Rumbling over Brooklyn Bridge on the M train, Mia spoke of the poet we were visiting for the night. Delilah was publishing her new book, and I had been struck with visions of an illustrious poetry recital, lost in the sounds of champagne flutes and intimidating conversations.
‘She’s like a tree elf,’ my older sister announced, guzzling Fireball whisky straight from the bottle. ‘Or a nymph.’ Despite living in America for five years, Mia’s English accent pierced through the throng of late night passengers. Eyes rolled. I took a sip and stared at the full moon spangled over the Hudson River, blurring its edges as my throat stung. The subway car was bright, a pale yellow stark in my memory, and in contrast, New York City’s skyline looked subdued. Beautiful, still, I thought somewhere through my sleepy haze.
I’d been here a mere two sweltering days, and though this city had stunned me with its huge parks and wild streets and skyscrapers and views, I had yet to unearth the culture I craved. The part of Harlem I imagined Mia to live in, with history and community, had been swallowed up and bought out by Columbia University. In another word: gentrified. So when she invited me to a distant friend’s poetry reading in Bushwick, Brooklyn, despite a sickly blend of heatstroke and jetlag, as a poet I was curious. A literary night could be culture I was looking for.
Next to us, a man with peppered stubble swung open the carriage door. August heat and the roar of the train tracks flew in. As my eyes drew to his faded Yankees shirt curling at his waist, I watched with mild disgust as he unbuckled his belt, balancing one lumberjack boot on each carriage. Mia smirked at my frown as I witnessed him pissing over the Hudson, basking under the open sky.
‘It happens all the time here,’ she dismissed. ‘He’s just enjoying the view.’
Sliding back into the night’s waxy heat at Central Avenue station, we emerged from a flight of steps into a vacant intersection. A nearby generator hummed. Traffic lights hung under the bridge like bananas from a tree: slices of yellow flickering in the shade with green and amber and red. A strange quietness had met us in Bushwick. We hurried our footsteps towards an opening of light from a Taco Bell in front. Running my hands through my hair, I felt sticky and damp. Sweat clung to my neck as we gingerly scuttled past rows of pastel painted houses, clamped shut with metal barred doors. Across from us, distant bass notes whirred from a dive bar as we wound up to Delilah’s block.
It was a lofty, copper-red building, attached with a concrete archway. We moved past the bins and up the steps. From the shadows a burly rat coursed across Mia’s shoes. She shrieked. With nowhere to turn, the rat desisted, obstructing the door with scared black eyes and a body slick with grease. We froze too, staring at him as he did us, waiting for movement. I yelped and swore, ready to run. In a woozy leap, my sister pushed into the door of the building and held it open for me. I hesitantly hopped, and then we were in, catching sight of the rat darting out of the gate from the ruckus.
At the very top of the stairwell, a small, elfin girl with a gust of silver hair greeted us at the apartment door. An endless ladder rested beside her.
‘I’m so glad you’re here,’ she squealed, squeezing Mia.
‘I’m Delilah,’ she said, turning to me. ‘It’s a blue moon tonight, you know? What good luck…’ She trailed off. I tried to ask about it without seeming naïve.
‘Oh darling, spells will be cast tonight, for sure. Esbats are a special time – perfect for poetry.’ Esbats? A later Google search taught me these were coven meetings on the nights of full moons, inspiring healing and psychic training. Blue moons – a second full moon in the same calendar month – held added power. I tried to picture holding a poetry esbat with my own friends, but couldn’t.
‘She’s a witch. A… pagan,’ Mia whispered behind me. ‘Forgot to say.’
‘Can’t you feel the energy in the room?’ Delilah asked, grabbing my clammy hand as we peered into her cramped living room. People with pallid faces and moist brows swathed over tables and couches adorned with Moroccan throws. Wooden pagan masks, protruding with horns and beaks, were wound along the walls, and patchouli oil burned from the floor. Weed floated around us, too, as I yawned and rubbed my eyes in sync. A girl with jagged peach hair twirled in a circle alone, moving to the tinny electro-jazz music playing from the MacBook on the table. I deliberated whether jazz and Apple products still classed this event under ‘wiccan,’ or ‘hipster.’ The girl’s body moved as if she were a doll attached to threads controlled from above. I murmured enthusiastically to Delilah, gulping Fireball and wheezing from the cinnamon.
‘I feel the energy.’ Such energy. Everyone was completely stoned.
I stood by the sink once Delilah wandered off. There were offerings of grapes and cherry tomatoes in bowls, and abysmal American-style hummus – too heavy on the tahini. I popped tomatoes into my mouth one by one to keep busy. A guy with a plaid jacket and patchy tufts of dark hair soon shuffled over to me, and I coolly struck up conversation in wilted hope he was more alert than his stoned peers. Hugo Van Vorhansen turned out to be an academic, poet and art exhibitor, and took great delight in telling me of his new installation in a downtown, abandoned laundromat. Also prone to cemetery tours, he did readings there after dusk. I stared at his mousy face as he stuttered, fixed on a point between his eyebrows, and silently praised myself on nodding in all the right spaces, ignoring waves of nausea in my gut. From above us, a subway train drummed from the bridge, shaking the room and muffling our voices. I continued nodding.
‘That’s great! So you’ll come?’
‘Hm?’ I gaped, startled at what I’d agreed to.
‘Greenwood… the cemetery… in my neighbourhood? It’ll be super chill for your poetry. I’d love to hear it.’ I hadn’t met many academics that said ‘super chill,’ but this was America. I agreed to him, flattered, though slightly scared.
Weeks later, Hugo timidly wrote me: ‘I had wanted to write you sooner, but I have been tied down with some things I was hoping would not take as long as they did, but now they are done.’
