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  • 45. The Menomonee Valley

    By John Koethe

    Can a poem tell a story?
    In the hands of John Koethe,
    it can, and many: of a city; of a nation; of a man’s relationships with his father, with his friend, and with swift life itself—before it begins “turning into photographs, and to disappear.” From the moving new collection Ninety-fifth Street, required reading for any student of poetry in our time.

    It was always the first thing Geoff wanted to see
    Whenever he’d drive over from Madison to visit me.
    He saw it as the quintessential landscape
    Of the Essential City, by contrast with that ersatz one

    Some eighty miles away, the juvenile capital
    Of record stores and gyro joints and bubble gum.
    It splits Milwaukee into South and North, the factories,
    The bungalows and taverns of the men who used to work in them

    Vs. what remains of downtown, the Pfister Hotel, the lakefront
    And the mansions of the millionaires who used to own them.
    In early spring it’s still a nearly frozen wasteland
    Of railroad tracks and smokestacks and a narrow, dull canal

    Flowing past slag heaps flecked with scraps of snow and seagulls.
    Down the road from Badger Bumper, the Miller Compressing Company
    Flattens what’s left over of the cars, then lifts them up and
    Dumps them on a monumental mountain of aluminum and steel,

    To be pulverized at last into a kind of coarse, toxic metal meal.
    Yet even wastelands change. The noxious smells
    That used to permeate the air are gone. The Milwaukee Stockyards
    Where we’d stop for lunch (there was a funny restaurant there)

    Left town two years ago. The Peck Meat Packing plant
    Is rationality itself, with trucks with modern logos and an antiseptic air.
    The Tannery, an “Urban Business and Living Center”
    Lodged inside the shells of what were once some of the foulest

    Factories in the country, is the first stage of a plan
    To redefine this “huge forlorn Brownfield” into a different kind of space,
    A place of “offices, light manufacturing, a riverfront bike trail”
    Meant to ease the lingering traces of a vanishing industrial sublime.


    Geoff moved to California, where he shot himself in 1987.
    Growing up in San Diego, I would linger at the list of fifty largest cities
    In the World Book, San Diego down there near the bottom
    And Milwaukee floating somewhere towards the top. The tallest building

    Was the El Cortez Hotel, eight stories high. Lane Field,
    Where the Padres played, stood at the foot of Broadway, near the harbor
    And the tattoo parlors and the shops purveying cheap civilian clothes.
    I remember listening to the Yankees and the Braves in 1958

    On my new transistor radio, and dreaming of the day I’d move away—
    Which I did when I was seventeen, just before the country
    Started changing, before everything I used to take for granted
    Started turning into photographs, and to disappear.

    You hardly noticed it at first, the demographics shifting
    Imperceptibly, the cities on the list displaced by bland southwestern
    Sunlight, like the sunlight in Miami at Geoff’s funeral.
    When I’d go back to visit there were ever taller towers,

    Glassed-in skyscrapers that seemed to all be banks.
    A freeway turned Pacific Highway into just another throughway
    Running past the empty Convair factory, which had closed.
    I used to love the seedy section south of Broadway,

    With the joke shop next door to the Hollywood Burlesque,
    The pawnshops where I’d look at microscopes, and San Diego Hardware,
    Where I’d buy materials for the science fair. Like the stockyards,
    All that’s history now: I heard on NPR last week

    The hardware store was moving to the suburbs, driven away
    By high rents and a parking shortage in the Gaslamp District, a pathetic
    Exercise in urban fantasy designed to recreate a picturesque,
    Historic neighborhood you think is real, but never actually existed.


    My father’s story started in a little town in Texas, Henrietta—
    Growing up, then going away to school in Oklahoma,
    Juilliard in New York, playing with some orchestras in Europe,
    Entering the Navy at the start of WWII, and finally dying of a stroke

    About five years ago in San Diego—taken at the end
    From Naval Hospital to a quiet hospice overlooking Mission Valley.
    It’s so much vaster than Menomonee, and yet the moral and the landscape
    Seem essentially the same: the minor narratives of individual lives

    Played out against a background of relentless change. On my last visit,
    Driving down the hill on Texas Street, it seemed to open out
    Into a vision of the city of the future: Qualcomm Stadium on the right
    And Fashion Valley on the left, and spilling over from its floor

    And flowing up the farther side, generic condominiums as far as I could see,
    Like the ones along the river in Milwaukee. It’s as though the dream
    Were just to leave those individual lives behind, in all their particularity
    And local aspirations, their constraints and disappointments,

    For a thin reality that offers fantasies and limitless degrees of freedom—
    And for what? Sometimes I wonder if it’s just finance and entropy,
    Although I know that can’t be true. Traffic flows in all directions
    Through the valleys and across the country, on a grid of possibilities

    To be realized in turn, and then abandoned. People move away from home
    And die, and the places where they’d lived and whiled away the time
    Are temporary, like the units of a mathematical sublime
    Reducing what had been a country of localities and neighborhoods

    To a bare concept, an abstraction that extends “from sea to shining sea,”
    The silence in its fields of derelict machinery and rusting metal
    Broken by the din of new construction, as an all-consuming history
    Proceeds apace beneath an n-dimensional, indifferent sky.


    From Ninety-fifth Street, a new collection of poetry by John Koethe. © by John Koethe.

    Browse and buy here:

    Learn more about John Koethe here. . . .

    . . . and hear him read another poem here:

    • http://www.longShortStories.com Wayne C. Long

      What rich visualization!

      I have lived in the Milwaukee area and the west coast, and John Koethe has captured the poetic essence of both.

      As a short story writer, I, too, know the power of blending poetry and prose.

      Thank you!

      Wayne C. Long
      Writer/Editor/Digital Publisher
      Where the Short Story LIVES!

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