TRAIN FROM DETROIT
From a fort called Ponchartrain
The City of Detroit became,
my fourth-grade-first-written poem,
for my city’s 250 year birthday.
Day-twa, City of the Straits,
water road between two large lakes,
road for those long lake freighters.
Only place in the US where you go south,
by tunnel or bridge, to get to Canada.
Slow travel past boarded windows, broken
green glass, grimed towers, rounded
stone and old brick smoke stacks,
dumped tires beside slow train tracks,
sumac and goldenrod poke through trackside soot,
In a large playfield attached to a school,
burned weeds and barbed wire on low buildings.
six cop cars swarm two men in handcuffs,
The men could be my long-gone uncles
or my absent and unborn brothers.
The cops, replicas of an evil uncle-in-law
my mother told bad stories about.
A Detroit cop, he handcuffed a black man
and pushed him face-first down the stairs.
These things happened. This was Detroit.
The uncle listened, rapturous, with tears,
to soaring opera on the radio–
with passion that would have embarrassed
my Appalachian uncles or French Canadian father–
a passion I aspired to in my life,
so I believed this uncle a finer cut than the rest,
until my mother’s story.
Scud-gray sky hangs heavy out of the city
as we pick up speed. Smoke stacks morph
into blue aluminum siding of the closed Cadillac plant.
Now a neighborhood, newer brick, more trees, (no stanza break)
now the Dearborn Ford plant, shiny glass box,
now downriver dead car and truck graveyards,
trailer parks and trashy houses,
with wheeling birds sweeping circles overhead,
becoming fallow fields ringed by tall poplar borders,
our double track suddenly blossoming to a wide switchyard
with braided tracks woven into acres of steel mesh.
Past the Ypsilanti Ford Plant, where my sister once worked,
we cross a machine-cut lake,
red leaves settle into a flat black surface,
pool off the Huron River into Ann Arbor.
Now a riverbank of russet red-browns,
gold and ochre leaves beyond the river,
the track’s straight lines cris-cross
the curvy river for miles out of Ann Arbor,
past places where my young husband
and I kissed, before babies, before
years of blood under the bridge.
My heart so full here,
I overflow my cornerstones.
Some trees already bare but surrounded
with a red-gold halo on the ground,
a circle skirt stripped by a rough lover,
a perfect shape of naked limbs above,
How things become so colorful just before they die.
Red barns of rural Michigan anchor
corn flying past in such perfect narrow rows
the field appears animated and marching along
in a kind of bouncy cartoon form–
life imitating a flipbook–
it goes so fast.
That day a substitute appeared in history, a stranger,
reading the roll and stumbling over unfamiliar surnames
full of aspirants and strange combinations of diphthongs.
It was mid-century Detroit and we were a mixed bunch.
I remember her coming to a boy’s name,
the unhealthy gleam of almost prurient curiosity,
“Hoffa?“ she pounced, “Are you the son?” aloud, and loud,
Every child and teacher in Cooley High School knew
this boy was the son of the famous name, which shrilled
in bold 130-point type in our nightly newspapers.
Miss K, of the Polish name with many consonants,
our real teacher, would not have made the boy talk about it.
We were in the eleventh grade, what did we know
of adult’s intrusive probing in an open wound?
We were only beginning to learn of adult agendas.
We were not quite blanks but still growing the faces we would become.
The boy just said “Yes.” The kids leaned in,
held their collective breath, embarrassed for the boy.
“Well, what does your father think about the newspapers”
she pressed, an itching in her voice. “And is he guilty?”
We were in the eleventh grade for such a short time,
were just learning the meaning of the word grace.
We were beginning to grow language in abstraction
like chin hairs and new breasts, though most of us could not yet
have used grace in connection with a kid in our class.
But the boy found it in his answer. He said it was not part of history yet,
so beyond the realm of the class.
I told the story at home. My father just rattled his paper.
“I don’t believe what they say,” my mother finally said.
“They’ve been through his life with a fine-toothed comb
and can find no murder to pin on him, nothing to prove.”
When that father did go to prison, it was not for murder but tax evasion.
My mother would say they could prove nothing worse.
“And,” my mother continued. “He’s never been unfaithful to Josephine.”
The wife. My mother would care about that.
“That ought to count for something.”
It was Detroit. Snow fell, ice ringed bare tree branches in winter.
Political dynasties fell and rose. Labor unions gained strength, then lost it.
Winter and summer, in Midwestern contrast, continued. History
is the water we drink from the shallow footsteps of memory.
Years later, in Alaska, where we got few newspapers,
we got the one that said that father had disappeared,
presumed murdered. I closed my eyes, for grief–
my high school friend, his sister, and Josephine.
The story goes on, as they all do, for those left.
For years the father’s disappearance became
a national joke–on talk shows and comics’ routines.
And still is. Cement shoe jokes, common
in Detroit, New York, Chicago. Funny to some.
I remember seeing the son on national television
here and there, over years. James, the son, graying,
as I am, looking more and more like Jimmy, the father,
in the looped back tangled lines of memory and history.
The son has taken the position of the father, but still
with a natural grace, now matured to the dignity
he found first in the eleventh grade.
Judith Roche is a Fellow of Black Earth Institute, and the author of three poetry collections, most recently, Wisdom of the Body, an American Book Award winner, which was also nominated for a Pushcart. She has published widely in various journals and magazines, and has poems installed on several Seattle area public art projects, including installations at the Brightwater Treatment Plant in King County. She has written extensively about our native salmon and edited First Fish, First People, Salmon Tales of the North Pacific and has salmon poems installed at the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks in Seattle. She has been Distinguished Northwest Writer-in-Residence at Seattle University, has taught at Cornish College of the Arts, and currently teaches at Richard Hugo House and around the state for the Washington State Humanities Commission’s Inquiring Mind series.