“Figurative North Topeka”

Listen to Eric McHenry reading this poem. for Ben Lerner

Derivative graffiti crawls
up the overpass like ivy—
abstract names on concrete stanchions.
To the south, symbolic walls:
NO OUTLET signs along the levee,
idle river, idle tracks,
bypass, bluffside and the backs
of Potwin’s late Victorian mansions,
flush like book spines on a shelf.
Drunk on your late-Victorian porch
you promised me that if elected
you’d have the river redirected
down Fourth Street, to make Potwin search
North Topeka for itself.


I told you to retire Ad Astra
Per Aspera
and put For God’s
Sake Take Cover
on the state
seal and flag—the license plate
at least, since we collect disaster
and loss like they were classic rods:
’51 Flood; ‘66 Tornado.
Even the foot-lit Statehouse mural
has a sword-bearing Coronado,
a Beecher’s Bible-bearing Brown
and a tornado bearing down
on its defenseless mock-pastoral,
The Past. The present was still wet
when the embarrassed legislature
resolved that it would never let
John Steuart Curry paint the future.
He never did, although Topekans
would learn to let bygones be icons.



On Thursday, July 12, the rain
relented and the water rose,
darkened and stank more. The stain
is just shy of the second story
in what used to be Fernstrom Shoes.
That entire inventory
spent five nights underwater, gaping
like mussels on the riverbed.
Fernstrom spent the summer scraping
gobs of septic-smelling mud
out of eleven thousand toes.


On Friday the 13th, the Kaw
crested at thirty-seven feet.
They thought it might have cut a new
channel down Kansas Avenue.
One Capital reporter saw
a kid reach up from his canoe
and slap the stoplight at Gordon Street.

Porubsky’s never did reclaim
its lunchtime customers; the torrents
sent the Sardou Bridge to Lawrence
and there was no more Oakland traffic.
Business hasn’t been the same
for fifty years now. Fifty-two.
Ad astra per aspera: through
the general to the specific.
You do what you want to do
but I’m not using North Topeka
in conversation anymore,
because there is no north to speak of;
there’s only mud and metaphor.