Poem: Entering Anonymous
She can’t help her eyes, dropping them in her smoking drink. Dripping them on his stained cuff. Late. Latitudes. Honey, the bar’s closing and my place is closer. This should be a picture of dead men, or men now dead, burly and broken in work-motion. This should be a full moon, a full river, a phone full of home. The mountains won’t come any closer tonight. No matter how many broken bottles, the road never gets its fill of glass. She helps him into her eyes, winds him in the sheets, says coyly, look at you, seeking. Her kinked lips darken, are the stars before morning. But it is always night and he will forever frame from these moments a house on fire. He rolls over and goes digging in her purse—with her paints he drapes his lips in a lovely sky he remembers. Outside, faceless in their muscles, waiting in their sharp shadows. Outside is the long walking-it-off in the dawn. Get off your knees. Echoes in the mind. If there’s space to die in, it’s a space you’ve made.
I lived across the street from this view. My suitcase of clothes and innumerable boxes of books made our home over a coffee bar that served as the revenue generator for the arts foundation that had granted me a residency. It was late 2006, into 2007. I had no car and walked everywhere. I walked for food but never bought more than enough for a few days. Mostly I walked for cigarettes and beer.
I was involved with a man from San Francisco; I was involved with women from this and other bars. I was lost and hurting and couldn't see the gift of the residency I was squandering.
I wrote out of my life and made no claims of there being a divide between my art and my life. I wrote some of my best, and some of my worst, poems during this time. I developed a burning sensation across my stomach a doctor later told me was the beginnings of liver damage. I went sober two years.
I fought in this street, and I hosted readings in the coffee bar for regional poets. Many people came... Some days, I supposedly taught poetry to a group of high school students in that coffee bar. Some days, and some weeks, I never left my apartment.
I remember the apartment's claw-foot tub--a tub so long I could lay down in it and be fully immersed with a foot of water beyond my feet and head and about six inches above me. I remember 30-, 40-, 50-below-zero days. Spit freezing before it hit the ground. Insufficient clothing, insufficient shoes.
I remember spending long hours in the archives looking for ghosts. I remember how it felt to find them. I remember tending bar in a haunted parlor where the upstairs pool tables' balls would drop when I was alone and closing up. I remember my regulars maxing out credit cards at the ATM to fill the coin slots and walk away empty handed and grinning.
I remember never wanting to leave, and I remember praying someone would find me and take me home.
I'll never forget the stories of the gold, then silver, then copper boom days. How the city fathers drug the union organizer down the hill and hung him from the gates to town. Epic animal fights in the town square: Brahma bulls versus Kodiak grizzlies. Gaelic, Finnish, Russian, even Greek heard in the streets if you were in the right place at the right time and were listening carefully. Miners tunneling into other operations' shafts and battling with picks and dynamite under the very streets of the town. The battles between cultures and races and the ghettos they produced...
The names are still there, buried in the neighborhoods that in some places still stand...
Some years later, I heard one of my students had died--killed himself, as his older brother had done. So many suicides in that town. So much death by drinking, drugs. Accidents. Disappearances. The town is disappearing, and so is its history. Something remains, but it's a mock up. A diagram. On the heights above the town, where the soil is green from the dumped mountains of slag, one used to be able to slip past the chain security fencing and stand right at the lip of the Berkeley Pit. I've climbed the gallows frames, as the old mining car hoist arms are called.
The fencing is tight now. The warning signs are new.
I visited Butte recently to officiate the wedding of a good friend's daughter. The good friend saved me while I was there. Gave me food, a home whenever I needed it. Thank you, Diana. I will always love you.
Some places haunt you, and some save you. Some you forget, and deservedly so. Some become you and, even as they terrify you, they teach you what it means to both lose and find your soul.
Originally published, in slightly different format, in Colorado Review as "Stope."