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The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2020

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OCT 2020 Issue
Poetry

from Creve Coeur


Creve Coeur



                             Why even speak of “I,” he dreams,
                             which interests me almost not at all?

                             —William Carlos Williams, Paterson



Preface



Beauty is not the quest. Creve Coeur, something like broken heart
in French, named after a storied romance, a sleepy suburb of St. Louis.


       To make a start
       out of fiction and end
       with the brutal facts of a general American history.
       Spurious tales have been told about the origins
       of this name: the impossible love
       between a French fur trapper
       and an Osage woman. When she leapt
       to her death off the Creve Coeur Falls,
       above the Creve Coeur Lake,
       the body of water, then, formed a broken heart.
       Quaint, but what other defining myths?—Pruitt-Igoe,
       for example, a barbed wire property
       line separating farmland from a one story,
       two-bedroom, tract house.


The beginning is, assuredly,
the end and maybe the middle and
probably not the future: Quiet Village,
without complexity,


              is the name
of my unremarkable subdivision. An early 60s
magnet of middle-income whites fleeing
the downtown St. Louis, sprawling myths
of driveways, best school districts, Impalas.
A steady trickle streams down the face
of the Creve Coeur Falls where it bowls slightly
like a stepped segment of the Cagliari Roman
amphitheater, slick with moss—some vague
Missouri dirt brown and green scum, in ignorance,
the waterfall, sometimes called


          Dripping Falls,
is for lovers. But the Creve Coeur
Falls is not very steep. It never seemed
ideal, to me, or even possible, for a suicide—
love-sick or otherwise.


What’s the sense, what’s the sense
in coming here?


          Power walking changes lives.
The best way to describe power walking
is to think of it as a low-impact alternative to jogging.
Basically, it takes regular walking and ups the intensity.
If you put two walkers next to each other,
and told one to move at a moderate pace
with their arms at their sides,
and told the other to increase their speed while
simultaneously pumping their arms—


       that’s the technique.
But who is this Creve Coeur power walker,
well-known in these parts, glowing under the streetlamps at dusk?—
Another question that turns to no more than a stale response.
Minds like beds easily made up
          (not the other way around)
that story for God knows


              how long, onward
our speedy walker, the “still desirable” world is yours.
Swoosh! is the sound of his poly-cotton track suit,
also called Tipped Fleece—
a burgundy hue, offset nicely by white Reeboks.


              The autumn sunset over
the Monsanto campus is an outstanding hazy orange.
He picks up his pace from Monsanto onto the Schnucks supermarket
sidewalk and encircles


              the Falls of his mind,
power-walking past McDonald’s, to the future,


              around Creve Coeur.









  Schnucks (A Giant among Supermarkets)

  I



  This is why I don’t do self-checkout. I was at Schnucks with my dad
  and he was overcharged for 2 out of 10 things. This happens almost every
   time we do self-checkout. Dad is a rock, somewhat hard of hearing,
  occasionally stubborn, so I get it when he insists on using self-checkout
  but then I’m the one who has to stand in line at customer service and
  unload everything onto the counter to convince them that we aren't
  stealing any products. Ragu was 3 for $5. Dad got 3 and was charged
  for 4. Chicken sausages were buy one, get one free. Dad got 4
  and was charged for 3. It’s embarrassing, and to top everything else off,
  dad bought a bad batch of cut flowers, and since it wasn't on his Schnucks
  Rewards Card
, they made him jump through hoops and he still couldn't
  return them. My dad’s a sweetheart but highly principled, and if crossed
  he’s known to slam a bouquet of Chrysanthemums onto the counter,
  while the employees are lost and locked in their desires—unaroused.


     Say it, no ideas but in profits—
     nothing but the blank faces of employees.
     Once upon a time, I worked at this Creve Coeur store
     and once when I was out back for a cigarette break,
     I set free a shiny gold helium balloon from the dumpster.
     In bubbly cursive it read: Best Day Ever.


  From above, higher than the Schnuck’s loading dock, higher
  than the dumpsters and the cracked asphalt,
  the shiny gold balloon, long hair flowing,
  an unrequited love suicide—it was the day after
  Halloween and mangled in the litter of dead leaves, plastic bags,
  and dried weeds, the remains of a yellow and red butterfly
  costume, all swirling towards a future Schnucks, Grand Opening,
  every new mall like a fresh statement.


