The Poet Among Ruins

OMEN

It’s an after-the-fact
stress test, this
building in reverse; the ceiling
drops its burden, finally relieved
of having to define “above.”


Somewhere
the blueprint probably
remains, archived on acid-free paper.
Its secrets have spurned their confinement.
As though soulless, the structure
yields to transparency: even at night
you can see through to the same blank sky
on the other side.


I don’t think I belong here
like that man clearing away rubble
to stake out tonight’s home.
I am more transient,
a scavenger
for mementos I can use
in my own abode: sizeable fragments
of textured glass; marble tiles;
the assurance I’ve found beauty
present still in fallen things,
dressed up in decay.

 

Each broken detail charms
my uninvested eyes.


My friend is a photographer.
He seeks the proof
of my assumptions, posing the question
with his camera lens.

 

A small bird’s dusty skeleton
lies, fetal, in the new dirt floor.



This poem has been slightly revised since it appeared in 2000 in To Kiss the Sun and Mean It.  It was written in 1998, after I accompanied three photographers into the Michigan Central Station. We looked around a bit; they took pictures with cameras; I took pictures in my head. There’s some fictionalization going on: I combined my photographer friends into one; and I didn’t take any marble tiles. I did take broken fragments of glass, because they could not be re-used in the station were it to ever be restored in any way. The fragments I took were just the right size to make coasters. I never finished sanding down the edges with emery stone. The roughly 1/2 inch thick glass is ridged on one side, and has octagonal chicken wire in it.


We climbed all the way up to the roof—a precarious undertaking, since the dark stairwells included steps that were broken. I recall in a hallway seeing the plaster ceiling, with a wire backing, hanging down and just about touching the floor. We came across evidence that people were living there: sleeping bags and refuse, mostly. But we also saw a man—probably “Catfish.” I did find a bird skeleton on the floor in the main waiting room, but of course the floor only appeared to be dirt. There’s a basement underneath it. It was simply so covered with debris that it gave me that wonderful poetic image. I did point it out to one of my friends; she wasn’t happy with the resulting photograph.


Thanks to the Burton Historical Collection at the Detroit Public Library, I now have pdf files of the blueprints. So, yes, they do remain.

You can read more about the station in Dan Austin’s excellent article over at Historic Detroit.

Incidentally, after my visit inside the MCS, I found out my great-grandfather was one of the carpenters that worked on it back in 1912-13! That excursion also produced the photograph (of me) on the cover of my second book, When Midnight Comes Around:

Photo by Paula Styer




Here’s another poem referencing ruins, although that was not the initial impulse behind it.

HIGHLAND PARK

From our parting embrace
my dumb hands
drop to my sides. I have
no use now
for these words that pool up inside
these numbed lips.
I am skin, 
I am bone,  

I am crumbling cinderblock and shattered glass,
standing on a corner,
channeling the wind,
wearing marks of my abandonment.
I am bone.

I am skin, wearing
these precious abrasions: why
not/if only/what else
And the wind in me reverberates
the howling memory
of our often dissolving
structure and
moment
in touch
 
This one actually began in a reflection on that experience of being together with someone—perhaps at a train station or airport, or carpooling—and suddenly, having said goodbye, finding yourself alone. For me, the situation goes directly from animated conversation to very sudden silence, with no one to talk to. Still in conversation mode, the brain keeps churning, but there is no longer anyone to share your thoughts with.
 
Similarly, buildings teem with life, with human activities, until, for whatever reason, they become abandoned. Perhaps a building is condemned, due to poor maintenance over the years. Perhaps it is largely, but not completely, destroyed by fire. Or it may be trapped in an economically depressed geographic location, where buildings, and people, are so often abandoned, discarded as if they were such useless trash as the wrapper on a take-out cheeseburger.
 
Highland Park, an enclave city completely surrounded by Detroit, has suffered such abandonment for a very long time. I was living just across 6 Mile from Highland Park when I wrote this. Originally, when the poem appeared in To Kiss the Sun and Mean It, it was called “H.P.” But when I read it at the book release party, one friend commented, “Wow, I’ll never think of Hewlitt Packard the same way!” 
 
I may still revise this poem, but that goes without saying.
 
I have already shared another ruin-related poem, “There Is No Nothing,” on this blog. The theme of modern/industrial ruins has long permeated my thinking and my aesthetic tastes, and so it appears frequently in my poetry.
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