Poetry by Garret Brown
Read the Dundalk Eagle article about Garret Brown here
About the Author
Garrett J. Brown was born in Baltimore. His poems have appeared in various journals including the Ledge, Pif Magazine, the Midwest Poetry Review, and most recently in the August 2005 literary issue of Urbanite Baltimore. In 2000, he won a Creative Writing Fellowship from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he graduated with his MFA in Creative Writing. His book-length manuscript, Manna Sifting, was runner-up in the 2003 Maryland Emerging Voices competition and he recently won the Poetry Center of Chicago’s 2005 Juried Reading Contest (www.poetrycenter.org), judged by Jorie Graham. He is currently teaching writing at University of Illinois at Chicago, where he is pursuing his PhD. Garrett’s chapbook, Panning the Sky, was published in 2003 and is available from Pudding House Publications (www.puddinghouse.com).
Two o’clock outside the plate mill,
men trickle out in worn jeans,
remove hard hats and light
cigarettes. Their eyes are pig iron,
their skin cooled slag; they lean
and smoke against a concrete wall.
My grandfather laid brick, raised
these city walls with his hands
(cement under his nails, fingerprints
on each block) and a few tools
that now sit in their red dust, silent
in my grandmother’s garage.
The steelworker feels this landscape
in his body ore bridge ribs,
arms skip-hoist thin and a belly
bloated with coke and limestone,
a smoldering oven banked inside.
For thirty years my father survived
layoffs, union disputes, soot
on the cars and soot in his lungs.
He worked as his father worked, shipping,
forging steel, the steel that forged
this town. Driving the beltway
in a car of foreign alloys and plastic,
I watch Sparrows Point surrender
its last gray breaths to the air
and approach the
a steel arch that spans the distance
we must cross to forge a metal
Snook McAllister wore new loafers
to Turner’s Stationblack leather, soles
sanded smooth. The barmaid was Irish,
red-haired and big-boned, hands shaking
while pouring shots of Jamesontold him
how she and her sister spent August evenings
swimming naked in
flapping like mermaid fins. Tipped more
than he could afford, waited outside, watched
his friends catch the last streetcar back
to the Point. She walked him as far as the rail
bridge, tongue curled inside his cheek. He bought
these damn shoes at the Company Store, polished
them with old newspaper. His first few
cautious steps were fine, tie to railroad tie
but now the slip, the dropping to all fours,
vertigo. Alone, suspended in this thickening
fog, deep horns weigh the air, unseen ships
on the Patapsco displace their water, trains
clattering at the shipyard. Thin saliva
threads a gap in the bridge, and he listens
for flapping in the creek below, but only
the violent copulation of metal scraping metal,
distant thunder of B furnace blowing its charge.
Gathering one streetcar stop away
from a town that no longer exists, displaced
people multiply their memories. I listen
to Eleanor Cox describe creosote in the air,
how she lied about her age to work at Gavin’s
drug store. I served ice cream and soda,
chocolate malts, where you gonna get real
banana splits today? The men here talk
in steelworker’s tongue (cools instead of coils;
far never fire). One claims his father could read
the emotion of a flame spitting from a
and know the nature of the metalcold blue:
angry steel, pores closed, unyielding; a blinding
yellow: sympathetic steel, its motion slow as it spreads
into sand molds, branching out, luminous
liquid seeking pockets in the earth, pigs suckling
around the mother sow. On his death certificate
they summed up 38 years in one word: laborer.
Later, I drive past an abandoned
guard station, get out of the car
and stand on
to trace this wounded landscape
into a sketchbook. Confounded
by strange shapes, I fall into myth:
blast furnace a lumbering cyclops,
skip-hoist arms dragging the ground;
poles and wires become discarded
weapons of giants, smokestacks
coughing the flesh of soldiers
up into the air. I know nothing
of this skyline rusting away.
Eleanor relives the wintersskip hoists vanishing
into gunmetal horizons, children sledding down piles
of coke, dumped slag turning the sky red, bleeding
soft pink onto the snow. She tells me about a man
who lived alone underneath Gavin’s drug, loved
the blues and made his living crafting false teeth.
stretch their necks over the water, swallowing
their drink. One hoists up
its head, an indignant brontosaurus
peering through the fog.
Behind formstone houses, backyards
are thin in the August dusk.
My cousins play rundown in the alley,
they do not surrender the game to the dark.
I am fifteen, hunched with the men
around the grill, still smoldering
with heat and the smell of hamburger.
They drink beer out of cans, listen
to baseball, speak of steel mills and cement.
On a sidewalk in Fell's Point,
the trapdoor to a basement
is left open, the air inside
cut with turpentine and oil.
A girl in a wool sweater with charcoal hair
sits at her bench, cleans her brushes
and stares at the wall. What began
as a Parisian landscape
has become a mammoth, wounded
by the hunter's spear.
This harbor, dark and oily, slides
between mounds of coal, warehouses
of girders and rust, lonely piers
where tugboats rock
with a muted splash.
It peeks up at the streets,
quiet and exhausted,
an Arabian bazaar deserted at dusk,
then sinks back into its bed,
its blurry glass, and sleeps.
JoAnne watches her boyfriend’s ass as he bowls:
flattened cheeks clad in tight black jeans, a wet rag
tucked in his back pocket. He grabs a lane ball,
like he always does, holds it up like a gray moon.
He claims its nicks and craters are knowledge
of this floor’s polished wood, the duckpin teeth
grinning at the end of the lane,. It is a philosophy
unshared by the obese bald man everyone calls
Buddha. Every Tuesday night JoAnne sees him
polishing his light green ball, swirled with clouds,
his pouty earlobes pierced by gold hoops.
Her grandmother used to say thunder was the sound
of saints bowling. Buddha stands and the globe
disappears into his fleshy palm. His eyes close
for a pinfall and when he moves his grace shames
the wiry ballet of the Tuesday Turnouts: Jimmy Z’s
side-armed toss, Striker’s cross-legged slide. The ball
glides from Buddha’s hand, surfs the glossy lane,
jade spinning toward angelic thunder.
Sister Janowski shakes her blue-skirted hips
to Snoop Doggy Dog, silver cross flapping
between pillow breasts. At the Big Six wheel,
Mr. Fitzpatrick plays quarters and drinks another
captain and coke. His gaze lingers on the sweet asses
of two eighth-grade girls flirting with the young
deacon John by the dessert table, the cakes trimmed
with thick chocolate, punctuated by vulgar cherries.
Mr. Brandon wins the confessional kneeler
for sixty-two dollars at the silent auction. He runs
his fingers over the tight red leather and imagines
the sinful knees of Mrs. Floyd, his son’s sixth grade
math teacher with the plump lips and the single
curl of hair that ribbons her dancer’s neck.
Sweat bleeds in the fold
between your knees and sun-baked vinyl
as the harbor pants rusted air
against your gunmetal car, hitting
75 across this pothole stretch of road.
Even this must end, logic will not
disappoint that train-rail fact.
But when dirt-speck birds continue to circle
above your hairline highway,
and you fear control is the coyote who tricks,
you are moved to burn your hands
on a blazing fire wheel and turn
into a gutter to feel the asphalt-metal smack
and your spirit jarred loose
for a fraction of a blink.