“We stripped in the first warm spring night, and ran down into the Detroit River to baptize ourselves in the brine of car parts, dead fish, stolen bicycles, melted snow….” so begins Belle Isle by Pulitzer Prize-winning, Poet Laureate(ing), Chevrolet Gear and Axle grinding Philip Levine. This poem, written in 1949, looks, smells and sounds a lot like the island park situated smack in the middle of the Detroit River that my family would visit on weekends back in the late ’60s.
“Back panting, to the gray coarse beach we didn’t dare fall on, the damp piles of clothes, and dressing side by side in silence to go back where we came from” sounds more like the park me and my college friends frequented in the late ’80s. On Friday we would head over the bridge to drink, smoke and chase fallow deer through the woods late, late at night. We sang along with Van, well it’s a marvelous night for a moondance with the stars up above in your eyes, such a fantabulous…. I think we stuck to the wooded areas because at that point in time the river was not the most ideal place to take a dip unless you had to. Anyway, the 982-acre jewel of Detroit (car parts, dead fish, stolen bicycles and all) was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted around 1880, and is larger than New York City’s Central Park, Olmsed’s most famous creation.
The park was/is home to the Miss Pepsi Unlimited Hydroplane, on display at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum, along with the Detroit Boat Club, Detroit Yacht Club, an aquarium, a conservatory, a golf course, a Coast Guard station, trails, wildlife, beaches and a majestic fountain. It’s been a few years since I last visited, so I am not sure if any of these features either remain or are in proper working order. But what I can say is that it was a wonderful place to watch the annual J.L Hudson’s Fourth of July fireworks display and in my mind the fountain is just as majestic as it ever was.
Poetry Everywhere: Produced by David Grubin Productions and WGBH Boston, in association with the Poetry Foundation. This video is part of the WGBH Poetry Breaks series created by Leita Luchetti. For more information, visit Poetry Everywhere.