A National Poetry Month poem by David Biespiel …
Author’s Note: From 2008–2010, Cesar Conda and I debated politics as daily contributors to Politico. Cesar has been instrumental in developing conservative polices in Washington, D. C. since the 1980s. From 2001-2003, Cesar served as Assistant to Vice President Dick Cheney for Domestic Policy. He stopped writing for Politico in 2011 when he became Chief of Staff for Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida). Anaconda, Montana, population about 9,000, is located in Southwest Montana. The Anaconda smelter stack is one of the tallest masonry structures in the world. When the Atlantic Richfield Company closed the smelter in 1980, it brought to an end almost a century of mineral processing in Anaconda. Today, an 18-hole golf course in the town, designed by Jack Nicklaus, uses the contaminated black slag leftover from the smelter as the “sand” in the sand traps. Wendy and I were traveling trough Montana for several days with Daniel Kemmis who served both as mayor of Missoula and as Speaker of the Montana House of Representatives. While Dan and Wendy were meeting with Anaconda’s civic leaders, I wandered into the Locker Room Bar, owned by Wendy’s brother-in-law’s father whom I had never before met. He gave me a tour of the town in his Jeep. All told, we spent but three hours in Anaconda before driving to Bozeman. The joke told in the middle of the poem is pure Dan.
To Conda from Anaconda
Dear Cesar —
Just off the highway
From here is Opportunity.
The town’s not living up to its name.
And no one’s singing O tempore O more
Not since the copper company
Gave everyone a day’s notice
Twenty-nine years ago next September.
What’s left is the smelter stack
That bricks up 585 feet closer-to-God high
Like an unfaithful steeple.
Even the stained glass
Inside the lovely St. Mark’s on Third Street
Honors the radial heights in its east windows.
From the highway, what you see
Is a sun-rusted mausoleum to 1919 masonry —
So tall and wide you can slip
The Washington Monument into it.
Say, Cesar, can you see the Anaconda stack
From your porch in old Virginia?
Or the rusty gas that spewed for 61 years
Across the hard land that accepts nothing?
There were four million cubic feet of gas per minute,
I don’t know how you could have missed it.
Like most tragedies in America,
It’s a state park now.
As for the town, it got splayed
In half and hasn’t got up yet.
All big government did was try to clean
The miles after miles of slagheap
Along the dark road into here,
Slag still black with the souls
Sold to the company store
Where what you get
Is another year older
and deeper in debt.
There are thirty bars in this town, Cesar,
And sixty percent of the folks are over sixty-five.
Eight miles from the Continental Divide,
The median income is $26K.
Lucille Ball lived here and so did Frank Cope,
Starting tackle for the N.Y. Giants 1938–1947.
This morning outside the Locker Room Bar
I met one old-timer with good hair
Who used a dollar to buy potatoes
To boil for dinner with salt and butter.
He told me about walking to the edge of Anaconda
When he turned twenty-four
Twenty-nine years ago next September,
Not far from where the back country squawks
At the night and the moon gathers
Over the mocking birds and company-built houses
Crammed onto the tree-named streets —
Oak, Pin, Chestnut, Locust, Beech, Cedar, Cherry.
They come at you like a song,
Like America the Beautiful,
Like ‘Taint Nobody’s Business If I Do.
Cypress, Dogwood, Cottonwood, Elm—
And he told me he dreamed of leaving Anaconda
For Butte where the political lords
Know how to shake the state for jobs,
Or else leave for Opportunity
Or West Valley or Phillipsburg
Where the degrees of gray
Blow into an utterance
Only a harpy can translate,
A squall, like some unknown language
That sounds like dirt mixed with dust.
Suddenly, there’s another man
Across Commercial Street
Talking openly about impotence—
Then about death and birth
And sorrow and gases and death
And rare clear nights from some other year
When the kids who have abandoned this town
used to get a dollar
At the Smelterman’s Day Picnic in July
And got to ride a pony for free
And later watch Legion ball in Washoe Park,
And where no one ever wanted to believe
In sorrow because it seemed anti-American.
Cesar, that old man stood on Commercial Street
Half in shadow, half in sweat, and half in fear
That fit him like a flannel shirt from 1974,
The year India got the bomb
And called it Smiling Buddha,
Where in Troy, Ohio, the first UPC code
Was used to sell a pack of Wrigley’s gum,
When Haile Selassie was deposed
As was George Foreman by Ali in Kinshasa,
When Derek Jeter was born
And Duke Ellington died,
And Nixon threw in the towel.
That was outside the Locker Room Bar.
Inside, it was 9 a.m., and the owner,
Joey Stranieri, aged 70 on tiptoe,
With the blue eyes of the old country
Around about near Napoli,
And a disease in his blood
So rare no one can name it,
Turned out to be the father
Of my brother-in-law
That works with cons
On probation two states away.
Joey poured us hot cups of coffee
And talked about his 26 years
Teaching biology at the Junior High.
