The city as a shifting ruin
Particularly though not exclusively
As an American phenomenon
Most of my lived life

Haunts me, blocks knocked
Down in “urban renewal” now blank,
Like Market Street in Louisville
Where Dad took me shopping

For fighting fish, whole blocks
Blasted, other neighborhoods choked
By highways: raised and roaring.  My sister
When we were kids wore gloves

And I’d shine my shoes and clip
On my bow tie before the riots
Left everything permanently
Different, Dad’s car up on blocks

Once when we got back, his
Engine cut out, tires unbolted,
Leaving us to walk back to the office
And that’s why, I think, we kept

Living in our small town, and why
Dad kept making that long commute.
I rode with him a couple of
Summers, working across from the Purina

Plant for Parks and Recreation in the stock
Room, some days the white powder
From the stacks next door drifting
In and making it hard to breathe

Or see.  You don’t have to see,
Really, the rotting heart
Of things much.  The Gateway Rescue
Mission on Gallatin

I pass on my way to Restoration Home.
Last time I went, on the way a woman ran out
At the red light and begged for money
And almost got herself killed by a speeder

In an old-model big American car bouncing
Over the potholes.  Next to the Home
With its pillars and porch, a grand old dame
At one point, a brownstone with its windows

Boarded up; on the side street, a burnt-out
House still standing, roofless, down
The block from a purple church with iron
Bars on the windows called “The Temple”

And down the street another darker purple
Cinder-block building with a glittery
Billboard:  “Danny’s Gentleman’s Club.”
(The brownstone was my pastor’s kindergarten

When she was little, and her daddy had
A store nearby, she told me.)  This
Shifting I’ve heard called “creative
Destruction,” the market’s machinery

Destroying as it makes.
Somewhere in my memories of gloves
And bow ties there’s the idea of opportunity,
Perhaps a genteel and vapid accoutrement

Of vanishing democratic false consciousness,
Where we might believe in a shared public
Sphere, where people might take care of one
Another enough for there to be a general hope

In the general good, that merit, not birth alone,
Might shape things, where everyone might have
A chance at work and dignity but
Now even Russia covets our Gilded Age,

Lit city grids at night like nets
Inevitably drawing us in and constricting,
But if freedom is anything
Really it must be other people,

Dear republic, dear cities,
Perishing and shining and shifting, though
Living can feel like a series of little strokes:
You lose yourself, you navigate the gaps.

Greg Miller is professor of English at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi.
tags: Poetry, Poetry & Fiction   
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One Response to Ruins

  1. Susan Wiltshire June 29, 2012 at 7:33 am

    Greg Miller enables us to see what we all see everyday (if we’re really looking)–not only see but feel, sense, remember.

    In this case, I’ve been reading a great deal recently about Russia, especially Leningrad during the siege, so that line especially struck home.

    I’ve followed Greg Miller’s poetry a very long time. He’s good, very good.

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