“Stone City” by John Paul O’Connor

John Paul O’Connor


When he walked down the road to the bridge
eighty years ago to look closely at his subject,
I was standing next to the river watching mud

crumble from its banks. Heron were plentiful
then, as now, and the quarry belched out white
dust that caught the wind making headway

toward Chicago. We all loved Chicago.
It was a place you could sit and watch the murder
of the working classes while sipping iced beer

on Wabash Avenue. Gangsters would lay low
in the fields of Illinois and sometimes make
a lark of it, driving their black Pontiacs across

the Mississippi and down along the Wapsipinicon
to see where the chalky clouds began their story.
Everything in sight was made of stone. Churches,

barns, even outhouses. This was back when men
knew how to build the world. No one wanted
to take it apart. When bombs dropped, they called

it a war. They sent young men away on ships made
of stone to stop the bleeding with their own blood.
Soldiers wanted to get it over with and come back

home to build something or dig a hole or pay
a man in a striped tie for a house in the projects.
The little town lay down still through all of this.

Fascism, capitalism, socialism. All chewed up
and spit out through a Calvinist mouth. The Wapsi
moved tons of silt in spring time and the quarries

got deeper and deeper. Up out of the valley
you could set up your easel and paint a world
only chumps like me would want to enter.

He painted me there, standing by the bridge
and the river, the smallest smudge of ochre,
hiding in the obscurity of the canvas’s texture.

I always knew how to get out of the way.
I stayed behind, standing still as a portrait
and let others die. Let me teach you now

how to build with stone. Let me show you
how to hold your hand steady enough to paint
a corn filled landscape that ripples like the sea.

from Rattle #29, Summer 2008


John Paul O’Connor: “When I lived in Iowa City I used to drive out toward Stone City and try and find the place where Grant Wood sat to make his painting. Have you ever wanted to walk into a landscape and become part of it? This is what I was attempting when I wrote ‘Stone City.’ Not just the landscape, geographically, but the landscape of that twentieth century epoch from which Wood came. In the painting there is no human figure standing by the bridge (though there is someone on horseback approaching the bridge), but in this poem there is someone hiding in the ‘canvas’s texture’ trying to make a confession to the reader. The greatest moments of writing are when you feel part of the landscape, part of a world that did not exist before you entered and began creating it.” (web)

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