A Close Shave

From Baden, or what’s left of it,
pursue a long, smooth curve of road
that skirts the northern flood wall
to parallel a palisade
of channel markers sunk in earth,
the folly of a cement works.
Its blank silos overlook
a pit of argillaceous shale,
the fine and fossilized remains
of bivalves, sponges, spines of shark,
quarried and burnt with limestone charge
to alchemize a binder of brick
and the city’s shallow, brittle crust.

Around a bend, the riverbed
swings wide to open a fetch of field.
Shadows skim its mucky thaw
as juncos, whisked about by the wind
on courses neither fixed nor free,
give but a quick metallic chink.
Behind you, rain has wrapped the bluffs
and scumbled limbs of sycamores.
Ahead, each bend assumes the name
of a gaudy packet run aground,
or snagged and sunk, or blown to bits:
for one, the side-wheel Amazon,
pluperfect wheelhouse painted green,
that struck a honey-locust pike
still rooted deep in river mud
and tore its hull from stem to stern.
Down in minutes! Within the month
an island silted up behind.

A flock of luggage floated south,
remarked by those on Water Street
loafing before the trading post
and the barbershop of Madame Krull.
She can eternally be found
at work in her elaborate room
toujours prêt to clip and coif
or wield her razor with great skill
for those who favor her with their chins.
The scent of ginger tonic blends
with that of borscht, its acrid tang,
consumed behind a wooden screen
as Illinois grows dark. In this,
her second year since coming west.

More Poems by Devin Johnston