To go to Chicago.
Which words for the South Side, if not in a nightmare, at midnight when frost coagulates on the bar’s last brew, when the “L” screams wickedly through the backyards of Hades like Satan unwanted at a baptism, chanting a novena of sacrilege over an unsuspecting newborn soul.
To leave in tentative measure for South Chicago, midday or midnight, the sky is as painful as the psyche, in September or March, the seasons are redundant.
But only if that polarized portion of the city exists, if it dares blanket the soft powdery skin of the delicate Loop, slipping it the ex-lover’s kiss before taking off for a night on the town, filling its own veins with the opiate of jazz, shocking its former lovers with voodoo moves and mouth music blues.
To pack and set off, to leave only the smoldering scent of sulfur and ash, to vanish like smoke curls off a stolen cigarette.
And buildings, abandoned buildings, cages drawn down across facades like the intimidating masks of muggers, and below, under the short circuit of epileptic neon lights, rats create choreography on a stage of urban blight.
But the politicians rise, you remember, so straight, as straight as opened pimp rolls, college degrees speaking in calligraphy, and my desire, which wasn’t born yet, only gang tag graffiti and the scent of brute force, and indecent promises of grants and renewal. The lies of home.
There was always too much of the South Side, no one could comprehend its neighborhoods, decipher the accents of tongues scorched by the motherland, left at liberty’s door, neglected orphans who came for candy and stayed for drinks, all stranded on islands with names like Goose and Stoney, not islands at all, but ghost ships transporting live cargo.
At night, the pathetic percussion of the deadbolts of innocents bids bittersweet adieu to the safety of the sun, the artificial light of television bathing supplicants in benevolent amends, tenement confessionals awash in fresh whispers of sin and howls of contrition.
So unlike the cathedral of darkened city streets, the few functional streetlights beckoning sinners to worship.
Those without souls roam in search, cars blasting hymns of anger and obscenity, the scent of power and fear hovering like fallen angels.
Sirens squeal and the blackened air vibrates in a meteor shower of intimidating intensity, aggressive young men in turf wars of frenzy.
There is so much of the South Side that repeats and shatters into infinite fractals.
My family couldn’t have known yet that I’d resurrect them, they lived so guardedly, so full of life yet caged, servants of the blast furnace, pockets full of coins, lungs full of disease, the smell of whiskey coating the breath that diminished daily.
Life was balanced on the edge of a knife, intense, immediate, ready to cut to the quick or sever the cord.
Gwendolyn Brooks came as a visiting seraphim, offering wings and the comfort of balm in an ointment of words.
One of my friends kept writing a poem entitled “Believe” but it never went beyond the title. I wished I had kept it.
There was too much of the South Side, it intimidated the soul of the city, bullied its way beyond unspoken boundaries, knocked on the unanswered door of staid City Hall.
It burst murals onto crumbling underpasses, overflowed gang tags on neglected “L” platforms open to the wind, morphed into the elements of fire, storm, and snow, challenged lightning, danced in heat, grew bolder, returned home, wrote its own bible, and developed a new religion born of personal fire and illegal brimstone.
There was no savior. There was only the saved.
But progress came, dressed in green scrubs of opportunity, pulling out its scalpel, cutting along unbroken skin, through muscle and bone.
Surgeons from skyscrapers pulled away layers, searching for cancer, finding disease, offering hospice in too-late tones of desperation.
And broken buildings tumbled silently, pushed over by gentrification, falling soundlessly in the jungle. There was no one left to listen. And all the while the cathedral of the streets trembled and cast out its sinners, their muffled pleas for penance washed over by the soundtracks of progress.
People bade farewell without goodbyes, no tears, such dry mouths, I won’t see you anymore, so much of the same awaits you,. Why must every city have a South Side, and now in a hurry, just pack always, each day, and go expectantly, go in faith that is so rarely its own reward. Go to the South Side, swung low on sweet chariots, going forth to carry away home, pushing past raggedy redemption sung in glad-rag gospel hallelujah.
(Parallel poem to “To Go To Lvov,” by Adam Zagajewski)