4. Figurative North Topeka

for Ben Lerner

Seasonal graffiti crawls

up the overpass like ivy —

abstract names on concrete stanchions.

To the south, symbolic walls:

NO OUTLET signs along the levee,

idle river, idle tracks,

bypass, bluffside and the backs

of Potwin’s late-Victorian mansions,

flush like book spines on a shelf.

Drunk on your late-Victorian porch

you promised me that if elected

you’d have the river redirected

down Fourth Street, to make Potwin search

North Topeka for itself.

I told you to retire Ad Astra

Per Aspera and put For God’s

Sake Take Cover on the state

seal and flag — the license plate

at least, since we collect disaster

and death like they were classic rods:

’51 Flood; ’66 Tornado.

Even the foot-lit Statehouse mural

has a sword-bearing Coronado,

a Beecher’s Bible-bearing Brown

and a tornado bearing down

on its defenseless mock-pastoral,

The Past. The present was still wet

when the embarrassed legislature

resolved that it would never let

John Steuart Curry paint the future.

He never did, although Topekans

would learn to let bygones be icons.

* * *

On Thursday, July 12, the rain

relented and the water rose,

darkened and stank more. The stain

is just shy of the second story

in what used to be Fernstrom Shoes.

That entire inventory

spent five nights underwater, gaping

like mussels on the riverbed.

Fernstrom spent the summer scraping

gobs of septic-smelling mud

out of eleven thousand toes.

On Friday the 13th, the Kaw

crested at thirty-seven feet.

They thought it might have cut a new

channel down Kansas Avenue.

One Capital reporter saw

a kid reach up from his canoe

and slap the stoplight at Gordon Street.

Porubsky’s never did reclaim

its lunchtime clientele; the torrents

sent the Sardou Bridge to Lawrence

and there was no more Oakland traffic.

Business hasn’t been the same

for fifty years now. Fifty-two.

Ad astra per aspera: through

the general to the specific.

You do what you want to do

but I’m not using North Topeka

in conversation anymore

because there is no north to speak of;

there’s only mud and metaphor

— Eric McHenry

Eric McHenry received the Kate Tufts Discovery Award for his first book of poems, Potscrubber Lullabies (Waywiser Press, 2006). Waywiser will publish Eat Your Trees, his collection of children’s poems with woodcuts by Nicholas Garland, in 2011. McHenry teaches creative writing at Washburn University.


One thought on “4. Figurative North Topeka

  1. This poem appeals to me because of its varied references to the state’s history as well as its mention of Potwin, that neat little neighborhood on the north side. I will surely have to revisit North Topeka on my next odyssey across Kansas.

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