What the City Was Like

by James Tate

James Tate

The city was full of blue devils,
and, once, during an eclipse, the river
began to glow, and a small body walked out of it
carrying a wooden ship full of vegetables,
which we mistook for pearls.
We made necklaces of them, and tiaras and bracelets,
and the small body laughed until
its head fell ott, and soon enouh we realized
our mistake, and grew weak with our knowledge.
Across town, a man lived his entire life
without ever going out on the street.
He destroyed his part of the city many times
without getting off his sofa.
But that neighborhood has always blossomed afresh.
Pixies germinated in the still pools under streetlights.
Cattle grazed in back of the bakery
and helped deliver baked goods to the needy.
A mouse issued commands in a benevolent, judicious and
cheerful manner.
A small, headless body lay in the road,
and passersby clicked their heels.
Across the street the Military Academy
had many historic spots on its windows,
thanks, in part, to the rivers and canals
which carried large quantities of freight
into the treasure-house of maps
and music scores necessary for each war.
The spots were all given names by the janitors-
River of Unwavering Desire, River of Untruth,
Spring of Spies, Rill of Good Enough Hotelkeepers,
and then, of course, there was the Spot of Spots.
Nobody paid any attention to the wars,
though there must have been a few or more.
The citizens of the city were wanderers
who did not live in any one place
but roamed the boulevards and alleyways
picking up gumwrappers and setting them down again.
We were relieved when Modern ice skating
was finally invented: the nuns glided in circles
for days on end, and this was the greatest blessing.
Behind City Hall salt was mined
under a powerful magnifying glass,
and each grain was tasted by someone
named Mildred until she became a stenographer
and moved away, and no one could read
her diacritical remarks, except the little devils.
For years Mildred sent cards at Christmas,
and then nothing, and no one said a thing.
The city was covered with mountains
which ran straight down the center,
and on the southern tip there were several
volcanoes which could erupt on demand.
Or so it was said, though no one demanded proof.
It was a sketchy little volcano of normal girth
where Dolly Madison hosted her parties
more often than I care to remember.
She served ice cream when she was coming.
She came early and stayed late, as they say,
until all the lights were off and the guests
had lost all hope of regaining their senses.
It is not certain if she possessed a cupcake at that time.
She might have had one in her cellar
as no one was allowed to penetrate her there.
And then the prairie dogs arrived
and caused incorrect pips to appear
on the radar screen, for which they became famous,
and which precipitated the rapid decline
of the Know Nothings-not a minute too soon.
In the days that followed children were always screaming.
You could set their hair on fire and, sure enough,
they'd start screaming.

Last updated February 23, 2023