Category: Views & Reviews

The Legend of Misty Black

Everyone I knew as a kid was afraid of the “crooked stairs.” In a way they served as a dividing line between the lives of simple townsfolk on the hill and the sordid deeds going on below. The jagged concrete steps were placed in a zig-zag pattern that created a very risky downward descent. And being steep it made the attempt that much harder. The pathway was rutted with stones, and in some places the steps were completely gone or broken into large clumps. You had to crisscross your way down, and woe to those who looked up at the woodland canopy surrounding them, for then you could find yourself in a heap on the ground, covered with dirt and leaves and maybe some shards of glass hanging from your skin as you tumbled forward. Some children thought there were denizens of the forest who dwelled there, hoarding scraps of food and drinking half-empty bottles of booze thrown by the odd group of college boys who got wasted in the nearby bars.

If you made it to the bottom unscathed you were likely to find your shoes muddied from the moist air that clung to the pathway. Then if you scaled back up the hill to the water tower and the modest homes that dipped in and out of the hilly landscape, you felt as if you should be given a reward. On the top of the ridge was the Indian bluff, were kids scoured in the mounds for arrowheads. You were in a town that had a history, and it was pleasure and pain at the same time.

At the bottom of these stairs was Main Street. Across the street lay railroad tracks, used many years before as freight lines moving east to Chicago but now decaying over a patch of weeds. A way station that was once used as a conductor’s cabin stood in the grayish distance, a pile of wood precariously balanced next to its hollow frame. Once in a while you might see a train roll by, but it was rare. Seeing a human form in these parts was cause for concern, because most certainly they were from out of town or were simply the lone hobo searching for his mind.

Make a sharp left hand turn and a few feet over and you came upon a gaudy-looking nightclub called Schnee’s (as in HEY). This is where young women, most of them seemingly lost and uncared for, disrobed nightly in front of a rough band of working men from across the river trying to have some fun after a day of slicing through pig guts. The marquee flashed its bright orange neon bulbs, giving Schnee’s the honor of being the go-to bar for the late crowd at the far end of Sinsinawa Avenues. Two restaurants, several bars, and my father’s nightclub lit up the night. It was part of a thriving miracle of high-octane entertainment in this river town that became known as “Little Las Vegas.”

There are times when everything falls into place. The citizens of the town were happy and content. They raised their kids to be righteous and true, not give in to the temptations of the flesh. People went to bed knowing they didn’t have to worry about any kind of distraction. They enjoyed the comforts of home and family.

Until you read the afternoon newspaper one dull, below-zero January day.

Her stage name was Misty Black, in itself an iconic title for such a beautiful woman. And what was taking up the entire front page of the daily paper across the Mississippi was her untimely death by the hands of an enraged and possibly rejected fan. She had been stabbed several times. I’d never seen a larger headline in our local paper before. Covered by a blanket with a ringlet of blood around her head, Misty didn’t have a chance. An accompanying photo revealed a spray of raven black hair emerging from the blanket covering her. Schnee’s was her stage, just another place to make a few bucks, and the story described the confrontation that had left her laying supine and bleeding out on the icy pavement. The town was aghast that something like this could have happened in their tiny village, where people mostly had fun and were talked about but who were not having that much fun or doing that much talking.

I became enamored of this Misty Black, the young woman who simply ran into the wrong guy. I pitied her as many a person might, but I also wanted to know more about her and I knew this was simply not possible. Such news shines a light too deep into the terrors and fears of the population. People put tragedy behind them because they have to, and then on the first day of spring they find themselves enmeshed in other matters, seeding the lawn or washing the car.

But with me it hung around. I kept going back to the newspaper story, re-reading it so I might find a texture, some thread of reason or piece of the incident that I could make sense of to provide some closure. But I couldn’t. I found myself concocting a life around Misty Black, what it was like for her as a young girl, if she had brothers or sisters, and if she ever found a happy moment in her life and what that was like.

Yet I always come back to those miserable stairs. How they humbled you and made you feel like there was more to the world then just this town. The way they taunted you, twisting you this way and that, making you sprain your ankle and cut yourself all over. The trains that never made it to the abandoned station, the people who never talked when you were listening. All the injustices done in the name of governments. Now you could add the raven-haired woman whose real name remains part of her history also.

