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Lisa Higgs | Unintentional Guide to the Big City

By Lisa Higgs
Unintentional Guide to the Big City

No way to know which guide is correct, but all agree we rest on rubbish — scat of the firebird, city reduced and recycling the waste of its rebirth in lake shallows. No matter the leach. No matter the fish, the fowl, the flushing marshbed. Streeter made many fortunes in his dump — squatting the Reutan to bilk or build his own kingdom. No matter what is backfilled to the mannered lines of polite society (surveyor notes acres numbered). Boozy breaks, loose liens, brandied bawds — another migration of subspecies bolted in standard of the moneyed, tonied crowd. Whose grasp, then, defiled the lake to road lines? Artifice, precipice, wall of water stopped clean in concrete break. Parked. Cured and beached. Manicured green. The city’s sabbath dawns in near-silence. Underpass empty; shoreline settled in wind. The orange lake beats its fists, intent to break a softer line. Furious fingers grasp at sky. Relentless, the mad mist on cheek, neck.

lake wind

even your mighty gusts

can’t muster the city


Everyone knows the cow, so the cow becomes legend. Really, a fable: the barn, the cow, the wooden city set to match. A rage of days, of forests framed by hammer strike now flaunting flame. City of shavings. The combustible heart. Dry wind whirled tight in heat, columning the cross over river and river again. Flashover, firebrands the torch of a citizenry in flight toward northern shores. Better a baptism of water. Better homeless amid the hundred-thousands than scored with the hundreds dead. How weary, O’Leary. Your ponderous cow, its blazed calf born on wings of wind. Colorful copy of a story not so easily told. Absolution. Regeneration. Not of the cow, but of form firm in its gravidity. Its square, the rule of men who work their metal. Out of the heat of fire, form lofted and indomitable.

where sun beats

dry stone

no sound of water


Mocked up in fragments of flat landscape — bone, seed, point, shard — 10,000 years of unrecorded life. Geology. Topography. Uncertain anatomy of place. Shoreline swollen, receding. Leaving little debris to core from marshland past the dredge and fill of our industry. Though hidden in the plot of charted streets, ancient crests ride the diagonal. Consider between: rushes, rice, bobbing cattails. Multitudes of wet wings. Outward, sedge meadow, bluestem, Indian and panic grass. Ridged, black oak impervious to prairie burn. Plenty bounding the moraines. Here, once, caribou, elk, scattered bison. Zoomorphic mounds of bear and bird. Seeds of maygrass, marsh elder, goosefoot, knotweed, little barley. Plenty of the written page — Deliette and LaSalle chronicle hunting camps, kill sites. Bison meat fire-dried for the journey home. Perrot, the circular fires, strategic chutes. All agree a hundred or more could be taken in a day. The solidity of story dispersed by plow. By eager pen and sure eye. Chronology, history. Uncertain anatomy of time. The singular experience incidental. Life’s archeology, communal. As much can be said about corn’s progress as our own. Yet scrap, as it lifts land, provides record. So moments from thousands of years return. Nameless. Faceless. But moments, nonetheless.

after night snow

city slush

up to my ankles


From prairie flat, we rebuild narrative in mountains of steel, canopies of glass. What wonder of commotion, construction. The hollow clang. The jacking hammer. Monumental. The exhaust — earth giving up its innards. Humanity’s fear of leaving no spark. So like a sun each day remaking itself, we reach and reach. We float our floors. We brace and cross. We beam. All to tower. So metropolitan a frame, these corniced columns, unadorned oriels. In fine filter of familiar frills, we find every reason to believe our exception. Sky strongholds, our exemption. Our harness of heaven, such exhilaration. Yet clouds rise, collapse, fall against such peaks. Just as light’s power is to fade. To bear down its dense heat. So shade suggests sorrow. Height, eventual decline. Our scurrying mute to earth, which hears with intent only the animal heart.

waking city

lake fog

makes mountains plain


Date of publication: 
November 20, 2013

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lisa Higgs’ work has been published in numerous literary journals including Crab Orchard Review, Water~Stone Review, Midwest Gothic, and PMS: poemmemoirstory. Her chapbook, Lodestar, was published in 2011 by Finishing Line Press. Currently, Lisa teaches composition and creative writing at the University of Illinois, Springfield, and is a poetry reader for Quiddity International Literary Journal.