     Back then, there was a manager named Zach
     who wore his hair combed back, and he’d
     intentionally hide trash in corners
     to see if I was sweeping properly.


  Um... I think you missed this area. A man like that,
  a boss like that… hard to love... not my Captain,
  not my fish n’ chips.


                       But Zach
  was only one man—like a county unto himself.


 He used to boast that he’s worked in nearly every Schnucks location, either helping out or training new hires. He’s seen good store management and bad store management, it usually depended on the area. Zach claimed he wasn’t prejudiced, but that the stores in North St. Louis just weren’t as up-to-speed as the ones in West County. He said that nearly every store had horrible deli department managers, except stores that had training locations—they always had top notch deli managers, especially in Kirkwood and O’Fallon.
 Zach would tell horror stories from the deli departments, like when deli meats were dropped on the floor and then wiped off because the butchers felt that it was too much hassle to cut more. Everything depended, Zach said, on the neighborhood. Also, Zach complained that the Union was taking too much money, but Right To Work failed horribly, so it wasn’t his fault for voting it down. He was proud that he initiated the teammate fund for employees who needed emergency assistance.


      Hands spinning like sparrows
      at a small churchyard, at the registers,
      real smiles and real miseries, monumental oak,
      the long aisle, like nowhere or anywhere
      in Missouri, every known breakfast cereal
      and the creek running along the back of Schnucks,
      like a spine, ending at Creve Coeur Falls—I suppose
      Zach might’ve dreamt of something better:
      he would have been heart-broken by this
      new trend of self-checkout.


      He thought the cashiers, and even the baggers,
      were the real faces of the store. Pretty soon
      there will be no such thing as a cashier nor a bagger.
      There will be no small talk waiting in checkout lines.
      No talk of coupons, rewards, new products, or news items
      like why this Madonna thing is such a disgrace. Maybe
      Zach would miss all that, but me?... I’m dazed, I get that
      dazed look of outsider or maybe they think I’m drunk
      with the catastrophe of descent, lost, broken wings,
      crumbled or trampled, buying my single item, arugula,
      held out like a prayer book.


      All lightness lost, the natural cycle, the creek
      divides what other myths? The cashier gives me that
      look like I’m either totally lost in the repulse, the fury
      of what’s to come, lost like I should be
      at the Whole Foods in the next mall over.
      I think of my dad in these cashier situations, a real pro,
      always a smile and a kind word… why, then,
      this insistence on self-checkout,
      filling the void?


  And there, against us, long stretches of lawns and station-
  wagons transforming into SUVs, before our eyes
  the sad face of the Creve Coeur Falls, broken hearted
  after all, but sadness is not the same as suffering—we learn
  mostly from songs—the secrets in those rocks, abandoned
  farms, funded schools, ponds, mortgages: everybody’s
  got troubles sometimes; nobody has troubles like mine
.
  A storm, a purple rope twister over a Red Roof Inn
  at the mouth of Earth City Business Park: squirrels, voles,
  deer mice, shelter in the thicket behind Schnucks: Best Day Ever.


 How did this happen? For centuries, most dogs lived outdoors, doing their business without making it our business. For many years, the idea was that once you'd trained your dog to go outside, that was it. Additionally, by the 1960s so many dog owners were living in the suburbs that the backyard became an easy solution for what to do with dog poop. But by the early 1970s, a growing population of canines leaving their waste wherever it fell became a major political issue, especially as several younger families started to move back into the urban centers.
 At the time, many inner cities had "Curb Your Dog” signs, instructing owners to make their dog go only in the gutter—not easy in cities where cars were parked bumper to bumper on every block. Supposedly street cleaning would take care of the result, except that a budget crisis had cut such services to the bone. The solution was obvious: dog owners would need to pick-up after their own dogs. This solution caught on rapidly across the U.S. The first incarnation of the poop bag was the “pooper scooper.” The invention is credited to Brooke Miller, of Anaheim, California. The design she patented is a metal bin with a rake-like edge attached to a wooden stick. It also includes a rake-like device to scoop the poop into the scooper and a hatch that can be attached to a garbage bag that fits onto the base. The generic term pooper-scooper has been included in dictionaries since the early 1970s.


