The American Journal of Poetry
"Strong Rx Medicine"®

 

Reagan Upshaw

Saint Johnsbury

 

In a land of mountains and grazing cows, where even
the Interstate qualifies as a scenic route,
a modest ramp brings you down to a parade
of oaks and maples fronting Victorian houses.
Vermont Public Radio’s heroin warning
goes half-heard, while your eyes caress
the smartly tuckpointed brickwork and the porches
flaunting their freshly painted gingerbread.
There is money here. Yet on Main Street,
whose stores once offered wares to doctors and bankers
as well as to farmers and journeymen, wares
whose names – dry goods, sundries -- mean nothing now,
the shops today seem all but abandoned and sad.
When not vacant, their flyspecked windows offer
TV repair and artificial flowers.
Shop names share space with placards for food pantries
and hotlines for domestic violence.
Whippet-thin young men amble the sidewalks
in boots, shorts, sleeveless shirts, and baseball caps
enroute to a day labor job or a drug connection.
The working class elderly with their canes are stout,
victims of the cheap carbohydrates
that form their diets. On the village green,
a banner on the gazebo announces a concert
tomorrow, and a rusted cannon watches over
a cenotaph bearing the names of eighty men
who marched south to the War and never returned.
How did one small town find all those soldiers?
Most no doubt were mourned, though for some homes
the deaths down South may have ended violence
in kitchens and bedrooms. The small farms
most soldiers came from are gone, except for those
of back-to-the-land young people or gentleman farmers.
Only large farms can survive in the general market.
Between thrift shop and automotive supply,
a former post office, now with a patio,
umbrellas, and tables houses a restaurant
targeting you and your middle-class peers.
Photos of Tibetan temples line its walls.
The menu identifies the organic farm
from which the meat was sourced, and your server
tells you her name. The virtuous cooking is good.


After lunch, you visit the Athenaeum,
the century-old endowment of Horace Fairbanks,
a local magnate. Imposing in its mass
it stands, a mighty fortress proclaiming its faith
in two thousand years of culture, its very name
invoking the ancient city of philosophers
and poets, ignoring the demagogues and slaves.
In the vestibule, thumbtacked flyers proclaim
lectures, twelve-step groups, and farmer’s markets.
Hanging among them is a framed broadside:
“The Fly” by Galway Kinnell, who read here once.
Inside, ornate parquetry, old-fashioned sconces,
and circular stairways to upper galleries
now off-limits to the public. The reachable shelves
must hold as many DVDs as books.
At the end of the Fiction Room, a pair of doors
open into a gallery where you are gobsmacked
by Albert Bierstadt’s Domes of the Yosemite,
a wall-filling monument to the sublime.
Compared to this immense recruiting poster
for Westward Expansion and the course of empire,
the rest of the collection seems staid and quaint,
the kind of works a provincial robber baron
would acquire – full-sized copies of Old Masters
interspersed with works by the second generation
of the Hudson River School, friends of their patron.

The bourgeois thirst for edifying culture
which found an incarnation here continues
undiluted to this day. Unwitting
novitiates, young people read their books
beneath the murals in the children’s room.
Hiawatha, Heidi and Hans Brinker,
instead of saints, are tutelary spirits
of the place, and yet this cluttered room contains
whispers of something once considered sacred
to higher beings than ourselves or, rather,
ourselves as something more than creatures. Here,
alone and yet with others, children draw
communal breath, enroll in a fellowship
greater than themselves, one not to be found
in solitary gazing at a screen.
Outside, the plague, whatever it is called
this time – bubonic, HIV -- pursues
its victims endlessly, and violence
goes on, directed or at random, as
it ever has, but here within these walls
the voices of our forebears are absorbed
and for another day the word made flesh.

 

 

 

REAGAN UPSHAW has had poems, essays, and reviews published in Able Muse, Bloomsbury Review, E-Verse Radio, Hanging Loose, Light, Poets & Writers, the San Francisco Chronicle, and many other publications.  He makes his living as an art dealer and appraiser.

 

 

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