GOOD CHILDREN, DON'T SWIM IN DEAD LAKES

M B Seigel

 

 

 

 

A cemetery on the western shore, smoking
cigarettes, passing joints, staring into darkness
where three small islands float invisible at the center
of a lake clouded by a pickle factory long bulldozed
to pavement cracked and weed choked. Remember
old vats along the beach casting shadows over
elementary school children on a trip to the park
where faceless adults screamed at the water's edge,
get away, good children, don't swim in dead lakes,
no fishing, no wading in the shallows for frogs,
no minnows, no summer dances on islands like long ago
when the young strung lights from the branches of trees
and small boats ferried girls in white crinolines toward
music and laughter across the water. Give way, instead,
to your graveyard shifts, forklifts, potato chips,
two liter bottles of liquid candy, ferrying crates
of engine bearings, heavy coils of steel, shoveling metal
shaving excrement from beneath shrieking machines,
corrosive chemicals from vat to vat, stand here, push
the little red button, file the smallest manufacturing
inconsistencies, imperfections salvageable with a little
help from summer help, forty-eight bearings per row,
four rows per layer, ten layers per crate, in a warehouse
where you work alone, where the fluorescent lights flicker
and it's ok to smoke. No escape when destinations are
difficult, but origins are worse, small rural places,
farms far removed from big neighbors themselves
so distant from bright light, like nowhere slices shy
on faith, outer rim reminders, stickler still for numbers,
Rockwellian charms buried under an alchemy of
State statistics – push the 99th percentile for whiteness,
dilapidated houses populated by dirty faced kids
fat on marshmallow chocolate bars, where high school
English teachers deny the existence of WC Williams.
So much depends on high marks, the percentage
of the population incarcerated or institutionalized,
the double homicide at Five Corners, the stretch
of Kendaville Road where a cluster of adult assisted
living homes populates the muddy margins of
the blacktop with the aimless scribbling of men
no longer anywhere, passed by a school bus
driven by a preacher thrown from the pulpit for what
only the imaginations of children leering out
the emergency door window, hoping to catch
an eye can tell. Deeply ambivalent—sure, but who isn't?
—to fixate in direct opposition to whom we've imagined
ourselves into being, to become that from which we seek
flight, rooms too small, never of, in collision with.

 

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The poem is an exploration of the place I come from, a grappling with deep ambivalence. Nobody wins, but the idea continues to expand.