Downtown Harp City:
clerks and secretaries drive
to cowboy bars and late-night
movie houses, oblivious
to the music of offices
The squeaking of garbage cans
on wheels, rhumbas and talk shows
on transistor radios,
The rusty pivot of a dumpster lid,
dripping sinks in washrooms,
the respiration of candy machines,
shredded escrow and memos
settling in trash bags,
The whine of a spray bottle
schpritzing pink chemicals
into a toilet.
The Harp Brotherhood of
Custodians is awake,
taking late buses,
spit-shining skeleton keys
and the holsters
Helping Hand Prosthetics;
Featherweight Tool and Die;
the lights are on, and mopwater
runs black down plate-sized drains.
Red Rover Statistical Tabulation;
Goggles go on and acid baths
are applied to pernicious ink stains.
Lester Beagel cleans The Halls Bovid,
clutching a broom,
swiffing plastic grass from the base
of the lobby Christmas tree.
It's hung with hay bales
and blown glass cows. Last week
a tiny eye on the floor almost brought
his vacuum cleaner down,
And it bawled like his pawn-shop cello
at dawn when he sings out the pack
of secrets he keeps to himself in
his cinder-block house,
Songs about secrets of what these people chuck:
A jazz bit about twenty-two candy wrappers
he found drifted under a day's tabulations,
love notes on Bovid letterhead set to music,
A sad, drawly song about Bovid
logo pens still in the package
now in the trash with
prophylactics, tip sheets
and soda cans full of chaw,
Ballads of floozy secretaries,
librettos lifted from bathroom tiles,
The sad song of Sheila Rae in Dept. Q,
a bitch whore, or so it says
on almost every floor; and also,
a ditty entitled "Milk is for babies,"
and the companion piece, "Milk grows hair on your balls."
Right now, he knows they're dancing cha-cha
and drinking effervescent beer
Tweedy men curling moustache tips between fingers
girls scuffing their peek-a-boo heels,
maybe a sweaty young clerk
will get a smile and swear to remember
that color of lipstick for all his days,
Secretaries and salesmen and clerks
singing country songs into the necks
of beer bottles, oblivious to the music
of offices and factories after midnight.
Lester, Lester, he thinks
if you were a knuckle-cracker,
a black cape-wearer, a guy with a drain
where his heart should be, you'd tabulate
them up, you'd rat them out, you'd go on stage.
Everyone and no one
should know this much about how
the world is disinfected, how
the incinerator flue dances bluely in the dark.
This is the part where I drive through Dutchtown in the springtime,
trying to lose a chunk of coal in the sock of my heart.
I looked for a blue marble Pieta,
and found a church called The Melvin that used to be a theater.
I was looking for an Indian mound with a diamond at its center.
I found a gleam that fell from a Mississippian’s eye,
lying on the road, a lost black sequin.
I looked for a hat trick to blind me with fist fighting stars.
I found a demolition man and his pile of yellow bricks.
I looked for Our Lady of Jupiter, embroidered with purple scars,
and found a toy ballerina in a grease-trap jail.
Factory that manufactures springtime, please pick me
to be the next U-turn or figure eight or just glaze me senseless.
Give me a cherub to keep in my glovebox and the choice
between chlorophyll and ozone.
I can't stop driving, looking for the spot to dig
up the spring of thirteen going on fourteen,
standing on the edge of the river, coughing car fires out of my voice,
searching my wallet for a number
for some smart he or she to gunpowder me into a permanent magnolia.
What changed me to real?
Real plastic doll? I don’t know, she says
Grateful, but I also feel as if I am disintegrating
in a Mason jar full of black blood
buried like a jar of dirty oil
or the remnants of making steel!