I clung to the belief that we really don’t know what a person is in his or her totality. We only know that episodes in life take place, and the ink on the page dries up and becomes yellow. Months went by and I read or heard nothing new. She was simply “one of the girls.” Her hair reappears to me every now and then, how it spread out beneath the blanket they laid upon her that night. We can frame her dreams and sorrows and concoct all sorts of possibilities. But Misty became the name that followed her to the grave, and hundreds of girls who went to work at Schnee’s had no idea what they could have learned from her demise.



Finding Poetry

Denise Ryan

I never have the pleasure of seeing poetry until too late, only when the world has no influence and my mind has time to think alone on the true nature of reality. As such, I strive to bring the unimaginable into my poetry and into the ordinary lives of the reader. A common stroll along an artificial waterway in one of my poems is transformed into a carnival de la salsa where ducklings wear sequins and dance the salsa. In another poem, a Parisian scene is filled with can-can dancers performing on a canal bank, swinging feathers back and forth alongside marsh plants in a chorus line, wearing “petticoats of weeds and black stockings.” In another poem, a pair of ordinary tights hanging on a wash line become a pair of youthful legs suspended in mid-air purely by suggestion.

Through my poems, I turn my eyes inward to find words to articulate the human condition. Themes are not my main focus, but crafting pure language to evoke an emotional surge in the reader, to recreate the experience of standing in front of a great work of art and somehow feeling physically a part of the painting. The composition comes to life and with every look, one sees more and more.

In much the same way, I allow the beauty of language to lead the reader to my narrative. I never allow the subject or form to weigh me down. You can’t tie a knot in a river. Poems must be organic and harmonious, never prompted, structured by emotional freedom. They should flow naturally like a river, unspoiled and unique, like a fractal. It is only when our mind, body and soul is in perfect alignment that poetry can safely flourish.

Nature as metaphor further grants my poems the freedom to be less self-explanatory. A poem too evident from the outset gives the reader no need to return. Metaphors attach an extra layer of fascination for the reader. Butterflies in one of my poems come to represent life taking flight from the head of a terminally-ill patient, rising in a “flightless, winged narrative, a sexless luminescence of light.”

Poets are not prophets or journalists, but artists of a visual language, words their medium. Fear of being misunderstood is the greatest obstacle, so one inevitability begins to write for an audience rather than for oneself. Working in this manner only creates predicable and static poetry, obsessed in getting our message across, as if this is the poet’s only pursuit, but the inner voice is the only voice the poet can truly trust.

Thus, poetry should be a lyrical gauze against the angst everyday life generates—death, love, loss, hope, renewal and grief are all touched upon at their most crucial stage in my poetry, forever expanding like the universe because poetry manages to compress more meaning, more depth of feeling, and more sheer natural beauty into a collection of fewer words than any other form of literature. This is why poetry will always and forever sit on the shoulders of Apollo.

Denise Ryan is the author of Of Silken Waters, published by Ara Pacis.


On the End of Culture

Thomas Sanfilip

Since the modern penchant for revising history will roar ahead undeterred, no truth will ever really be known again except as apocryphal knowledge. This does not seem to bother anyone to any great extent because the meaning to their lives as individuals has already been negated by cultural forces that know the outcome of their efforts, that is, complete subordination and destruction of the individual, their past and future mapped out within only prescribed perimeters.

The culture has been so stripped down and denuded, no one can tell genuine culture from an artificial construct. Symbols, language, art have no meaning, for lack of authenticity. Everything created only emphasizes the division between the real and the unreal. Somehow lack of true freedom creates the schism between oneself and the world, so the latter is not looked upon as nourishment, but devoid of energy and substance.

But even worse is the loss of the soul so callously reinforced by almost everything advocated politically and put into place. The only question left is how far these forces will go, how far they will go to crush out humanity’s innate inviolability. Is not the happiness and self-determination of each individual more valuable than the collective mindset of the masses? There is no future worth aspiring toward if the future is erased. Its last vestiges cry in ripped shreds in the wind, and we wonder how to save it before it dries up and blows away forever. Given this scenario, there is no planet as barren as the human heart.

From Conversations with Mona Lisa (Bigio Morato, 2020)