Cesar, I want you to look closely
At the National Guard poster
Side by side with the World Beer Cup poster,
The video poker and the Keno
And the black and white 8 x 10s
Of Anaconda High’s great stars
From sixty years ago
Including 1956 U.S. Olympic boxer Johnny Rouse —
1956, the year Elvis made it
With “Heartbreak Hotel,”
My Fair Lady opened in New York,
“Under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance,
“In God we Trust” became the National Motto,
Martin and Lewis called it quits,
As did the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Cesar, here’s a 1980 menu from the Copper Club,
Closed Mondays, and then forever,
Rib Steak, $4.25, Australian Lobster Tail, $8.50,
Ravioli for the Italians
Who immigrated here for crummy jobs
That let them raise a family on smelt copper,
Including Joey’s old man who was mezzo giorno
And died when the boy was in the third grade,
a la carte, for $2.25.
“Junior High’s condemned now,” says Joey,
Pouring in a little more joe.
That’s when my mind closes
Around its dead gymnasium,
Closes around the gates chained
To the top of the slag hills
And the small pocket park
That does not exist in the center of town
Because the State of Montana
Wouldn’t give the permit —
But if you want to plant
A kitchen garden in your backyard
And grow tomatoes and green beans
The state of Montana doesn’t require a permit —
My mind still closing around the barbed fencing
Meant to keep gawkers off the slag hill.
All of it now is like three cheers
For the hours of corrosion
And inertia and semi-success,
For the foundry makers
And the half-gassed vegetables
And the raspy eulogies on eternity
And the idle hands and the snow on the mountainsides
I looked at with curiosity while standing
Outside the Locker Room Bar
Before getting into my rented Chevy
To drive to Bozeman. —
Cesar, two nights ago in Missoula
At Pearl’s Bar on Higgins Street
I ate elk for the first time.
I don’t recommend it.
Stick with the Caesar salad.
But after Anaconda I was heading to Bozeman,
February snow chasing me from the west,
Sunlight in the east breaking through the clouds
Whining into the sky
With all the dust I’ve swallowed all these years.
On I-90, I saw two bald eagles
On two bald trees,
And I can’t say I felt unhappy,
But I can’t say I felt rich either.
— I was thinking, Cesar,
Someone should write a tanaga
About the towns of Montana
In Tagalog, a language I love but cannot speak
As my Anaconda friend cannot speak
The language of hope or change:
Oh, be resilient you men
And ladies. Anaconda
Won’t come back. Do not cower.
The market place will save you.
I didn’t see any Filipinos in Anaconda.
But I did see an Italian named Joey Stranieri
Whose mother came to America from Tuscany
And who drove me across town in his red Jeep
Even though we’d never met
But he’d just learned
That his son’s wife is my wife’s sister.
In Montana, that’s family.
In Montana, there are three fundamental principles
Given to the citizens: the right to due process of law,
The right to equal protection, and number three,
There’s a guy in Butte what needs a job.
At Mount Olivet the Catholics are buried
And rest atop the best view of the valley
And the town and the smelter smokestack
That no longer belches
Across the big airy
But sits like a high school trophy
Behind the glass case inside the Locker Room Bar
Where, from time to time, the dudes stop
Before they head home to houses
Where blossoms have fallen to nothing,
So to admire what the young people
Don’t stay long enough to notice,
The future slick and smiling
In a stiff-armed running back’s face from 1948 —
A year in which Mahatma Gandhi fasts in Dehli
And is killed eighteen days later,
In which the Hell’s Angels started in California
And the Marshall Plan started in France,
In which Israel was founded
And racial segregation ended in the Army,
In which Baryshnikov was born
And Babe Ruth died.
Cesar, I have no idea how to worship
At the steeple in Anaconda —
To be cynical or devout,
To sing a miner’s song
Or just breathe the airless air.
All this living without all these years.
That’s America, too,
Eight miles from the Continental Divide
Where no one leaves for work
And everyone returns to bed,
And not God or animal, man or child
Knows what to do about it.
What would you do with your theories
Composed by Jack Kemp
Who grew up among Jews
In the Wilshire section of Los Angeles,
Quarterbacked for the Buffalo Bills 1962–1969,
Who believed that wounded towns
Like this could come back
If they just wait long enough,
Stay patient, preserve the old buildings
In zones of desire,
What with good back country hiking nearby,
Or the right company to come along
And get the money circulating?
Whatever’s here remains here.
It’s nowhere else and nothing.
Its name is Anaconda.
Dirt, slag, and easy temper.
In the three hours I spent in Anaconda
I saw the earth eating the fence posts
And the ferocity of repose.
I saw one bowling alley
And one Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall,
And a guy named Dan who said,
“Take it easy, Dave” at noon
When I left the Locker Room Bar
As if I might came back later in the day
Same as the copper.
But I did not see you, Cesar Conda,
I saw only what the children will inherit.
I did not see you
Among the opened bellies
And the hidden bones,
Among the candor and rage and sudden
Red mountain flowers
Near where the rivers burn
And the stones are crushed
And the shadows un-flatten
From the wreckage of ground
In a mad dance.
No, I did not see you.
I did not see you.
Cesar Conda, come to Anaconda.
Come to Anaconda, Cesar Conda.