Doll strolls on the sidewalk in tiny yellow sunglasses
and boots trimmed with bee fur
Dressing herself is so hard now without those easy tabs
Blessings, she says, yes they do come with challenges also
Nervously fiddling with those itty–bitty
mother o’ pearl buttons
A three–dimensional head to pull those outfits over
you can never go back and you never get used to it
It brings new problems, she says, the ones I used to see
though my paper glasses, one lens blue the other red
I used to watch the sufferings churning in the empty
rubber heads of real dolls
The saddest fireworks, she claims, are x–ray
3–D and slow to decay
The saddest fireworks shoot off in slo–mo
They unwind like swan chick to ugly duck
floating in a flaming river
She sits on the bus and watches ore sorters flash by
The lake pounding waves, an ocean without self–esteem
It’s hard to reach the fare box, she complains
a dollar wound between her chubby stiff fingers
And no one knows me now
Even my favorite drawer no longer sufficient
It’s time to blow this place
Cake, that’s what I want, she says
I dream of silver bee–bees
pink cookies decorated with tiny bits of gunshot
A medicine for any bummer
But the only eating for me is that watery milk
Disappearing into the body of a magic bottle
that never dispenses nutrition
This one, here, that fits in the magic hole
between my beautiful fellatio lips
I drink, she says, in the manner of
miraculous thunder insects
In the same manner that fire eats
with nice manners
My moral fantasia
my suitcase full of Vegas
Sicker for beauty in its muddy form
and hiding–place form
Where's the Venus of the high-wire
with her pet peacock
and her dirty brown braids
her pink headdress blowing in the wind
who bounced on streetcar wires
in tap dancing shoes
Or Madame Vache with her collapsing face
and peroxide pony hair
Tito St. Dymphna and Maria Callas in frames
sewed to her dress
every night, flipping out
the queenliest cards in her deck
for the baggy-eyed whores
A woman with a black eye and pig cheeks, drunk on oily gin
contemplating a fragrant weed in a green bottle
Her fingers moving, little spiders breaking
from clear eggs on a branch
A daughter of Ezili Freda in a crinoline
hair glossed with Lucky Heart pomade
and her skirt whirling like the turn of calendars
gold chains and daisies flying through space
through births and wars and science
And the lavish brunette with topsy-turvy breasts
who flipped the lit end of a smoke into her mouth
and out again
as she stood in the bar
playing folk tunes on her accordion
who went home every night
to drink cheap wine and wash her white cat,
very tenderly, in the kitchen sink
Where are the accidental clowns
in their librarian shoes
glowing frowzy-headed fools
The tramp sculptor who lived on the river
tossing fetishes into the water
and his boob of a brother, squatting in darkness
with his oily papers, brushstrokes
disappearing with each heave of a wave
And the stinky prophet in cheap brown pants
who scribbled notes in dove-blood ink
that smelled of roses and hyssop,
who used to scamper, every morning, to the cafés
to save the good spot
by the stove
And those twelve pals with sunburned faces
who loved sandbags more than bread
who watched fire grow in the street
through the empty frames of their welding glasses
who ordered John Browns at the bar
and drank them rusty nail and all
It's an oust for the grimy and buttery ones
Hear the Black Zamboni with rack-and-pinion steering
moving down the streets on its treads
There's a mother who smells like blonde Freon
there's a new perfume called Gnosis
white shirts for slim people
This car always starts on the first try
Don't stop to lick crumbs off your hands
tie tight the sweaty laces of your tap shoes
there's a night falling quick behind you
and it has no face to describe
The watcher turned her face into the dark
with a werewolf's eye for splendor,
and what was there to find?
High as trapped gaslight
caught in trees, high on a kind
(White, purple, pink)
A vision of
gone unstrung. Foxholes,
teacups hung on hooks,
Shampoo sets, sinkholes
and conversation pits.
Little lavender–colored mints
sitting in a dish
for twenty years.
Purple glass grapes
strung together with rusting wires.
What use do you have for your hands,
man? What use do you have for your
hands, woman? Why no more nosegays,
no more funeral wreaths woven
from backyard flowers?
Why won't you read the book
of spoiled petals, drunken tulips
hanging after rain?
Fear carried close, a dried
mouse heart hidden in the chamber
of a poisoner's ring.
These flowers trembled after sundown,
White lilacs visible after dark,
little boys riding bikes past curfew
and hanging from clothesline poles
in the bruisy dark, knowing
how their not–knowing makes them tough.
Decades from now,
they'll notice some ticklish perfume
from yards away, a song they can't
remember the words to, or the way it ends.
STEFENE RUSSELL was born in Salt Lake City, spent some time in Cleveland, and now lives in St. Louis. She is working on a cycle of St. Louis poems that do not include any cameos of the Arch, though there are plenty of ghosts, attics, moss, rocks, cars and bricks. She is a co-editor of 52nd City and a member of the Hoobellatoo arts collective.