The bridge over the Mississippi is shut,
the traffic diverted to Wabasha
while authorities investigate the undergirding
which is corroded and in danger of collapse.
Work has slowed on both sides of the river
while an enterprising man with a pontoon boat
ferries people from side to side. Fountain City
has long been without a grocery store; Abt’s Market
closed when I was a child. The owner whistled,
and the women who worked the front counter
tracked everyone’s movements through the town,
gazing out the plate glass windows with awnings
shielding them from the sun. In Minneapolis
the Coast Guard climbs into a Suburban
and makes the trip to Winona to arrest the man
with the boat. What he’s doing is illegal, he’s told.
“You try to help folks out and all you get is a kick in the ass.”
The grocery is gone, the brewery is gone, gone
the house where my father was born,
gone the warehouse where we hung deer in November,
gone the shop with its cigar boxes full of bolts,
hinges, flanges, copper wire, ball bearings, or anything
someone might have saved for projects yet to be imagined.
The cellar where the washtubs bubbled to keep
the baitfish alive—one full of bullheads, one of minnows,
where geraniums overwintered, where the dug bulbs
of tulips were gnawed by muskrats during floods—
that has been filled and paved. A gas pump stands
where the glider rocked, a lit sign where the bridle wreath
once cast its white profusion to the sun.
The sheep are gone from Grandma Haney’s pasture.
The last badger was shot from Wiggy Stuber’s field.
There’s no money in milk anymore, and you marry your herd
anyhow, and who wants to be that bound to anything
that won’t love you back? The Gold’n Plump plant expands
in Arcadia, and the owners go to Mexico to recruit.
You know the workers by the angry rash
from fingertip to shoulder, enflamed by chicken water
seeping inside their arm-length plastic gloves.
The bluffs are covered in cedars since no one grazes
anything there anymore.
Who will remember the lodge hall and the good times had there?
Who will remember the handshake for the Rebeccas?
No one visited the museum, so the society put it up for sale.
A millionaire hangs cottages from the bluffs,
rents them to businessmen who drive here from Chicago or Milwaukee
to hunt the deer that breed and fatten at the edges of fallow fields.
The heads are left with the taxidermist, the meat dropped off at the church.
Old houses go vacant, new ones get built—ugly, vaulted ceilings,
windows the full two stories of their angular fronts
that jut like glass barge prows from the bluffs.
Hilbert is dead. Mutz is dead. Chester has turned to crumbs in his grave.
No one remembers when Babe Schwark died
and Bootie Schmidt is up to the Home for good.
Piggy is long gone, Home his headstone says.
The inveterate drinkers warm barstools at the Golden Frog,
and only those from “away” have anything to do with the Monarch.
Mother’s sweater sat unsold in the gift shop
until Papa reclaimed it in a huff.
The property dispute over the mule pasture fence
has finally run its course; no one wins
though the surveyor got struck by lightning and is dead.
The old steamboat dry-docked in Winona
got hauled to the landfill, and someone trained lights
on the outcropping of Sugar Loaf bluff to form, at night,
the jagged outline of a cross.
There are those who claim the DNR
has let loose breeding pairs of mountain lions
in the bluffs around Waumandee. The warden says
that’s nonsense, but why would anyone believe him?
Someone burned down the Chicken Valley strip club,
where the girl who won the state cross-country meet
ended up pole dancing, and where her driver’s ed teacher
and basketball coach went to watch her on Friday nights.
The Road Dogs host a car shoot to raise money
for a cancerous friend: put a car in neutral,
roll it down a hill, and for $10 you get to shoot the car
as many times as you can. Helps if you’re drunk.
A well-meaning ornithologist opened a raptor center
as a local attraction, populated it with the dumb and clumsy—
unlucky birds electrocuted by power lines, shot by moral derelicts
with crossbows, the poisoned, those whose taste for road kill
tangled them with a car. The eagles hop awkwardly around their pens,
glare through the wire, their talons like pruning shears
gripping the perches of what will be
their last home.
I am the end of a genetic line—a family dies with me.
This is hardly a tragedy. We are not an impressive group,
in intellect or physical form. With weak hearts, myopic,
we paddle lazily down the human genome,
pausing to root briefly here on the riverbank
in the shade of these limestone bluffs.
In an early photograph I have, part of the town
goes up in flames—a premonition from the 1880s.
A group of women, corseted, skirts infested with lace,
watch from behind a buckboard as ash flings itself
into the sky. To the right the blur of a girl
rushes away like a ghost. No face. Hardly a form.
Just a hat and a dress, and the news of a fire,
though no one is alive who knows her name.
Mark Wunderlich is the author of three collections of poetry, the most recent of which is The Earth Avails, forthcoming in 2014. He teaches literature and writing at Bennington College in Vermont, and lives in New York’s Hudson Valley.
“Driftless Elegy” was originally published in Cry Baby (TLR Early Fall 2013)