Ode to River Falls
Unlike Susan Firer’s Milwaukee,
you won’t find the world’s largest girdle here,
nor I think the world’s largest anything.
Ted Berrigan wrote, For my sins I live
in New York, but River Falls offers
only run-of-the-mill opportunities
for sin, and living here is more reward
than punishment for them. As a student,
I’d slip out the back door of my dorm
to write poems beside the Kinnickinnic,
in the green time of year canopied
from any view of human habitation.
Walking early on the river path facing
downtown, you may sight the resident Bald
Eagle’s cloak of feathers in the tallest pine.
That tree marks the domain of our founding
family’s late heir, so maybe it’s old
Bruce Foster himself keeping an eagle eye
on the trout stream he fished, cleanest in the state.
A swinging bridge suspends you fifty feet
over a limestone ravine called the Glen
where the channel tumbling among rocks
can wash the city out of your ears
as the summer moon floats above Glen Park.
In our former neighborhood in the Cities,
we’d joke of the background freeway traffic
noise, Pretend it’s a waterfall. Inside
our hundred-year-old farmhouse-in-town
in open-window weather, we can hear
an actual waterfall. Our Whole Earth co-op’s
going on forty years old, de facto
health insurance for alternative folk.
How lucky for me that in the Sixties
University Concerts and Lectures had
funds to spare for poets who became
my heroes, Kinnell, Bly, Stafford, and
Snyder, while the art department was
my most reliable supplier of girlfriends.
What would I have done without that public
education even my family could afford,
from which proceeded a calling, marriage,
a home? People passing through remember:
Once I met an Alaskan poet who claimed
to have been everywhere in the United States.
“River Falls?” I asked. “Two-dollar movie theater!”
he replied triumphantly. “Penny parking meters!”
True enough, though like Three-Buck Chuck,
the movie theater has upped its price.
Singing At the Nursing Home on Christmas Eve
The residents are having an off night,
a result of holiday over-
stimulation and loneliness. My Christmas
repertoire falls flat — they enjoy more
secular fare, “Hey Good-Lookin’,” “Goodnight
Irene,” “It Had to Be You.” If there is
in fact a “war on Christmas,” we’re all
part of it, at every turn deflecting
feeling and depth. We know there’s too much dammed
sadness, a Noah’s flood of tears that, loosed,
might sweep the bloody floor of the nation
clean. Public radio is still nattering
about “going over the fiscal cliff.”
That or the mass shootings — these days
psychopaths seemed wired in series
to go off like strings of firecrackers.
It’s compressing our hopes for peaceful
holidays into a tight little campfire
to be defended from the circling dark.
My car waits in the back lot, where sometimes —
though not tonight — deer step from scrub woods.
Our signals travel out among the hour-
glass stars of Orion tipping cold
on the horizon below the waxing moon.
A heavy-duty aluminum
plate folded in two like
a wallet standing on its side,
you time up to an hour,
at the end of which resoundingly
dings an old-fashioned alarm-
clock bell housed in the bulge
at your back. With your
handsomely molded white plastic
dial, you rest on two cylindrical
deco-style aluminum feet.
Forties or Fifties vintage,
manufactured by National Presto
Industries in Eau Claire,
Wisconsin, so locally identified
with its pressure cookers
that many in my hometown
referred to it simply as
“Pressure Cooker” as in
“Uncle Howard works at Pressure
Cooker,” which in fact he did
in that charmed period
of my childhood when he,
Aunt Dorothy and my cousins
lived a half-hour away from us.
Though the very element
you measure has effaced
your white minute-increments,
your quarter-hour markers
still show bold black.
Could Uncle Howard’s
hands possibly have touched you?
I know he’d have taken
pride in a well-made thing,
designed to last.
You still keep time perfectly
in the twenty-first century,
your ticking heart
to which I write these
words, still strong,
reliably running, unlike
the heart of Howard
who died in a Madison
hospital winters ago and
who was my last uncle—
to say nothing of
of many another
in fond memory of Howard Straw
—Thomas R. Smith, River Falls, WI