s consciousness – as the glue holding the writing together through what I take as a process that invented itself as it went along, and that’s just what’s obvious so far).
This event was a return of sorts for Cobb, who now lives in Portland, Oregon, as well as an opportunity to give a reading on the grounds of a site she so deeply investigated and clearly fell for – and for my part I felt honored to be in the cemetery’s chapel surrounded by that various audience. It wasn’t bad, either, to walk with my daughter around the chapel in which Cobb read and get to see robins and quaker parrots (there’s a flock of wild urban parrots nesting in the cemetery – they’ve been there for years – along with the multitudes of other avian life; between Green-Wood, Central Park, and Jamaica Bay there’s a hell of a lot of bird watching experience available here in our lovely despicable metropolis of unsortable dimension) landing and looking for grub on knolls covered with graves of Revolutionary and Civil War veterans and making it work. Here’s some material from the beginning of the book, which delves into the early history of the cemetery while rooted in our recent past as well, not to mention the ever-present construction, word by word, of a present:
“As first cemetery president, the soldier and engineer David Bates Douglass set about sculpting a garden landscape. A few decades earlier, Douglass had surveyed the wilds of the Michigan Territory with its governor Lewis Cass. In hopes of luring settlers, they reported that they found the Indians peaceful and the land promising.
Douglass brought order to Green-Wood. He had the trees thinned and the underbrush cleared to create the aspect of the glade rather than the thicket. A look coming into the light:
ancient whisper for “spear” and “spire”
I follow a path scraped down to stiff grass to the grave of JOSEPH O. BEHNKE. Beside ist sags a half-melted snowman, thorned branch sticking out of its back. 1958-2004. OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM II, CHARLIE BATTERY 1/258 FIELD ARTILLERY, 95TH MILITARY POLICE BATTALION. LIVED FOR HIS FAMILY, DIED FOR GOD AND COUNTRY. A soldier carved into the stone kneels with his head down, rifle propped in one hand, helmet dangling from the other. The name MIRIAM P. is inscribed below, awaiting her dates.
word a lamp awaiting fire
In the late 1940s, grave owners at Green-Wood donated the wrought iron fences around their plots as scrap for bullets and ships. Today in many places only the gates remain, connecting nothing, an opening older than soil, an eye.
More than a dozen condolence notes appear on the Behnke tribute site at fallenheroesmemorial.com. Specialist Kovalik ends his note: I still feel a bit guilty though, and you know why, take care Behnke.
The first use of the word wood to mean “insane” appears in the year 725. They bee bitten by the wood dog the devil, and be fallen wood themselves.
Numb with cold, I turn from Behnke’s grave back toward the gate, head down against the wind. By the edge of Valley Winter, I notice a stone inscribed MARTHA, with a seal for the WOMENS OVERSEAS SERVICE LEAGUE, half sunk in dirt. I scrape off leaves and snow with a stick to uncover the last name, EFFIE. A fat white caterpillar ticked inside the I recoils from the stick. It moves more and more slowly until it freezes in the frigid air.
I shall appear blank
a gleaming creature”
(A few extra things: some of the above formatting is not accurate to the actual layout in the book; there are copious notes in the back of the book, which indicate without a lot of jargon the very broad range of sources used in Green-Wood, and I am finding them informative and non-intrusive without exception; several members of the Behnke family were at the reading today, which, without asking Cobb about it, I took to be an indication of the rigor and sensitivity she brought to this work; I included this passage because I heard Cobb read from it today and was particularly struck by it….the book seems to me to have a tonal range that can’t be adequately captured by a single excerpt, so I wouldn’t take this one as purely emblematic if I were you.)