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a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society

Ray McNiece

North Wall


Driving 77 North into Cleveland, early winter afternoon,
the first lake effect snow swirls down from pewter curtain sky
that dwarves our three high-rise skyline,
Around a bend the last steel mill stacks billow plumes,
the tallest belching blue flame
like the great and powerful Oz
and just as hollow nowadays
as I rumble my duct-taped, glued, screwed, hillbilly rigged Mustang over cracked, pothole chocked pavement into town.

The city sinks like a gray and rusty ore freighter
on the shores of Lake Erie — suddenly sundown breaks through
like some smoldering ancient foundry
what built America but these mills
now cut up and shang-haied to Shen-Shen
where Chinese skies blacken with the same coal sulfur stink
that stung my eyes closed
when I first drove over the Flats in Grandpa’s Buick
on the way to the Zoo to throw orange marizpan peanuts
to scraggly inmates of Monkey Island.

ODOT is hammering pylons for the new I-90 Bridge
over the Crooked Cuyahoga, if the funds hold up,
(engineers won’t let loved ones drive over it now)
The windshield breaks first fat flakes of the Squall, illuminated
by blast furnace sun as hundreds of gulls swirl high
over the last mill’s outflow channels
as coppery shafts reflect off Rockerfeller heyday brick facades,
conjuring sepia toned pictures curling at weathered edges
of Slovenian immigrants dressed for Holiday shopping at Halles,
stiff portraits of hillbilly Mick kinfolk on Collinwood porches,
and my loves’ people, high yellow cherokee blue black islanders.
In this light I see all those crumbling family albums
those who built this city surviving relentless winters.
Cleveland, ya gotta be tough.

I bank off Dead Man’s Curve over rumble strips,
past hubcaps like shields of fallen worker warriors
and slope onto the Shoreway eastbound,
pulling over at East 55th Street pier
just to stand  on the corrugated steel jetty facing the wintery blast,
innocculating my being to the coming gray doldrums.
White caps smack atop brown inner harbor water,
a straggle of gulls cutting between waves, while further out
Lake Erie gunmetal blue expanse explodes on granite breakers.
Over my shoulder, light, executive planes waffle down
into Burke airport  — some business still goes on.

With numb fingers, I take up
my pen, grandson of the industrial age,
and etch these lines onto grey sheen,
gazing across at  Brown’s Stadium and the Lakeboat Wharf,
demoed chunks of rebarred concrete from Old Municipal Stadium,
that factory of glory and failure,
were sunk down there to protect the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,
(where no rockers ever come to play)
like jagged teeth of all those old smash mouth Browns’ players
who got time off their shifts in the mills every fall to play ball
till their knees went bad and they had to stand on line
the rest of their lives — the indifferent face of the waves
eats away all those heroic names anyway,

And wind howls through ribs of Veterans’ Memorial Bridge
above empty factories and warehouses —
Hell, the river won’t even catch fire anymore,
the party lights of the East Bank of the flats are burnt out,
and the Moses Cleaveland water taxi rots on it’s mooring,
the blasts scour salt pyramids that will seed the road beds soon —
and I’m ready to blow south, where the weather suits my clothes,
skipping over the Lake like a rusty, flattened beer can,
Florida bound  to cathch the up draft of a raft of pelicans
running the sand dune below them, my wingspan leaping
into the surf with a hillbilly yell, roiling riptide, coming up for air.

But here I stand in the grey gale, catching my breath
as shafts of sunlight break the low ceiling,
revealing a chamber of golden cumulus
high as summer’s hopes
closing down as quickly as another losing season,
and I remember her warm kisses that keep me coming home.
A blast of ice pellets burns my face, ragged snowflakes
snag my grizzled stubble
(boyhood blond gone grey now)
and catch eyelashes, through tears i can see clear
to the very north of this turning world
as we turn towards the darkest longest night of the year,
Norwester howling like an ancient ice age beast
that rumbles across the flatlands of former Indian territories,
trampling last cornstalks, a few kernals fallen on frozen ground.

I drive down Lakeshore Boulevard then, to catch a glimpse
of my first memory, the playground swing
where my sister would swing me out over the Lake
glimpsing the wide world beyond. That Iron A frame still stands,
silver paint flaking onto clumps of grass,
rusty chains clanging in this wind, how I laughed
as she swung me higher into that grey sky
before returning to earth, hunkering down with my love
behind steamed windows as winter settles over us.

