And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the windowpanes . . .
— T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915)
June 6, 2023
MY PARTNER DOESN’T make a fuss over his birthday, typically, but he was turning thirty-five, the age (I said, later, as I sat at the table) that Dante descends into hell. I remembered there was a boat turned restaurant off the coast of Brooklyn. According to its website, this particular dining vessel (there are several in New York) was once “the longest-serving pilot ship in American history.” In 1924, when it was built, a racing schooner was already something of an obsolescence. Steam had long overtaken. The boat now hugs the north side of Pier 6, serving oysters (“sustainably harvested”) and seating suits. Across the East River, the south end of Manhattan lurches into view. You can live a few blocks inland for years without ever having seen it like this. Steel meeting shore, a great metropolis rises from the bay. Wouldn’t it be nice to dress up as if for the city itself, to have a drink on the water? We called ahead to get a table. We invited a few friends. It’s not every day one descends into hell.
I traveled there alone from Flatbush. Instead of taking the bus, I decided to ride the subway to Atlantic/Pacific and walk. Since 2012, the terminal has had a different name, but I refuse it. It’s the name of a nearby sports arena built by an institution that bankrolls the climate crisis and preys off the debt of the world’s poor. The logo of the bank is a raptor, maybe a vulture. But even vultures wait until their prey is dead.
What color was the sky? Brown mustard, burnt parchment, an ugly jaundice. As I walked to the pier, I realized I was trying to name it precisely, just as I was trying to unname the station, as if doing so might let it stand as the evidence it was. We didn’t want the smoke, but it was something to point to.
It was difficult to describe the color but not the cause: smoke from wildfires two thousand miles away. My eyes burned, and people on the street seemed to pass me in a daze, some with white N95s or yellow safety N99s strapped to their skulls, their eyes and legs darting wildly across streets. As a friend pointed out, the inversion was disorienting: hanging out inside was fine, but if you went outdoors, for God’s sake, you better wear a mask. In a parallel universe, others walked without facepieces as if nothing at all were happening. Half of me was elsewhere, too, listening to a podcast on Swedish death cleaning.
As almost everyone knows by now, the air quality index in New York City that evening tipped into the maroon level of “hazardous.” We weren’t supposed to be out, but we didn’t understand the severity of the matter because the city had failed to communicate it clearly. Who, at thirty-five and in good respiratory health, heeds an air quality warning? And yet, without knowing it, that night we were breathing the most toxic air of any city in the world.
It was difficult to describe the color but not the cause: smoke from wildfires two thousand miles away. My eyes burned, and people on the street seemed to pass me in a daze, some with white N95s or yellow safety N99s strapped to their skulls, their eyes and legs darting wildly across streets.
When I got to Brooklyn Bridge Park, three teenage girls emerged from the washroom. They were wearing bikinis—incomprehensibly out of step with the weather. The unsettling chill, the mustard sky. One of the girls turned to the others and said, “Do you guys smell something burning?” I exhaled. I wondered whether I needed to breathe in at all. You learn to live with so little in this city. Perhaps I could hold it.
When I got to the pier, I sat on a park bench, took out a notebook and pen, and tried to sketch what I was seeing: a frail sailboat decked with tungsten bulbs bobbing in an increasingly turbulent bay, the outline of the financial district that, through the scrim of smoke, never looked more like the backdrop of a film set. Men played soccer on a brilliant field at the other end of the pier, and the haze thickened. A shirtless bro with long, blond hair balanced on skates as he looked down at his phone. The phone bullhorned news at full volume and twice the speed. The bro looked confused, like a dog leashed outside of a grocery waiting for someone or something. His hair touched bare, muscular shoulders. Beautiful and out of place. I felt guilty looking at him, as if taking in his form were somehow part of the extractive atmosphere. Something incongruous and unfortunate enveloped us. We were all somehow lowered into a nightmare from which we could escape only by dreaming.
I couldn’t sketch it, ultimately—thin lines made no sense in the smoke—and I took a photo instead. It hit me that the photo looked uncannily like a J.M.W. Turner painting, specifically The Thames above Waterloo Bridge, and I remembered that I’d once endured a lecture on nineteenth-century painting and pollution. What art historians once assumed was, in the 1830s, a pre-Impressionistic turn to abstraction was less fanciful and more realistic because of the London smog. The smog, a concentration of particulates from burning fossil fuels, would grow so severe in the coming century that an intensity of it one 1952 winter resulted in an estimated 12,000 deaths.
