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.

The Odd One Out

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  [John 20:24-25, NRSV]


As a kid, I had a recurring nightmare. My sisters and cousin (my usual playmates) were just outside our grandparents’ farm house, and I was a ways off, swinging on the swingset near the edge of the lawn, my back toward the large, disused field now overgrown with weeds and wild raspberries and criss-crossed by animals’ trails. In the dream, suddenly, everyone would go inside, and I was left out in the yard alone. I would leap off the swing, and start running to catch up — but, as childhood nightmares go, some terrifying monster I couldn’t even see had leapt out from those weeds and wild berries behind the barbed-wire fence, and was right on my heels as I found myself running but gaining no ground. And, apparently, I wasn’t missed by anyone.

As the baby of the family, I always hated being the odd one out or the one left behind; hence the recurring nightmare. I guess that’s my lens for yet another reading of this rich story of “Doubting Thomas.” I feel like he’s been maligned — at least in some circles — as if any of us would have just taken the other disciples’ word and can criticize St. Thomas for his “doubt.” (Especially in our scientifically-minded world, where empirical evidence is everything!) But put yourself in Thomas’ shoes: The risen Christ, who apparently can walk through a locked door, somehow can’t calculate when all his friends would be assembled together, and appear to them all? He had to pick the moment when Thomas was out?

Of course, I don’t know why Thomas wasn’t with the others, and the text doesn’t tell us. But maybe Thomas isn’t so much a skeptic here as a member of the group who feels slighted and wants to be included in this wonderful experience everybody else got to have except him. Did no one say to Jesus, “Hang on, Thomas isn’t here”?

Thomas isn’t actually chided for a lack of faith. Rather, Jesus honors his request. And that’s where we’re drawn into the story, because, well, we weren’t there either, were we? As he honors Thomas’ demand for a personal experience of the risen Christ, Jesus adds, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” [v. 29] Perhaps, with those words, Jesus is inviting us to demand of him our own “proof.” Be forewarned: the proof is an up-close and intimate inspection of his wounds. But as St. Ignatius of Loyola would remind us, that is a very safe place to be:

Within your wounds hide me; never let me be separated from you.


Don’t ever be afraid to make such demands of Jesus.






I wasn’t going to include a poem of my own with this meditation, but between the two themes of nightmares and scars, I can’t not share this one. The title, hopefully (a friend gave me the Latin all those years ago), means, “Remember to live,” or a reminder that you will live. It’s a play on momento mori, a reminder of death. From my 1998 book, When Midnight Comes Around:

MEMENTO VIVERE

The imprint of your eyes
has stained this thick, rough skin with shadow:
jewel-toned memories
bled out of my emptiness
toward the epicenter of your touch.

This after-image of your presence
lingers: damage to my flesh;
but in my dream of you,
all pain dissolves in comfort;

And waking with a scar
means everything.

 

Happy Second Sunday of Easter!
Continue reading

And so it begins…

Alleluia, Christ is risen!


April Fool’s Day seems as good a time as any to finally begin using this blog I signed up for once upon a time. Especially when April Fool’s Day appropriately falls on Easter Monday!

I’ve decided that I’m going to begin posting poetry. (Scroll down if you want to just read the poem and skip all this other chatter.) To start, I’ll post old poems from the three books I self-published (as zède publishing, Detroit) in the late 1990s, since those books aren’t generally available anymore. (I still have some, but as I don’t care for about half the material anymore, I’m not eager to give them out, you understand, except to very close friends and other poor saps…) Often as posted here, they will be modified a little from the books. First, I’ve abandoned the old convention of capitalizing the beginning of each line, because it’s just silly. Second, I will often have made modifications in punctuation. But there may also be more substantial changes. So if you have the books, see if you can spot them! Yeah, that’s not going to be a terribly fun game.

So here’s one of my all-time favorites. It’s from my second book, When Midnight Comes Around. A bit of explanation first.

I enjoy reading biographies, especially biographies of creative persons, because I’m fascinated by people and their creative processes. Usually, when I finish, I’m left with a lot of images that coalesce into a poem or two. I would never claim to be writing about the person whose biography I’d just read, so when I post these biography-triggered (the word “inspired” is over-used) poems, I’m normally not going to say whose biography it was. My poem is not about them, usually.

So this is one of those biography-triggered poems. It’s a pantoum, the only one I’ve ever written – and a form I highly recommend trying. It’s like doing a crossword puzzle. All you have to do is look at one (my model was Baudelaire’s “Harmonie du Soir,” although at the time I was unfamiliar with the form) and you will know what to do: 8 lines, each repeated in a pattern to form a 4-stanza, 16-line poem. As you’ll see if you follow that link to Baudelaire’s poem, there’s a bit of leeway: you can keep the repeating lines identical, and sew it up neatly like I did (being a perfectionist and all), or you can allow some slight modification to the lines that repeat in order to place them in their new context. You can also, as Baudelaire did in “Harmonie,” leave the poem open-ended by not repeating all the lines.

I chose to fully close my poem, but only because of my perfectionist bent. I didn’t know what I was doing at the time, but it worked out perfectly because it creates just the claustrophobic feeling that this poem needs. I hope you can perceive the transformation that takes place as the “incantation” (to use the description from the poets.org link above) circles in on itself.

There’s also a small allusion to an image in Sylvia Plath’s poem, “Contusion.” It’s an image which, in her poem, is somewhat inscrutable to me, but I get it anyway. So I used it. It fits in with the central image of my poem of feeling walled-in. Please feel free to say anything in the comments, whether it be criticism, suggestions, or questions. You might even be able to get me to reveal my sources…I have often explained where this one came from, so many of my readers will already know.

Happy April Fool’s Day, and Happy Easter. This poem may seem strange for the start of the Easter season, but I think you could argue it actually fits.


40

Must this dark picture be my destiny?
In your penned note, I hear my own voice call…
The windows change to mirrors at night-fall
as I act scenes from your blind prophecy.

In your penned note, I hear my own voice call—
the woman you were, I will one day be.
As I act scenes from your blind prophecy,
I watch my life drip slowly down the wall:

The woman you were, I will one day be.
Here, in your last words, you describe it all—
I watch my life drip slowly down the wall;
I grope to salvage what is left of me.

Here in your last words, you describe it all.
Must this dark picture be my destiny?
I grope to salvage what is left of me.
The windows change to mirrors at night-fall…



PS – A fellow by the name of Jeremy Mullins (Optimist Park) took up my challenge on hitrecord.org to set this poem to music. You can hear his excellent work here.