New Netherland, 1654

By Grace Schulman b. 1935 Grace Schulman
Pardon us for uttering a handful
of words in any language, so cut loose
are we from homes, and from His name that is still   
nameless, blessed be He. We raised a prayer house—

that is, we broke new wood for one, but some
tough burned it, snarling: “Carve only stones for the dead.”
Damp ground, no fire, no psalm we all remember.   
But tall ships anchor here, and at low tide,

people with wheat-colored hair look out to sea,   
just as we’d searched for land. “Pray if you must,”
my father said, “and when prayer fails, a story,   
if it is all you have, will do.” Months past,

we left Recife’s forced-worship laws in the year
of their Lord sixteen hundred and fifty-four, for our new   
world, old-country Amsterdam. Leagues seaward,   
Spanish pirates slaughtered our scant crew,

and all that was left of us (friends wheezed
their last while they ragged us on) rose up on deck   
and tossed our bags in the sea. We watched the wake   
turn silver: kiddish wine cups, hanging bowls,

a candelabrum for the promised altar,
carved pointers. Books’ pages curled and sank,
prayer shawls ballooned and, soaking, spiraled downward.   
Just as we stared, again we heard swords clank—

a French ship, the Ste. Catherine (her prow had shone   
gold on a gray horizon), came to our
port side and rescued us. In that commotion
on deck, we crouched below—not out of fear,

I swear, but stunned by luminous words
that echoed oddly—beautifully—like lightning   
flickering through palls of thickset clouds.   
A jaunty captain rasped to us in hiding:

“Where are you bound?”
                                  “Amsterdam. Old country.”
“Where?”
             “Amsterdam.”
                                 “Antilles?”
                                                   “No, Amsterdam.”
“Yes, yes. Nieuw Amsterdam. I’ll see
you get there safely.” He meant well, bless him.

Ste. Catherine sailed to land at its tip no larger   
than a meadow, fanned out at its sides:
Manhattan Island. Our new master,
Stuyvesant, lashed us with phrases, wheffs, guzzads,

that stung but were not fathomed, mercifully,   
when we came on a Sabbath, more than twenty   
men, women, a baby born at sea.
Still cursing, he let us land, and heard our praise,

then disappeared among lank citizens
with faded skin who stride to the bay and brood   
on water that we trust and dread, and listen   
to tales unstamped by laws and never sacred.

Grace Schulman, “New Netherland, 1654” from Days of Wonder: New and Selected Poems. Copyright © 2002 by Grace Schulman. Reprinted with the permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved, www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com.

Source: Days of Wonder: New and Selected Poems (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002)

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Poet Grace Schulman b. 1935

Subjects Nature, Travels & Journeys, Activities, Seas, Rivers, & Streams, Social Commentaries, History & Politics, Judaism, Religion

Poetic Terms Dramatic Monologue, Persona

 Grace  Schulman

Biography

Poet and editor Grace Schulman was born in 1935 in New York City, studying at Bard College, American University, and New York University, where she earned her PhD. She is distinguished professor of English at Baruch College, CUNY, and served as the poetry editor of the Nation from 1972 to 2006. She also directed the 92nd Street Y Poetry Center from 1973 to 1985. She has published six collections of poetry, including Days of . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Nature, Travels & Journeys, Activities, Seas, Rivers, & Streams, Social Commentaries, History & Politics, Judaism, Religion

Poetic Terms Dramatic Monologue, Persona

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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