This morning, I tried to find the lecture but found instead an essay on painting and pollution by James Nisbet:
. . . the blur we see in Turner’s paintings of steam-engine exhaust mixing with cloud and fog does not portend the formal turns of modern painting so much as it describes an emerging worldview of thermodynamics transpiring during Turner’s own age. Emphasizing the constant flux of energetic processes that interpenetrate one another within an environment, this nascent outlook would increasingly move away from defining objects as discretely separated from one another in favor of embracing the deep interconnections among beings within the physical world. “Turner no longer looks from the outside,” [Michel] Serres [writes], “he enters into the boiler, the furnace, the firebox. He sees matter transformed by fire.”
Not outside but inside it all. Not pre-Impressionistic but materially descriptive. Not a romance, but a translation of sorts.
I descended into the small, wooden boat, its canvas sails swapped for buttercup canopies, its open deck fitted with white metal tables and a horseshoe bar. It took me a second to realize my partner was already there, in a yellow sweater, with friends. The sweater blended with the view of the skyscrapers across the way, so close and yet seemingly distant through the haze. Here we were, celebrating thirty-five. Well, we’ll never forget this, I said, joining the party.
Dante’s Inferno begins, like any good epic, in the midst of things. Dante comes to in the middle of a wooded path, as if waking from a dream, and he’s lost. This is meant to be allegorical, as is the way in medieval literature. In the year 1300, the thirty-five-year-old narrator, who both is and is not the Italian poet Dante Alighieri, finds himself spiritually astray when the ghost of the Roman poet Virgil appears to guide him through hell and purgatory. Afterward, the less pagan Beatrice, Dante’s lost love, leads him to paradise. Allegory aside, I find the choice to begin an otherworldly journey with a grounded account of fighting through a dark forest utterly astonishing. I feel Dante’s bewilderment, his terror, his yearning to be good in the midst of his fear of the natural—the supernatural—world.
How convenient to imagine that we might survive the apocalypse, to live through it without memory as if anesthetized through heart surgery. . .
I don’t read Italian, but high school Latin lurks somewhere in the understory of my memory, and I can stumble through. And there are some superb translations of Dante’s poem into English. Translating the cantos has become something of a celebrated genre in itself. John D. Sinclair’s prose opening goes: “In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost.” Its directness and simplicity help me understand the original Italian, perhaps at the expense of more adventurous sound. Seamus Heaney: “In the middle of the journey of our life / I found myself astray in a dark wood / where the straight road had been lost sight of.” Not my favorite, which is surprising, because it’s Heaney. But the most striking, to me, is American poet Mary Jo Bang’s: “Stopped mid-motion in the middle / Of what we call our life, I looked up and saw no sky— / Only a dense cage of leaf, tree, and twig. I was lost.”
As we rocked back and forth on the water, I turned around to inhale the southern skyline of bank buildings, and it hit me. I looked up and saw no sky. We were encaged in a density of leaf, tree, and twig. We were literally in the thick of the Canadian wood, except that the wood had burned and it had stalked us. The reason, in part, was before me, across the water. The woods were in our lungs, in our eyes. The woods were within us, already making us wonder whether, hours from now, we would find ourselves struggling to breathe, or, days from now, we would find ourselves coughing, or, years from now, we would find ourselves on a papered seat hearing a diagnosis of cancer, and would we think then of this evening? In a flood of toxic air, there’s no high ground.
No, not pre-Impressionistic, and not, as we’re in the bad habit of saying, “postapocalyptic,” either. If only. How convenient to imagine that we might survive the apocalypse, to live through it without memory as if anesthetized through heart surgery, “Like a patient etherised upon a table.” T. S. Eliot, who wrote that line and whose poem I’ve used as epigraph here, begins his own poem with an epigraph from Inferno, in Italian. Bang translates it: “But since no one from these depths has ever left alive— / If what I’ve heard is true—I can answer you without fear / Of infamy’s long farewell to all my greatness.” No outside. Our knowledge of the world dies with us.
The late philosopher Bruno Latour, shortly before his death in 2022, criticized the phrase I used earlier—“climate crisis”—but not for its supposed alarmism. “If only it were just a crisis!” Latour wrote. Hearing the news, coughing in the depths of infernal smoke, we might understand what’s happening around us not as “a mere ecological crisis” but instead as “a profound mutation in our relation to the world.” Yes, my friends (I might have said to the table, I say now to you), I’m afraid the sky tonight isn’t post- but pre-apocalyptic. Maybe we’re in the midst of things, but certainly much more is on the way. And indeed, there will be time—much more time—for the yellow smoke.