         A few years back, I helped move my parents out of
         their small suburban home with a yard in Creve Coeur
         and into a small retirement apartment building.
         The concept of the doggie poop bag
         for their Cairn Terrier had to be introduced.
         I offered to go the Schnucks—
         it was at least 100 degrees with no breeze—a common
               August afternoon in St. Louis.


     Say it! No ideas but in consumption.
     Mr. Broken Heart has gone away.
     I park pretty far from the entrance because I refuse
     to drive around looking for the most optimal spot.
     Tiny acts of rebellion: a family photo album—


     a day at the ballpark, Grandpa Dave, from Kiev,
     in a pressed white shirt and tie pushing a lawn mower.
     I arrive all sweaty and ask an employee who is pricing
     soup cans if he knows where I can find doggy bags.
     He looks at me truly bewildered, maybe thinking
     of restaurant take-out doggy bags?
     My bad. Poop bags! I say, too loudly.
     “Oh, we’re out” he first says, and then he confesses
     he’s not sure Schnucks carries poop bags.


     End of conversation. I power back to the Camry—
     What the fuck


         The miracle of inventory!


 “Once you cross Delmar—I don’t know, it’s a different world.” The Delmar Divide, refers to Delmar Boulevard as a dividing line running east to west across St. Louis City and County. In the early 20th century, the St. Louis real estate industry employed a system of racial covenants and steering to drive the city’s growing black population to neighborhoods north of Delmar, while driving white families to the south. Creve Coeur—among other St. Louis suburban counties west of the inner city—is a direct result of this aggressive redlining. In 1916, St. Louis became the first city in the nation to pass a racial segregation ordinance by voter referendum. It was nullified the following year thanks to the Supreme Court case of Buchanan v. Warley, but St. Louis realtors and developers simply reverted to the use of steering and racial covenants to enforce the Delmar Divide. In the mid-1930s, as part of FDR’s New Deal, the federal government began to subsidize and incentivize home mortgages in an attempt to kickstart the economy during the Great Depression. To guide the incentives, the federal government hired local squadrons of appraisers, brokers, realtors and other real estate professionals to designate areas as “best,” “still desirable,” “definitely declining,” or “hazardous.” The areas deemed hazardous were overlaid or outlined in red, giving rise to the term redlining. Despite the fact that The Ville and the rest of St. Louis north of the Delmar Divide were home to thriving communities, this area was redlined because it was also home to a predominantly black population.
 Between 1934 and 1962, the FHA and, later, the Veterans Administration financed more than $120 billion worth of new housing. Ninety eight percent (98%) of this money went to white people. Less than two percent (2%) went to blacks and other nonwhites. To this day the St. Louis urban center is hollowed out, and has had far less of the gentrification that has transformed other Rust Belt cities, like Chicago and Pittsburgh.


         Everybody wants.


 “A lot of these people frankly felt hurt because they had gone through the entirety of homebuyer training programs that many nonprofits have, they had gotten their credit in shape, been pre-qualified for loans, and then they found it impossible to buy a house in their neighborhood,” Burleigh says. “The kind of situation I kept seeing was: ‘I saw this house, across the street from me, I could get it for $35,000, it needs about $45,000 in work, I was pre-approved for a $120,000 mortgage, but then the appraisal comes back and post-construction appraisal is not going to be high enough, so the loan doesn’t happen.’”
 The history of The Ville is closely tied to this systematic denial of mortgages and other home-based lines of credit to black neighborhoods starting in the 1930s. Many families left, including the black middle and upper classes, heading out to suburbs such as Ferguson and Kinloch, only for the cycle of mortgage denial to repeat itself.


  I’m actually parked closer to the Beltone Hearing Aid store,
  oblivious to everything, except the hot vinyl
  and mom’s booster pillow on the driver’s seat.


 It gets worse. Basically, the FHA subsidized housing discrimination. It was a deliberate system of preferential treatment based on white privilege. It was not based on merit. It was not earned. It was not a matter of some people working harder than others. This federal policy SUBSIDIZED a practice by private lenders that created all-white suburbs. This is de facto housing segregation. It would be easy to assume that nobody wants anything to do with the vacant properties on the north side of St. Louis, but Glenn Burleigh would beg to differ. As head of community outreach at the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council, Burleigh spends much of his time attending community meetings north of the Delmar Divide to talk about the organization and its work as a bank watchdog group. In those discussions, he inevitably fields questions about obtaining mortgages. Around 2016, the questions started taking a particularly poignant turn...


