Off Highway 395

March 31, 2014

Contributor’s Marginalia: Shara Lessley on “Bow City” by Michael Lavers

I’d forgotten the barber shop, Grand Central Hotel. I’d buried any memory of the mill where ore was crushed in the hunt for gold—or so I thought, until Michael Lavers’ sonnet, “Bow City,” brought Bodie, Lazarus-like, back in its odd state of animated decay. The ghost towns—Lavers’ and mine—are more than thirteen hundred miles away from each other in Alberta and California. And yet Lavers’ poem works hard to resurrect (even as its titular city falls into a state of ruin) that which thrived and was later discarded.

Five clipped sentences open “Bow City,” enacting tonally its inevitable demise. “First abandoned was the telegraph,” begins Lavers, excising any means of communication. When in line two the railway opts for “a straighter course,” further isolating the town from the outside world, economic collapse naturally follows: “The silos emptied,” declares the speaker, “The bank foreclosed itself.” What strikes me about these statements is not only the way their efficiency conveys finality, but the agency Lavers assigns to the city’s buildings and structures. We don’t expect financial institutions to close their own doors, or saloons to sneak out in the dead of night. Yet, Lavers personifies the businesses, further emphasizing the town’s desertion. So empty are the avenues of Bow City (cue tumbleweeds and dust storms), no one notices when a cartographer wipes the town from the county’s record book. The ease with which Bow City is forsaken is disquieting. Even the birds are disturbed by the turn toward stillness. Silence, we’re told, “spooked the magpies from their perch.”

The tension between what was (an industry-driven boomtown) and what will be (a ghost town that reads like some cast-off film set) plays out throughout the poem. Lavers’ decision to narrate Bow City via a closed structure—i.e., the sonnet as a compressed rhetorical chamber—makes sense. The form itself provides little room for a thriving populous. In fact, very few people reside in “Bow City.” The bullet that soothes “the last lame horse,” for example, fires from nowhere—no broken cowboy or farmer aims a pistol. The last inhabitants to ditch the place are telling: in the end, the poet leaves us a “drunk / followed by his constable,” and the town’s two founders. So ultimate is Bow City’s erasure, not even the dead are safe. Claims Lavers in a surprising and eerily delightful turn of imagination, “Even the cemetery, somehow, shrunk.”

Which leaves who or more significantly what, as “Time, in geese’s arrows, [flies] away”? Lavers writes, that in its final hours, Bow City’s “founders disappeared together, / as they’d come: the whorehouse and the church.” This is where the sonnet ends: the house of ill-repute (building of the damned) walking hand in hand with the house of God, site of redemption and salvation. A fitting conclusion, it seems, for both the town and the sonnet itself, which underscores the lyric marriage we know so well—sex and death, beginning and end punctuating the story of every inhabitant of every town that was and will be.

While Lavers’ title locates the reader, the sonnet’s gift is that it transcends the confines of geography and time. “Bow City” is every town born of discovery, prosperity, and promise. It’s also a testament to every empty Main Street storefront, every place gone bust when the possibility of wealth was rumored elsewhere. For Lavers, it’s the constable who ultimately fades “like a red serge into fable.” For me, it was the childhood memory of winding down a long road off Highway 395, of wandering Bodie’s deserted streets northeast of Yosemite, exploring the gold-mining town that once raised opium dens, gambling halls, sixty-five saloons. I’d forgotten the place, forgotten what it felt like as a kid to see (maybe for the first time) tangible evidence of our impermanence. Lavers’ sonnet rushes all of this back each time I read it—and isn’t this one of poetry’s gifts, the ability to reanimate what we’ve done our best to abandon, what we assume has long since disappeared?

Shara Lessley

Shara Lessley is the author of Two-Headed Nightingale (New Issues, 2012). A recent resident of the Middle East, she is the 2014 Mary Wood Fellow at Washington College.

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