John Bensko

The Iron City

University of Illinois Press 2001


From the cover: "These vivid narrative and lyrical poems focus on scenes and characters from the coal and steel producing regions of Alabama, an unlikely but rich source for meditations on the hidden emotions of our lives.

The iron city is a world in which a child and the people around him are trapped in the mystery of their surroundings, trying to reach toward love, understanding, and clarity. Acclaimed poet John Bensko creates powerful images of enclosed spaces, both physical and emotional, and of the surprising radiance they evoke. Through the central metaphor of a raw material that contains both its history (Memory of delicate /​ Ferns, leaves, bones of fishes) and its future (Coal, the rock that burns,), The Iron City explores the chasm between child and adult, musing over veins depleted, resources misused, and the glint of promise deep underground."


The Well

As in the old country, they dug them
wide enough to climb into.

But the man with pick and shovel,
who took the ground from under himself,

was not there, where I helped my mother
pull off the boards that saved from falling in

dogs, children, the nightroaming
drunks. We stared down

to the cast of light upon the trash
that grew a scurry of rats

where once the digger stood.
He must have lowered himself

foot, then knee, then waist.
Grass at his eyes, he went under

until the sky receded
to a circle of blue.

Heaven no more
than the span of thumb wrapped

to forefinger, a little O.
Then, the water seeping in.

How did he get out? I asked her.
My mother, imagining no more

than what we saw, tossed in
the day’s trash, and said, Who?

I don’t know, I said.
In Brookside, the wells went bad

house by house. Their stones were pulled down,
their bottoms filled. Except the one

old man Chervinsky kept, neat with flowers
around its sides. The roof of cedar shingles

held straight. The bucket was ready
for the pulley’s creak and swing.

He showed me how the well
stayed cool on blazing days.

He turned the wooden crank
and tipped the water toward me,

undrinkable mirror reflecting the sky
and my fingers dipping in.

Subjects: Birmingham Alabama, Brookside Alabama, coal mining, steel making, segregation, Josephus, Parakeets, Priests, Gardening, Fossils, Superstitions, Slovaks, Independent Miners, Existentialism, Amputation, Diabetes, Old Age, Mount Olive Alabama, Memphis Tennessee, West Memphis Arkansas, Southland Greyhound Dog Track, Mississippi River, Dead Man's Slough, Cinema Verite, Swinging Bridges, Mail Bombs, Plaster of Paris, Laredo Texas, Immigration, High School, Marcel Proust, The Implied Author, The Memphis Zoo, Well digging, Yellow Fever, Cemeteries, Mark Rothko, Winter Park Florida, Pigeon Roost Road, Victorian houses, The Ornamental Iron Works and Museum, Narrative juxtaposition

Selected Works

Poems
Winner of the Anita Claire Scharf Award University of Tampa Press
Winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award Described by Richard Hugo in the forward as a book about ancestors, the book explores the emotions of loss, separation, and isolation.
Poems give voice to the yearnings of a young husband, his wife, and the beachcombers and travelers along the Virginia and Florida coasts.
Narrative and lyrical poems about Alabama’s coal and steel-producing regions.
Fiction
Short stories linked by themes of pirates, storms, and coastal living.

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