                I begin again!
         I think to try Krummenacher’s Pharmacy—
         not because I have a good feeling that they carry
                poop bags, but
         because nostalgia is pulsing through my veins.
                Poop bags. I‘m directed
         to a shelf-stocking employee and I ask her about
                doggie waste bags.
         "What?" she says, all very friendly.
         Doggie poop bags! I blurt out.
                "Oh, I think they're over here..."
         She starts to lead me to the pet section,
                but we’re like wading


                along the ocean floor.
         I lift my legs across the underwater carpet.
                We arrive at the tiny
         pet supplies section. She scans the bar code
         on the empty shelf— "Nope, sorry. We're out."
                At this point, I have to calm
         down and re-evaluate my options.
                I reach for my phone.


         The technology, the language,
                failing or embracing me.
         Who knew?... there’s a gigantic PETCO
                on the other side of Olive Street Road—
         big box anxiety shifts the geography of my mind.
                I turn onto Graeser Road


         and then head west past the haves
         whose futures look bright,
         whose families have thrived,
                in the Parkway school district,
         I drive pass the Brookdale
                sprawling campus: Exceptional Senior Living.


         I pass two grown-ass men enjoying
                a front lawn lounge, koozie Bud
         holders: Life is sweet
                reads one T-shirt, I Hate Everything


         reads the other, likely
         from the George Strait song, a kind of consolation prize,
         or as dad used to say, a constellation prize!


 Some readers, myself included, often skim over these sections—we see the smaller font and we get the idea that this text has more of a newspaper style patina, and we skim it or skip it altogether. I had this experience when reading William Carlos Williams’ Paterson. For me, the smaller font prose sections are like an invitation to skim—but I am, perhaps, a lazier reader than you.
 Anyway, I hope that you are reading now because I thought it might be useful to write about what I’m up to even though the answer, for me, is only partially clear. So, am I writing this for you or for me, or for both of us at once? My poem Creve Coeur, for sure, is a loose “translation” or mirror of Williams’ Paterson, but I won’t trouble you with the concept or process of how I decided to go about this, or how closely I thought to mirror Paterson, or why I was counting syllables or at least numbers of lines, and then I wasn’t, or how I had hoped the mirroring could raise interesting questions around originality, or resemblance, or maybe not, or finally, what does it mean for my poem, today, to be in dialog with Williams’ poem about the history of an American city written from 1946-1963?
 That last question is the one that I want to share here. I hope my reader will find value in comparing my suburban experience of Creve Coeur, Missouri with Williams’ mid-century, small-town Paterson, New Jersey. His themes of oral histories, municipal politics, small town American landscape and language, local psyche, etc., are themes that I wanted to compose with as I recollect my own midwestern, middle class suburban experience amid present day catastrophes.
 As such, the question of mirroring—both Williams’ content and structure—haunt these pages. So perhaps that experience of not reading or nearly not reading these sections replicates that ghostliness. But then again, as a friend put it, maybe this small font is not really that small anyway. Nine point. He thought The New York Times prints at 8.7 point. I just looked it up, and it appears to be 9.25-9.5 point. Supermarket coupons often print at 5-7 point Helvetica, and that’s readable. On a forum, someone posts: “I have used Copperplate Gothic Light at 7. It's an all cap, serif font. Not everyone likes it I guess but I thought it looked elegant. It's certainly readable.” I tried it here and I think it looks ridiculous. I’m sticking with Calibri (Body) for its pedestrian quality.

Contributor

Robert Fitterman

Robert Fitterman is the author of 15 books of poetry including, most recently, Rob’s Word Shop (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2019), I Love You Forever No Matter (Counterpath 2016), Nevermind (Wonder Books, 2016), and No Wait, Yep. Definitely Still Hate Myself (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2014). He is the founding member of the artists and writers collective, Collective Task (www.collectivetask.com), and he teaches writing and poetry at New York University and at the Bard College, Milton Avery School of Graduate Studies.

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The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2020

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