Cleveland winter seeps into bones—
what ice does to broken streets,
freezing, expanding concrete
so something is bound to crack.
I hike creaky skeleton along West Bank River road
down into the Flats during brief thaw
under polar vortex shifting sky
to stand on black mounds, cinder grit crust,
covering snowplowed ice piles,
as dull afternoon sun reflects in pothole puddle,
goes hazy as grey pall slides over dinosaur mill graveyard.
St. Ignatius scull team rows into dock,
startling gulls, white wings swirling under rusty girders
under Rapid bridge straining as airport train clatters over,
maybe carrying Clevelanders somewhere warm.
Down the junked bank
leans a small wooden cross
draped with dead vines, ancient telegraph pole,
but no wires that once carried deals between Flagler
and Rockefeller to king maker Hanna and back
up river where gasoline was first formulated,
by-product of lamp kerosine,
and the rest is Year of our Ford Autogeddon history—
a few iridescent swirls still ripple the surface.
Today’s thaw reveals Industrial Age landfill:
blue porcelain shards of china, broken plates
that once adorned tables on millionaire’s row.
No doubt those blue bloods have flowed out to sea
long ago, their scions still pulling strings on Wall Street,
never having lifted shovels or stood
shift after shift in the steel mills.
So I walk the fissured asphalt road past homeless Victoria
who manages a flat of tarp tents on the escarpment, who warns
Homeland Security will round up everybody who lives down here
before impending seventh seal opening earthquake…
For now, the grey sheet of late afternoon slides
over the “tender rust” and “majestic decay”
romanticized over our lattes,
slides like a blanched plastic sheet over Gulf War vet
passed out drunk in broken weeds
under Veteran’s Memorial Bridge.
Around the bend towards the swinging bridge,
a fourteen story concrete grain silo stands, still in use,
two Food-Land semis diesel idling gravel lot.
Next to it an old wooden mill paneled with 2x4x8 slats
painted with faded block letters REMEMBER…
the logo and product below it now unintelligible ghosts
so there is only, ghosting there in the dusk, REMEMBER,
as I make my way back for a boilermaker at Hoople’s bar
through thistles’ tattered brown crowns,
bleached empty mouths of milkweed pods, sere fescue,
clumps of russet rushes, brittle ironweed stalks
mixed with strands of rebar arcing up from fill dirt.
Something startles the gulls into a whirlwind again,
their squalling recalling the river before stacks billowed
and church spires staked their claims on workers’ souls
in their company houses lining cliff rim above,
before toxic leaks from this fallen industrial giant’s corroded arteries,
before even the river muttering Cuyahoga from its crooked mouth,
recalling this birth canal that bore natives into the world,
this thaw flow that will heal over
all we ever were, all we ever will be.
Ray McNiece has authored eleven books of poems and monologues and CDs, most recently Love Song for Cleveland, a collaboration with photographer Tim Lachina and Breath Burns Away, New Haiku. The Orlando Sentinel reporting on Ray’s solo theater piece “Us — Talking Across America” at the Fringe Festival called him “a modern day descendant of Woody Guthrie. He has a way with words and a wry sense of humor.” He toured Russia with Yevgeny Yevtushenko, appeared on Good Morning, Russia and performed at the Moscow Polytech, the Russian Poets’ Hall of Fame where he was dubbed ‘the American Mayakovski.’ He has toured Italy twice with legendary Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He fronts the blues rock band, Tongue-in-Groove. Among many awards, he has received a Creative Work Force Fellowship and residencies at The Cuyahoga Valley National Park and the Jack Kerouac House. He is currently Poet Laureate of Cleveland Heights. He received the Cleveland Arts Prize Lifetime Achievement Award in 2021.