On a solitary bike trip years ago, I suddenly and unexpectedly found myself on the edge of Joseph Rodman Drake Park, 2.49 manicured Bronx acres, bounded by Hunt’s Point, Longfellow and Oak Point Avenues.
The site of Joseph Rodman Drake Park in Hunt’s Point was part of an Indian Village. In the late 17th century Thomas Hunt, for whom the Hunt’s Point neighborhood is named, acquired this property and built a stone mansion named the Grange. The Hunt Mansion served as a childhood haven for Joseph Rodman Drake, born on August 7th 1795. Drake was a descendant of Sir Frances Drake, the 16th century navigator and first Englishmen to circumnavigate the globe. Joseph Rodman Drake was a gifted young poet who praised the natural beauty of the Bronx.
In 1813 Drake abandoned his business career and began studying medicine with local doctors. In New York he met and befriended fellow poet Fitz-Green Halleck. From March to July 1819 the two authors collaborated on The Croaker Papers, a series of humorous poems lampooning city officials, which were published in the New York Post. Although he earned his living as a physician, Drake was best known for verses such as The American Flag.
Drake died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-five, and was laid to rest in the Hunt family burial ground adjacent to the Grange. Halleck wrote the epitaph on Drake’s tombstone. Drake’s daughters compiled and published his works fifteen years after his demise.
The burial ground consists of about fifty markers. Famous names abound: Hunt, Leggett and Willett are all families associated with the settlement and development of the Bronx and portions of Queens County across the Long Island Sound from Hunt’s Point. The streets near the cemetery are named after prominent poets including, Drake, Halleck, John Greenleaf Whittier and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
In 1905 the cemetery was saved from destruction by local literary enthusiasts. Four years later, the Parks Department acquired the property. The park was named in honor of Joseph Rodman Drake in 1915. That year the Bronx Society of Arts and Science installed a seven-foot marble shaft inscribed with Halleck’s words to mark Drake’s grave. The Society placed another plaque in Drake’s honor near the Lorillard Snuff Mill in the Bronx Botanical Garden.
A 1934 survey at the site shows a stone dwelling, a metal garage and a tool shed standing in the vicinity of the burial ground. These features were no longer in place when a major renovation was undertaken in 1953. At that time an iron picket fence was installed around the cemetery and benches were placed along the side paths, and cinder sidewalks were built along the perimeter. In 1962 the curbs around the cemetery were replaced with concrete. Even as the surrounding area has grown more industrial, the pastoral beauty of the Joseph Rodman Drake Park endures.
Today, there are giant oak trees at the four corners of the property. On the south side of the fence is a sheet metal fabrication shop, and on the west side a tin warehouse. The rest of the perimeter is adorned with vacant lots, variegated industrial structures, and cinder block sheds.
It’s Labor Day 2000 late morning. It’s quiet up here, but beautiful.
I let coffee percolate on the stove, sometimes for years. This blend is magic: it somehow never burns the pot. Herewith, July, 2006:
Close your eyes and take me farther
Than I’ve ever been before.
What I see, it matters little.
What was here is so much more.
In Hunt’s Point, amidst the garbage,
Metal shops and scurvy dogs.
Strays of every stripe and passion
Scavenge midst the putrid fogs.
Suddenly a graveyard forward,
Iron-braced and neatly lawned.
Burial plot springs from the landscape.
Long lost world again now dawned.
Joseph Rodman Drake they called him
1819: peak of fame.
Poet, pamphleteer and dandy,
Words his finest maddest game.
Stricken young, tuberculosis,
New York’s finest mourned his end.
Buried in the family manse-yard,
Midst a peace that naught could rend.
Underneath the Bruckner highway,
Cross the Pennsy freight yard track.
Hunts Point mills and steel-beamed gantries
Claim the present, all coal-black.
Yet nearby a place of slumber,
Undisturbed and unromanced.
Here poor Drake lies still remembered,
In a site on which I chanced.
Once around stood marshland reeds,
A country mansion on a hill.
Underneath the towering treetops,
Swallows swooped, the wind went still.
Even now you’ll hear him calling,
If you listen with both ears.
Stand beside the iron railing,
Poet’s youth cries through his tears.
Walk the Mall in Central Park now.
Gaze upon a silent face.
Fitz-Green Halleck, Drake’s confider,
Eulogized him, gently paced.
Stone tears scribed on shafted marble.
Central to the Hunt’s Point ground.
Weeping tribute, Halleck wrote them.
Better diction ne’er be found.
Green be the turf above thee,
Friend of my better days.
None knew thee but to love thee,
Nor name thee, but to praise.