Driving home to Cleveland
after one more time gone
between the flats and downtown
as the rusty sun sinks down,

I’m seeing my city
as if for the first time
and like I’ve never left town

Now I’m down in the Flats
flat out on my back,
in the ruins of the mills
as a train scrapes the track.

We built a steel city,
a city too last,
but they’re taking the jobs
and they ain’t coming back.


I’m always leaving Cleveland
though I’ve been here all my life,
I’m always leaving Cleveland
I love you goodbye

Grey clouds come rolling

Winter is closing down,
under a cold rising moon
the sky shines like tin

I’ve seen the sunset
from many a shore.
I’ve been around the world
to come back to your door,

Well lay here in my arms
I’ll keep you from harm,
We’ll keep ourselves warm
while we share this last dream…

I’m always leaving Cleveland
though I’ve been here my whole life
I’m always leaving Cleveland
I love you goodnight



for Hart Crane


Sitting at the center
span of the Detroit-Superior Bridge
between the East and West
sides of Cleveland, between the old border
of the United States and the Indian Territories,
watching autumn sun setting over Lake Erie
sinking like a battered Brown’s Helmet
after yet another loss,
sizzling down over the cold, cobalt horizon
like the last ingot of molten steel fresh from the rollers,
last rays lighting up the blue girdered underside of the Shoreway Bridge,
lighting up the Berea Sandstone blocks of old Superior Viaduct
like Roman Ruins festooned with rusty rails,
and lighting up these grey, nickel steel girders of Veteran’s Memorial Bridge,
rivets like shadowy grizzle
of immigrant grandfather mill worker’s face,
his aching, arthritic I-Beam spine, sagging
but still holding this city aloft
as I lean against those rivets digging into my back —
there’s a little bit of steel in every Clevelander’s back —
and revel in by-gone power of Dinosaur Mill Graveyard
and these bridges still spanning the Cuyahoga
once burning now green,
Cleveland’s blast furnace heart smouldering up river.

Cleveland, with its skin of disintegrating red brick warehouses
now condos along the East Bank,
with its glass and metal deserted high-rise skyline,
with its Terminal Tower — once second tallest in the world —
staring to the four corners of always inauspicious skies
bound to go grey (winter in the back of every Clevelander’s mind)
that curtain of rain, sleet, snow
making the sky, the city, the lake one continuous pall,
but how beautiful the first delicate snowflake on the rust.
Cleveland stands a tough town of hard luck and broken dreams,
not a plum unless it’s a bruise
from bumping into some bolted down machine
too big to be moved.

Cleveland, with its blackened nostril smokestakes,
with its exhausted lungs like a corroded muffler shot,
with its last steel mill on its last legs, groaning,
but with those grey wings of seagulls through evening sky,
calling and wheeling over mountains of gravel, mountains of rubble,
mountains of salt like ruined pyramids,
calling and circling higher over
the last bank skyscraper, white crest glowing,
vaults empty.

Cleveland, with its foreclosed eyes
and busted picket fence teeth
or cracked corner streets,
with its ghost of post-war prosperity shoppers downtown
scuffling like weathered newspaper want ads stuck
on chain link fence around gutted department stores —
the poor bomb hit here first America,
we’re finally #1! In poverty,
breaking up this Chamber of Commerce Quiet Crisis with a joke
since our tears would freeze.

But you’re not on your knees Cleveland, never.
You’re still standing on strong, steel legs
astride the East and West Sides,
from the Carter Street Railroad Lift Bridge
that carries every train from the Mid-Atlantic coast westward;
from the Shoreway Bridge overlayed on ancient Great Lakes game trail
stretching from Oswego to Duluth;
from the Old Superior Viaduct, foundations built on Erie trading camps;
from the Baltimore and Ohio jack knife bridge
now and forever prophetically pointing skyward
through unsmogged skies like the ossified finger of a millworker
showing where the jobs went.

