Modern City (from Poetry Magazine, March 2007)
A wedge of steel flung skyward
and beyond it the prairie flatlines.
Each unhappy family permits itself
another slice of pie. The sky turns
constantly trying to get it right.
To the east, the slum eats itself:
a man in satin fields calls
and walks the children’s block.
To the west, the west begins.
Beneath us in the underground museum
moths feed at the stuffed muskrat
and the grizzly’s fur fades to white,
so white you argue he’s a different bear.
The “wedge” of the opening and its importance are ambiguous to start with. To make matters more complicated, the wedge seems to change into other images as the poem progresses. Something about it is first and central, but difficult to understand. So maybe we should begin with another concern: where exactly are we standing?
We can establish where we are standing at least as a question. To know where we are standing, we have to consider how we’re seeing. The wedge we see could be separating the “prairie flatlines” themselves or the prairie from the sky. The only thing unambiguous in our seeing is a vague direction, upward. “Beyond it” brings forth directly the question of where we are ourselves. Are we in the city? Maybe, but we could be outside it also, staring at the wedge and perhaps the prairies from a distance.
“Pie” continues and changes the “wedge,” as a slice of pie is a wedge. The force underlying both is the same that pretends instant gratification is the same as happiness. The image has changed and with it our perspective. Now the sky is presented a curious way. It “turns” as if the wedge/slice of pie is static and nature itself is rotated around it. What does it mean for the sky to “get it right?”
There have been many difficult metaphors to work through so far, but one thing at this point is clear. We and the sky are trying for a perspective to make sense of it all. We and the sky see the slum eat itself. The “wedge,” the city, is the lusciousness of the pie (“satin”) as well as the toys of children (“children’s block”). But it is also something else, as a man is described walking through the slum. The man is disassociated from his very location (“in satin,” or you could even read “in satin fields”). He’s on his cell phone and probably not concerned with what’s around. Then again, one could read that he is calling the kids and walking around the children’s block. No matter what, he is a center of sorts, a wedge not unlike the one the city itself is. Is he central to the slum? Is he a wedge that consumes itself? The man might be an exploitative and redemptive figure, both at once.
The poem moves on, changing focus entirely to the west. Perhaps only the sky actually sees the west. It’s as if the problem of perspective has to exclude more explicitly human factors. We couldn’t make exact sense of the man in satin. But we all know what a slum eating itself means. “West” implies a frontier and a new beginning. Maybe man can do more with nature; maybe nature, left alone, can give a higher possibilities later. Still, the underground museum foreshadows its exploitation and collapse even if it is virgin territory now. Nature does reassert itself at present; the moths cause our shoddy attempts at preservation (“stuffed muskrat”) to decay. But that points to a very dark, uncomfortable truth: at least one part of nature is simply decay, as the grizzly has lost all power and identity.
Again, where are we? In satin? At home? Outside the city? The underground museum sounds a lot like what a tourist trap outside the city would be. We’re probably in the city, always in the city. Only also at times looking westward, hoping for some sort of escape. The underground museum might indicate that the real wedge is one we’ve driven between ourselves. The only things distinct in the slum are the man and children, rich and poor. Those aren’t prairies we’re rediscovering underneath; they’ve already been manipulated. The wedge is broken in the slums, pushed too far.