Carl Miller poems
page 5

January 1970

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The River Cuyahoga

A drainage ditch in Montville township
is the beginning, we think,
of the River Cuyahoga.

Our young geology professor
chops the thick ice with a pick.
“Clear sparkling water from the Cuyahoga,”
he says, grinning through his mustache,
raising his sample to the winter sun.

We pass over bridges, following the river.
We stop, get out of the bus,
spin the bottle on a string
down into the water,
pull it up, get back into the bus,
pour the water into a vial,
look at the map and drive on.

The valley gets deeper and narrower,
smaller and larger.
Our professor points out Pleistocene till,
a ground moraine.

The city of Akron’s water supply
is upstream from most sewage treatment plants.
The water in the vial is still fairly clear.

We enter a bar in Mantua at noon
and have hamburgers and stuff.

We keep changing roads to follow the river.
A sign says, Keep Out,
Kent Wastewater Treatment Plant,

but we’re getting a guided tour.
Welcome to our
secondary sewage treatment plant,
a miracle of modern engineering—
inside/stinky, outside/cold, take your choice.
This is the settling basin and this is the—
Let’s talk about it back in the bus.

The bus driver praises the wonders of Cleveland.
The University Circle area
is the biggest glop of culture
this side of Mantua.
The salt mine is eighteen hundred feet deep.
He used to drive a taxi and a bus.
He goes on about the war and immigrants.

The sign says, Bridge Out,
but we go over anyway
because it’s not really out.

The water is green and smells like algae
(“Pay attention, Carl,” says the professor.)
but only if you’ve got a whole river of it.

After miles of farmland between towns,
the homes of Akron’s suburbs swallow us.
The icicles are very big
this year, but not like Chicago.
It takes a foot of snow to screw up
Cleveland, but Chicago needs four.
The professor says I’ve got
the strangest sleeping habits
to use my jacket for a pillow.

The bridges are elaborate iron things
a few blocks away from each other.
There’s the gorge, cliffs roofed over
by Sharon Conglomerate rock,
more erosion-proof than the stuff beneath.

The goldfish in the river
didn’t swim into the bottle,
but didn’t swim away from it either.

Our professor tells us,
“A few days ago that pulp plant
was spitting out glop from that very pipe.
It might be fun to stick a cork
up the pipe and watch it do its thing.”

Down the trail through the park to the river.
Air temperature, fifteen degrees Fahrenheit,
water temperature, eight degrees Centigrade.
Steamy cold water over a dam,
green like a glimpse of earliest life
in a fog of creation.

Next stop and out comes the camera
to photograph all the soapsuds
Akron has put into the river.
The grad student asks,
“Is a bottle of suds
a representative sample per se?”

Here’s the canal, slower than the river,
and hence it should be more gummed up.
The snow is too deep to cross easily.
This wider valley was not
made by the Cuyahoga
but by the much bigger Dover River
before the last glacial retreat.

We pass the last cornfield, and now Big Creek.
The Harshaw Chemical Company’s pipe
is urinating white stuff today.
Our professor saw it flowing red
first time he came here.

The valley through the heart of Cleveland
is a sulfur scented hell of steel mills,
smoke stained brick and glass,
skeletal structures belching flames,
industrial noise replacing the quiet
of ancient forest, rocks, and water.

Here near the mouth, the river’s frozen,
which means at least it’s cleaner than
it was last year when the oil slick burned.
There’s no climbing down to the surface
from the old steel deck of the Center Street Bridge.
Our professor thinks the ice looks thin,
but the bottle spins through the air and smashes
against the hard river in futility.

copyright © 1973 - 2008 Carl Miller

This field trip happened January 6 - 7, 1970. I wrote the first draft of this poem on February 13, 1970, and made minor improvements most recently on November 8, 2008. Drawing, “Detroit-Superior Bridge”: 2004, gel pen on paper, 6 x 10 inches. A bridge in downtown Cleveland over the Cuyahoga River.

This is the earliest poem to make it to this collection. From now on poems started on the spot join those written a few months, a few years, or many years later.

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