The King of Milwaukee – a sequence of poems from I got off the train at Ash Lake



Along the promenade of the hotel
stood a statue of the King of Milwaukee,
grayer than European cathedrals
and dappled with birdlime.
The rain combed his hair
while the wind kissed his rings.
The children believed it good luck
to throw an old bottle at his head,
suddenly crowning the King
in a glinting blossom of shards.
The King of Milwaukee wore a live fish
as a necktie.  It was a northern pike,
and when it snapped, he fed it
slivers of citrus.  The villagers
ignored the pike when he spoke.
They ignored his hands
like old cuts of meat,
his one leg longer than the other.
But then there was his head:
his hair a thunderstorm of stress,
and his crown a garter snake
bulged by a digesting frog,
a lazy halo of scales.


The King of Milwaukee was drunk,
issuing his proclamations everywhere.
“Loyal subjects,” he said,
“your wine is of grapes,
your blood is of air,
your clothes are woven on looms
crosshatched and creaking.
If reelected, I will kiss
your pretty sisters.  I will take away
these treacheries if only
someone will buy me
a loaf of good bread.”
Then, he toddled outside
to survey the architecture
of the mute sky.
The King of Milwaukee declared cedar trees
unpatriotic.  “Had we cared for cedars,
we would have called this lake ‘Cedar Lake!’”
he cried to an assemblage of villagers,
some brandishing hatchets like timpani mallets.
But the cedars were only moved by the rhetoric
of wind, whirling their tips in a storm.
They exuded their sweet smell
when the villagers came a-chopping.
“We will teach them what we love!” cried the King
through a cheerleading megaphone,
while men readied the bonfires:
nurseries for smoke, soot, and ash.
“The two of hearts,” the King of Milwaukee slurred
at the magician’s assistant, even though
she hadn’t asked him to pick a card.
Earlier he had brought her a daguerreotype
of a field of gray poppies, a bat in a tin cage
which would sing Wagner.  She exhaled, her breath
weary as a welcome mat.  “Sometimes
there’s nothing up my sleeves,” she said,
and began unbuttoning her blouse at the wrists
so they could find out together.
The King of Milwaukee and the priest were playing chess
in the parlor of the hotel.  By then, most
of the original pieces were missing,
so they provided their own replacements.
There were rings, chips of flint, a Roman coin,
two chairs and a cat from a dollhouse.
The priest protected his bishops at all costs;
the King kept extra castles hidden
in his ermine boots.  It was impossible to tell
who was winning.  The King moved his knight
to capture a silver locket.  “My horse
takes your soul,” he announced.  The priest
took a cotton ball and dropped it in the King’s
right palm.  “God takes your hand,” he said.
“Now my sandcastles are burning,”
said the King of Milwaukee, drunk,
on the stoop of the hotel, the day
they tore down his statue
to put in a badminton court.
His bottle of gin rocked like a pendulum
in his ringed hand; his necklaces
scrawled across his throat.
“Now, who are my subjects?  Are you?”
he demanded.  I said they were nests
of bats, earthworms churning through death,
the mad and the drowned—those
who make love to the dark.

—B.J. Best, West Bend, WI