- How Does a Smokestack Mean?
In the fall of 1972, I was a new graduate student, at a university ten times the size of my undergraduate school, in an unfamiliar city far from my old home in the suburbs of Washington, D. C. I was also newly married. I was excited about these changes, if a little nervous about so much change at once. I cannot remember thinking I am disoriented or I need to find my bearings.
But as I learned my way around in those first days, I found myself attending closely to physical landmarks. In that part of Southeast Minneapolis, the student housing district thinned and bled into an old industrial area. A railroad yard hugged its edge; the Purina logo marked a group of low-slung, boxy buildings. Especially prominent in my memory is a grain elevator in the middle distance, dun and treble-columned, a study in light and shade exactly like a thousand Midwestern paintings. I could see it more and more clearly as the weather changed and the trees lost their leaves along my daily walk from a bare basement apartment to a bare third-floor warren of graduate student offices in Lind Hall.
Why does a grain elevator occupy such a select space in memory? Not simply because it helped me know where I was. And not simply because it was solid, as the social and emotional contours of my new department were not. I was bent on becoming a medievalist, and I remember playing mentally with the trope of the grain elevator dominating the landscape as a cathedral dominates its town or a castle its lord’s fiefdom. Perhaps the elevator looms because I was turning it into a metaphor even then. [End Page 46]
Let me correct myself: It is the indistinct memory that looms, not the grain elevator. Looming connotes the dim and the vague. The grain elevator, which I can still locate with Google Street View, and can see on the rare occasions when I visit my old neighborhood in Minneapolis, is perfectly clear and perfectly benign. It was benign to me in those earliest days as well; I knew too little then about the fraught economics of agriculture in my new home to see the elevator as ambiguous. I didn’t think of this at the time, but tall things in the landscape, built or natural, are always ambiguous. The mountain, the high place, be it Horeb or Olympus or Tài Shān, is the home of the gods, who may favor us if we propitiate them correctly but who are unknowable, possibly capricious, awe-ful. The tall building also is ambivalent, with the sort of double valence Robinson Jeffers calls up in the opening lines of his “Rock and Hawk”:
Here is a symbol in which Many high tragic thoughts Watch their own eyes.
It has been forty-five years since I first walked past that grain elevator. What brought it to mind again was my encounter with Joshua Mehigan’s poem “The Smokestack,” in his book Accepting the Disaster. Like my grain elevator, like the sacred mountains, Mehigan’s smokestack is double dealing, and possibly triple dealing or more.
For one thing, the poem allows complicated truths to be seen through an almost transparent surface. It uses short lines and a loose, rough-accentual mostly-trimeter, reminiscent of ballad meter and just inexact enough to feel a little distracted or a little evasive about its point. It uses simple diction and repeating sentence structures that remind us of nursery rhymes. It uses, in other words, the language of a child:
The town had a smokestack. It had a church spire. The church was prettier, but the smokestack was higher.
Then quietly it introduces a grownup’s concerns—labor and management, money and power.
Another aspect of the poem’s double dealing is the way it changes direction. The title focuses on the structure of the smokestack, yet the poem spends only two short quatrains on the look of the “lone ruined column,” higher than the church spire. Then it swerves, spending most of its length on the shape-shifting smoke...