Behind Hugo, three men hooted hysterically, as their throaty drawls crashed into each other. The men looked about thirty, dull and professional, but held themselves like rowdy seventeen year olds. A small clear baggy fell to the floor between them. One of the men, the shorter, scruffier one, folded over to reach for the bag, guffawing as he picked it up. He quickly inspected it under the overhead lamp, sealing it shut. A white matter shone. Coke? Speed? Crystals flashed under the light bulb, and then he shoved the baggy deep into his back pocket. Poetry events I’d attended at home were waning from my memory. Crystal meth was an American development. I leaned towards my sister.
‘Is this shit normal for you? Meth?’ My eyes widened in alarm.
‘No. This is insane,’ she whispered, bemused. I breathed out. ‘The crazy thing is most of these people have PhDs… Bloody creative writers,’ she quipped, referencing my own degree subject as I feigned contempt. My work was so far from Brooklyn’s creative microculture that I was floundering in. The idea that everyone around me was more successful and scholarly, while seeming so out of touch, irked me. An escape was beckoning. My stomach ached, and I longed for my mattress over the river in Harlem. I’d stay for the poetry, I convinced myself, cradling the disappointment in my belly as I swayed to the music.
‘It’s time to make our way to the roof,’ Delilah cooed. She was so quiet I assumed I’d misheard her, until I saw the ladder we’d passed earlier tower at the doorway. Hordes of draped guests slithered into a ball by the door, huddling under the hatch opened to the stars. In the flurry, I was pushed against peach-haired-dancing girl, now curiously holding a wine glass of grapes and ice. She stared at me blankly. I tried to make a joke, but blank stares continued. I asked her name, anyway. She started to splutter, struggling for an answer, as if the question was awful for a first meeting.
‘I don’t have one.’
‘Anything you’d like me to call you?’ I faintly asked, regretting it. She looked around the room, and peered down at her glass, shrugging.
‘Call me Grapes.’
‘- May as well do!’ Mia cut in, calling me from the top of the ladder, which lay unattached to the hole in the ceiling. As I climbed it, whisky sailed through my bloodstream from the sudden altitude. I peered down twelve feet to Grapes’s hand barely brushing the ladder, and accepted I might die with these people. Flushed with baking midnight heat, I stumbled on the flat roof to its floor, falling back into a space where I could lean.
‘Come on, Fragile,’ my sister sighed, pulling me under her arm so I could rest. A girl wearing white silk gloves clambered to the edge of the building. Her heels brushed the air from the void behind her as she pulled out crumpled paper, giggling as her friends cheered with whoops and yells. I gazed in delirium at the Brooklyn backdrop. Even from our height, industrial buildings towered over us like forest trees. An old brewery loomed past a shabby hotel, never revived after the Prohibition era of the twenties, as its red brick walls and crumbling chimneys solemnly eroded. The full moon glossed over us, resting as an opal in dusty clouds.
Bushwick grew louder. Car exhausts growled from the streets below, filling the air with smog. The dive bar buzzed. Trains passed every two minutes, submerging the poems as we met with gormless travellers. We only heard fragments, but it didn’t seem to matter. The poet spoke of the blue moon, and of capitalism, and groceries, and crack-cocaine. In fact, lots about crack. By the fifth mention, I assumed she, and everyone around us, were blissfully lost that night in an abstract world o socially uncool class As. Yells kept spurting from her friends, and she was shifting uncomfortably. I peered behind to watch the culprits. The earlier howling men were dangling their legs through the roof hatch and swigging San Miguels, wearing Delilah’s horned pagan masks that curled out through the darkness. One bottle tipped over with a clunk.
Mia passed me a pleading message typed on her phone. She wanted an escape route, but I was too involved now. I made her wait until Delilah crept up to the roof-stage. Sipping from a golden chalice, she waved a broom through the air. She started to chant, her soft voice barely detectable, smothered by trains and her own guest hecklers.
‘Sweep out darkness, sweep out doom… Earth be hallow, air be pure, fire burn bright… A sacred bridge this sight shall be…’ The insolent hecklers roared over her. The other guests, trying hard to succumb to Delilah’s trance in the moonlight, were annoyed. Furious glances and shut ups resonated from the roof-floor. The stuffy air was too tense for magic. As she read from her poetry book, the recital became jerky and paused. She stopped often to take gulps of breath.
‘Speak up, bro!’ the scruffier man called out.
‘Fuck off, Craig,’ Delilah spat, in between a line about congealed sadness.
Mia was tugging on my shoulder to leave, and we were receiving unwelcome looks of our own now. My sick tiredness brimmed too close to my mouth, so we crawled like street rats through the crowd of drugged hipsters – past a spellbound Hugo Van Vorhansen, and past Grapes. The hatch blocked, we brushed our knees through rat droppings, oozing beer pools and spliff butts to the ladder fixed to the building’s edge. I felt mildly unhinged. After a night meeting New York’s highbrow eccentrics, I was not convinced Delilah’s place was the cultural core I’d hoped for. But, I thought, as I clung onto the side of a four-storey building, envisaging my sweaty death ahead of me, this could have only happened once in a blue moon in Brooklyn.
Phoebe L. Corbett is a poet and writer from West London. Before graduating in Creative & Media Writing at the University of Portsmouth she produced a collection of poetry, Saudade: A Recollection, as her dissertation. A thesis followed on saudade and nostalgia within poetry and Portuguese Fado, and she went on to win the university’s 2016 Creative Writing Award. Her main interests lie in poetry and travel writing, as well as in activism, and she has penned opinion pieces for various online magazines.