Eliza Griswold, “Modern City”

Like a painting with no realistic light source, Modern City evenly illumines each thing it considers, but leaves us with an outstanding question. What is our perspective, those of us who want to understand modernity, but must live within it? Are we beyond a wedge of steel flung skyward, seeing it almost block the prairie flatlines? Or are we next to it, perhaps even trapped within it?

Modern City (from Poetry)
Eliza Griswold

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.

Perspective shifts at a dizzying pace in the first five lines. From the “wedge of steel” that is the city, cutting off nature, the scene turns to every “unhappy family” within. Each unhappy family permits itself another slice of pie, and we’ve seen everything already. Our artifice has divided us from nature; our conventional arrangements enable us to build, provide, and then ease the slide into excess. Our ways work — they gave us a city, they gave us a family — so we continue with them. Another slice of pie can’t hurt, can it? The sky turns constantly trying to get it right: our power turns on itself, and anything bearing witness, including the heavens, is as puzzled as we should be.

Perspective seems to be beyond us. The truth will be found only through experience. To the east, the slum eats itself: a man in satin fields calls and walks the children’s block. No sense of progress or aspiration resides in a slum eating itself. A man in satin fielding calls holds more than a whiff of impropriety, as drugs and sex create comfort, seeming to be the only avenue. The children’s block, no place for children.

The world refuses to answer the east’s corruption. There is only Babylon, or the west. To the west, the west begins. Nature stands opposite, an expanse of prairie, an untrodden world. Nature is simply what is away from the city. If we choose it, we choose another way entirely. We will not get answers to the questions we have about our city. We will leave, and life may be better. It certainly will be very different.

A city, though, holds a remnant of a time when silence reigned, when the city was nothing but nature itself. Beneath us in the underground museum moths feed at the stuffed muskrat — modernity’s own memory of what was before rots. The essence of this modern, dying city is that it gives nature back to nature. City-dwellers, as a result, have lost track of time. Nietzsche opens one of his essays with a dark joke about a planet that exists for thousands of years, making literature, doing science, understanding history, until it is completely destroyed and can never be heard from again. That’s not quite the time of which we’ve lost track, but it’s close. With no sense of how things beyond us are, we can’t understand how things were, and we’re blind to what will be: the grizzly’s fur fades to white, so white you argue he’s a different bear.

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