One Poem by Colleen J. McElroy

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Immutable Geography

Step on a crack and break your mother’s back

in a blighted city, I can not find my past
sidewalks lay in rubble, curbs crumbled
every house I ever lived in torn down
the farmer’s market is gone, the trolley depot
paved over from Hodiman tracks to the wharf
whole blocks have turned into war zones
become a Berlin blight in the heartland circa 1949
close to the road chain link fences replace
thick privet hedges that once swallowed traffic sounds
Kingshighway no longer holds cars at bay

I cannot find my way along unfamiliar roads
gone the drug store where a dentist pulled teeth for free
the last boarded up White Castle a lonely sentinel
lost in the ragged intersection of a food desert
where is the lot my grandmother used to teach me to pick
dandelion greens and mustards wild onions sweet peppers
to add to the pot of 25¢ fatback cooked before my mother
came home from her postwar job at the laundry

what was once a vacant lot or two now knits
even the best blocks of front porch houses
postwar cottages have collapsed upon themselves
tenements shuttered like blind giants
where coltsfoot and chickweed ate brittle grass
that black lawn boys groomed with pinking shears
before the all white Veiled Prophet Ball began
only the waters of the Wedding of the Rivers
in front of Union Station run at the same sullen rate

I have lost my bearings—search for old man Farrow’s
grape arbor where blue black muscadines hung fat
as cherry tomatoes and sweet rocket mixed
with wood sorrel mallow and alfala
Farrow’s store is gone the barrel of kosher pickles
gone and the wind uninterrupted by the sound
of milk bottles scooped from front stoops
the city has grown raggedy as Lil’ Orphan Annie
after Daddy Warbucks left town leaving behind
a river clogged with rich debris unspent
and I have come home furious and wild
faltering along the way




Colleen J. McElroy lives in Seattle, Washington, where she is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Washington. Editor-in-chief of the Seattle Review from 1995-2006, McElroy has published nine collections of poems, most recently Sleeping with the Moon (2007), for which she received a 2008 PEN/Oakland National Literary Award, and Here I Throw Down My Heart (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012), a finalist for the Binghampton University Milt Kessler Book Award, the Walt Whitman Award, the Phyllis Wheatley Award, and the Washington State Governor’s Book Award. Winner of the 1985 Before Columbus American Book Award in poetry for Queen of the Ebony Isles, she also has received two Fulbright Fellowships, two NEA Fellowships, a Jesse Ball DuPont Distinguished Black Scholar Fellowship, and a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship. Recently, her work has been featured in The Oxford Anthology of African American Poetry, Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry, Best American Poetry, Black Renaissance Noire, torch, and Many of her poems have been translated into Russian, Italian, Arabic, Greek, French, German, Malay, and Serbo-Croatian.

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