Chicago Quartet Poems by Cynthia Gallaher featuring photography by Ben Van Loon


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The Leprechaun from Blue Island Avenue Who Dyed the River Green
          “Methinks my own soul must be a bright invisible green.” ~ Thoreau

He’d touch one magic crystal
to a bucket of water,
and there brimmed Ireland,
greener than a sheep’s hill in spring.

Instead of chasing rainbows
he pulled the brightest green ribbon
from the one arching across

State Street from the lake,
and wove wet edges of downtown Chicago
to a new tradition,
a new passion for the river,
bolted to the architecture with bridges,
this wide, wet meander, until today,
as plain as the weathered deck of a barge.

A new tradition, too,
receiving another father
after losing a St. Patrick’s Day dad
years before,
a new father,
who crawled into the world
on the back of a crab,
who mixed drinks
in his father’s Prohibition tavern
on Blue Island Avenue,
whipping red grenadine with ice
into Pink Ladies–
lining up shots & beers with his eyes closed,
swirling crème’ de menthe and leaf sprigs
into long Mint Juleps.

Years later, nurses pinned
a fresh shamrock
to my March son’s receiving blanket
the day I took him home.

But way back,
in our knotty pine rec room,
the tequila sunrises
tumbled in on themselves
like lava lamps,
made by a man
who thrilled to entertain with jiggers of fluids
and colors and shaved ice
for all our wedding, communion and even funeral guests.
Who else could it have been
to send out the speedboats
like crazed blenders

into the Chicago River,
dumping bags of orange crystals
that exploded into its other,
churning up a new wardrobe
for the clang, clang,
workingman’s river

until now, clad in railroad overalls,
the river that found itself
wearing one long leprechaun sleeve
in time for the parade.

He crawled into the world
on the back of a crab,
and left in the balance,
and every Mid-March,
I glance down from
my glass-lined lookout,
I see the gum-white Wrigley Building
and the Tinker-toyed Marina City,
I see the frilly floats line up along Wacker Drive,
I see the boatswains and bridgetenders
and bags of dye
and the swirl of water
under outboard motors
as if he were standing there still,
along cement docks,
reciting the formula.

And even after traffic
begins to roar its way out
from the city,
the river glows still,
a more brilliant green at twilight,
curving at my feet
into a perfect smile,
a reverse rainbow,
the pots of gold in three places
leprechauns never look,
mid-March, a time to let the past go,
the lost map of my blood father,
a time to look to the future
growth of my son,
and a time made new every year
by a man
more a father than my real father,
more magician than barsman
from a Blue Island.

Making Books at Hull House

Glue with muscle, flat bone sticks,
a cake of beeswax, thick cotton thread,
pulled and pushed
in and out from paper pages,
making books.

Windows swing open,
summer streams in,
as jazz from our radio throbs out,
we jam with our books’ blank folios,
and they become
jazz books.

Young mother in the corner
speaks of how her child died,
cries through lessons,
watermarks pages with tears as she works,
her book becomes a book
of sorrow and forgetting.

And the old woman across the table
finishes her first binding,
asks in a child-like crackle,
“What shall I fill it with?”
Flipping through choice
is a new happiness, finally up to her.

There are different women’s circles
filling charted canvasses with nostalgia,
others’ suggestions of “what is art,”
looped together in matched dye lots,
but the classmate next to me
looks at the stitches of her binding,
lumpy as stray sax riffs,
some pages sticking out ever so slightly
from the rest, and says,
“The only thing perfect is God,”
holds her book
like a prayer book,
offers the flawed volume as she does
her wayward rhythms.

In this room,
what new things we create
are joyfully incomplete,
paper vessels for musical fragments we hear,
rifts of clarinet, piano, pain,
some hot nights of love we play over and over.

Someone opens a book,
begins to write,
“If everyone made books this slowly,
imagine how many trees
would still
be standing.”

Barefoot Contessa

Someone told her plastic bags
keep your feet warm
under a pair of boots,
but those tennis shoes
she found last summer
were all she had,
and now, like two condoms
worn once and thrown away,
these sacks from “Jewel”
guard against the night,
the cold and lonely places
these feet land
before morning coffee.

Her last cup was midnight,
six trips ago
on the long Lawrence route,
it’s a relief
when they change drivers,
for after a few hours
and a dozen U-turns at the depots,
they always ask if she’s alright,
or “Lady, where do you get off?”

And night, which wraps most others
in arms of silent sleep,
pushes her out of her room
which draws too close
with dark bulbs she can’t
pay to brighten.
She’s not quite homeless,
just born on the wrong
hemisphere of sunrise,
where the only ones who know her
own all-night cafes.

She knows Greek words for “coffee,”
“dollar,” “to wait,” and “morning,”
and like coins with ancient profiles,
she hears words rush from her head
as if from another era,
an outdated sensibility,
and what’s forbidden to be spoken
in her own tongue as she treks
terminally awake
from one end of the city
to another dawn,
is shouted in nightmares
at high noon.

My Husband and I After a Chicago Snowstorm

That morning we were delivered into
silent snow like swaddled babies,
urban street smarts had to start from scratch,
but instead of thin white cotton,
we wrapped in scarves, mittens,
hats and scarves in feverish colors.

Instead of shuffling papers on Monday afternoon,
we fired up at home on a morning of intimate retreat,
a pot of coffee, and a spicy Mexican breakfast–
readying ourselves to shovel snow,
to finally feel as if doing the real work
of our ancestors, those used to hoeing clots of earth,
busting sod, digging deep beneath roots of trees

But here in the city,
our faces weren’t dirt streaked,
our coats and pants grew snow streaked
with bat and bulldog shapes,
and for a break, we sat in the dining chairs
set up to save parking spots
just shoveled, where we named
forgotten TV stars of the last decade.

This hard work won’t show a side dish
of harvest next spring anywhere around here,
or make a cleaner place for livestock,
in stalls that don’t exist, mucked and hayed,
but snow piled high and heavenly,
at least, lets us move around twenty feet farther,
a fleeting piece of Chicago at which to stand awed,
our eyes wash over mountains of powdered monochrome
that glow like scoured city sunlight
from our sidewalks to well over our street-lamped heads.

Neighbors round snow-walled corners
appearing like apparitions from clouds,
even that strange, bleach-blond couple we never met
who seemed grumpy-faced last August,
look almost angelic, and speak warmly,
downright neighborly toward our chilled cheeks.

To some, it’s medieval the way
we seem stranded before
snow plows dig us tunnels to downtown paychecks,
but as on either side of walled fortresses,
the higher the walls,
the closer we stay to our houses,
and make do.

We’re not going anywhere, anyway,
and we glee in calling the boss to tell him so,
but he’s not there either, the phone ringing and ringing,
and it might be years
before we block party with neighbors like this,
walk to our corner stores for staples,
open forgotten bottles of French wine,
skip the office, explore neighbors’
dart-boarded, pool-tabled basements,
live without newspapers,
jump stalled Chevys in shingled garages,
speak lively as we shovel local gossip.

Cynthia Gallaher, a Chicago-based poet and playwright, is author of three poetry collections and two chapbooks. Most recently, she made a 10-city book tour with her nonfiction guide & memoir Frugal Poets’ Guide to Life: How to Live a Poetic Life, Even If You Aren’t a Poet. The Chicago Public Library lists her among its “Top Ten Requested Chicago Poets.” Follow her on Twitter at @swimmerpoet and on her Facebook page at @frugalpoets.