And from this very super structure, when finished the largest
steel and concrete bridge in the world,
its legs sunk sixty feet in clay, its back rising
one hundred and ninety six feet above the river, and stretching nearly a mile, once the busiest trafficked in America,
this nexus between East and West, the river connecting North and South
going back to Adena mound builders who traded as far as Mexico.
Just below where I stand at this crux, near Lorenzo Carter’s cabin,
the Erie Canal lock yawns,
telling the story when rivers were roads,
when New York came to Cleveland by way of the Hudson, the Alleghany,
and Erie, then turned South to join with the Sciota at Portsmouth
and from the Ohio to the Mississippi to New Orleans to the Gulf
where Hart Cranes’ swan song ended:
One arc synoptic of all tides below —
Their labyrinthine mouths of history
Pouring reply…
He walked this bridge when the flames of the Industrial Revolution
scorched the Cleveland night, when ore from Minnesota
was married with coal from Appalachia
to make the steel that built the World
including the Brooklyn Bridge.
Could he smell the traces of gasoline, the offal byproduct of Kerosine,
Rockefeller poured directly into the Cuyahoga
before he finally figured out he could start
the global petroleum economy from this valley,
this crossroads of America through the heart of it all Ohio —
arteries now clogged at Dead Man’s Curve —
Not even the winged Titans on the Hope Memorial Bridge,
the four Guardians of Traffic cradling
a wagon, a train, a gas tanker truck, a luxury car,
can lift us out of this jam of progress now
for further upriver the I-71 I-90 Freeway Bridge,stanchions straining,
crumbles into the decline of the American dream.

But Cleveland’s still standing and singing below,
the battleship grey RTA Bridge rasping silver cars on rusty tracks to the Airport
as jets bound for warmer climes scour the sky above,
and the Columbus Lift Bridge, lowered slowly, sinking creaking through evening
like the city itself yet settling solidly,
sings its horn to the Center Street Swing Bridge
singing back to let a barge pass, Cleveland Rocks,
carrying a load of gravel of all things, battered hull plowing the flow
like an old hard-on of the Industrial Age,
blowing its horn bound for the St. Lawrence Seaway, for the North Sea
and beyond to the mouths of the Seven Seas
that join the chorus for this Bridge.

Joining the chorus of Lake Effect breezes
swirling through concrete catacomb ribs of the old subway line below
and the Blues of the Steel Spine above;
joining the chorus of paddles barking dugout canoes
from gurgling springs of French fur trapper Montville
through the place of the Jawbone
to the muddy mouth of the Crooked River;
joining the roar of the blast furnaces and the whistle of shifts 24-7
and the hiss from the smokestacks and the coughing of the workingman
at a dingy bar in the shadow of the mills,
knocking back a taste of Cleveland shot — one part road salt, one part cinder grit, one part fly ash, one part stale sweat —
before singing the same song the Irish Navies did on their way back
to their shanties in the angle after digging the Canal;
joining the roar of the river burning, the signal flare
catching the attention of the nation
and birthing the soft leaves of Earth Day;
joining the snoring of veteran’s from Nam and Desert Storm
who now sleep in the alcoves under this Veteran’s Memorial Bridge;

joining the rumble of the RTA bus over ice-age potholes on Detroit,
slapping down an ill-fitting man-hole cover
once forged right here;
joining the piston missing rattling of a clunker belching oil smoke,
and the legs of a kid peddling his bike towards the facade of the city
rapping staccato bone-thug style;
joining a kid bouncing a bald basketball across the bridge,
tossing it into the evening sky, if Lebron can do it so can I;
joining the grumble of a man kicking a crusted rusty c-clamp
that once held something in this city together
down the hieroglyphs of the cracked sidewalk
looking for something to do — like work;
joining the flutter of a single flake of rust
drifting down from this bridge
slipping into the Cuyahoga’s legato lullaby,
drifting softly as the love and loss of all our lives.


Author Biography

Ray McNiece is the author of six books of poems and monologues – Dis, The Bone-Orchard Conga, The Road that Carried Me Here, Song that Fathoms Home, and Wet Sand Raven Tracks –New Haiku,and Our Way of LIfe; He edited, along with Larry Smith, the anthology of contemporary Buddhist Poetry, America Zen. He has written and performed two solo theater works – Dis – Voices From a Shelter, Us? Talking Across America, two music/poetry collaborations – Mouth Music, A Rust bowl Hootenanny, and one collaborative theatre work – Homegirl meets Whiteboy — with Shawn Jackson.



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