Descent Into Cleveland

It’s snowing in Cleveland, just like the song says. I have waited so long this year for snow, it is one of the reasons I was willing to come to the Midwest, the promise of drifting white and frozen branches. The weather report says it will be gone by the weekend.

There was a poet who lived in Cleveland once named d.a. levy. He was kind of a local Ginsberg back in the day, where the day equals the ever-present Sixties. He was political, radical, modernist edging on the postmodern, stream of conciousness, fire in the belly. I’m not a huge fan of his work, but I’m compelled by it because so much of it deals with this city. Cleveland has had so few home-bred bards. He killed himself, too, which seems to be a thing one always remembers to say about poets, as though the fact of suicide is as important as anything else they ever did. He also went through a court obscenity battle that was moderately well-known–the Big G came out from San Francisco for the trial.

If poets were still local heroes, he’d be one, even many years dead. A friend of his wrote a book with the title Descent Into Cleveland, which you had to know I’d pick up in the store, mostly about his own fascination with levy (lowercase is by preference of the poet) and the pair’s Milleresque adventures in Cleveland–they were so sure it would become the San Francisco of the heartland, so sure they could make it a Mecca of art and poetry. “I have a city to cover in pages,” levy (quasi-) famously said. Quite so.

Now levy is dead and Solomon, who wrote Descent, is living in Northern California, and who is the great light of Cleveland now? Who will cover this city in pages?

I learn this city bit by bit. I learn what it was before the familiar late 20th century ghouls of gentrification and public safety descended–both the good and the bad. Coventry is lovely, but from what I have heard it was probably more interesting before. The Flats were horrific tenement–occasionally actual tents–housing and are now trendy bars and lofts. There was almost a war over iron shipping on the Cuyahoga between the east side and the west side of the city, which seems to be carried on by a dogged, good-natured animosity between the two to this day. There is a mall on the west side which has a 19th century graveyard in the middle of the parking lot. The river burned here once–the water so polluted it burned for days. There is a city called Chagrin, and I live in it. There is a waterfall here; there are wild strawberries. The restaurants offer fish specials during Lent. And there is Erie, always Erie, and the snow tonight comes blowing in off of the lake.

I am not the poet Cleveland wants. I was not born here–I can only see it through an outsider’s eyes. I can only see it with California tugging at my sleeve. But I feel it mourning for levy, not because he was the greatest poet who ever lived–he emphatically was not–but because he was the minstrel of the burning river, and this city bore him, bred him, loved him, cursed him, and killed him. He belonged to this place. I read his work and I look into the dark and the snow and the snaking freeways and tentatively want to love this place–oh, I do love it, I am happy here, but there is a love between human and city which dares not speak its name, and I have not become intimate with Cleveland yet–but feel a concrete back turned to the girl from the blue Pacific and the green palms. You are not serious enough to love me, she says. You will break my heart and move on to a flashier place.

I think of Cleveland as a middle-aged woman with a very aristocratic nose and shakily-applied eyeliner in a thick brown coat with patches at the elbows. Her hair is always in her face. She wears impractical shoes, but she won’t give them up. Her skirt is dark, expensive Irish wool, ironed and crisp; her blue shirt is untucked and sweat-stained, a foundry-worker’s nametag blazing on the breast. She stumbles sometimes, when she has had a lot to drink, but often she walks in a straight line, her face set and proud, her eyes very blue and clear, bluer and clearer than anyone thought they would be at her age.

levy never left me, she says. I wouldn’t let him.

She knows better than to think I’ll stay, so she won’t let me see her apartment, she won’t let me cover her in pages. That’s not her kink anymore, she sniffs. But I am persistent. And she knows how much I love the snow.

There is a zen to the Midwest. Like any, it requires patience and practice to learn it. Breathe in–the lake frozen white. Breathe out–the fire thrown into the night sky by the oil refinery. Breathe in–a doe at your window. Breathe out–a poet killed himself less than ten miles from where I sit, and he never turned his city into the place he wanted it to be.

Once I told my mother that I was terribly disappointed that Cleveland was just the name of a man. It had seemed so much deeper a word to me.

“Cleave-land. It should mean the cloven land,” I protested.

“Or the land you cleave to,” she said.

Breathe in–the city. Breathe out–cleave.

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