The city as I see it rises and falls,
taking its shape from the underlying dunes
swelling in ridges like irregular welts…
Born in the city I have connections here,
tenuous you’d think them since I’ve lived elsewhere
for fifty years and meant to keep my distance.
But I have family and family history
in the city, those and so present a past
that what I see on my infrequent visits
takes its shape from what I felt here as a child.
Not that it matters, that child’s unhappiness –
the child was white, male, and lived on Walnut Street
a half a block from the Presidio wall,
so when he saw himself in wind-whipped cypress
it was from the windows of his own warm room.
If only suffering can be instructive
and it requires material deprivation
nothing about the life I’ve lived much matters.
My feelings though don’t know their unimportance.
The highs and lows vying with the city’s own –
its Hills and Heights, Valleys – and underlying
poems that remind me of its hilltop parks,
places where everything’s easier to see,
especially when the tree-sifting fog lifts
and long views appear suddenly as the sun.
My great-grandfather, the ’49er, built
a house just up California from Van Ness
for his only daughter in ’76;
the fire and earthquake’s destruction stopped just short,
and it still stands, a testament to his luck.
His and mine. The material well-being
sapping the meaning from my experience
comes from him, an immigrant who sold the horse
he rode across three states to Sacramento,
set up shop with the proceeds and struck it rich.
That great fortunes can turn into good fortune
meant nothing to the child on his way to school,
hiking up hills steepening as he climbed them
to Pacific’s heights. Hurt mattered and anger,
shame; fear that, unloved, he was unlovable;
and knowledge – he knew beforehand that once home,
milk sour in his thermos, he’d get in trouble.
Say he had the prescience of a Cassandra,
reputedly a redhead like his mother;
no hopeful disbelief ever proved him wrong.
My travels – not to call them flight – took the child
almost half way around the world to a spa
where blasé tourists bathe above the columns
of Hierapolis, the “sacred city,” felled
by what Cassandra knew as the Earth-Shaker.
Essentially a finger of sand, a spit
with a fragile crust and two flimsy bridges,
the city’s doomed and could go at any time.
You may be wondering why I come at all,
other than to see the child and his family
living in the city, though not in a house
I built for them. Perhaps because being here
makes me more likely to acknowledge the luck,
elsewhere it can seem the determination,
that keeps me from being no worse than I am,
a more or less innocuous old white man.
And only by being in Lafayette Park
early this afternoon, watching as the sun
appears, and blue sky, through the dissolving fog,
would I have felt in what I saw the sadness
of my childhood, its privileged misery,
dispersed by the almost illicit delight
to be taken in a long and quiet life.
Not that my exhilaration much matters;
it’s modest enough and sure to be short-lived –
as what, you may be thinking, as who, is not.
Downtown later in the day I saw the tops
of the city’s towers, taller than Troy’s, sway
as I swayed, looking up from so far below:
the structures struck me as actors in a play
certain to end before the final curtain,
their remains fare for future scuba divers.
San Francisco, 2013
HENRY SLOSS is author of two books of poems: The Threshold of the New (University of South Carolina Press) and Blue Ridge Pie (privately printed).
image: George Henry Burgess_San Francisco in July, 1849 (detail), 1891