The intersection of Grand and Arsenal in the city of St. Louis is one part park, three parts commercial. Arsenal Street actually does a little zigzag as it crosses Grand and then runs the length of Tower Grove Park, which is due south of the Missouri Botanical Garden. Like so much of the city of St. Louis, the residential buildings in the area are red brick.
The area is also “in transition.” Not that long ago, the transition was in the direction of poor. Now, the transition is in the direction of hope. The intersection marks the beginning of an area known for ethnic restaurants, food stores and other Vietnamese, Ethiopian, Mexican, Middle Eastern and other establishments. A few blocks to the southwest is Little Bosnia – the largest settlement of Bosnia outside Bosnia itself. Thousands of Bosnians fled the Serbian war in the early 1990s and settled in St. Louis. (One of our favorite restaurants in St. Louis is close by – Grbic, specializing in Bosnian food.)
Eclectic, a jumble of cultures, neighborhoods transitioned from old South St. Louis with its German and Italian founders to newly-arrived immigrants – that’s Grand and Arsenal. But it still looks largely like it always did, in a kind of defiant red-brick splendor tying people and cultures together.
Grand & Arsenal: Poems by Kerri Webster is something like that neighborhood in south St. Louis, and she took the name from the intersection. Webster, who was writer-in-residence for Washington University in St. Louis from 2006 to 2010 (she now lives in her native Idaho), won the Iowa Poetry Prize for this collection. And it is filled with references to the city that only residents might recognize.
But the appeal of these poems is broader than only to St. Louisans. They are delightful, learned, approachable, historical and regional, and replete with literary references to Hawthorne, Lucretius, Ovid and even Agatha Christie.
Webster maintains an irregular rhythm throughout the collection, often stringing together what appear to be unrelated and disjointed lines, ideas, and observations, until the reader catches the deeper, internal rhythms. Her words are like polished shards of stone and glass, sharp and pointed. Consider “Places I Haven’t Slept:”
An island. The campground. In sixteen
states. At the sleep clinic, wanting
to strip the electrodes off
and glide home. Such feeble means: pill, wine, looped
sea sounds. In whatever bed
listening to breath, my body called
by what, jerking, muscles holding their animal
startle. By the Mississippi
in the house of sleeping women, barges
sliding past, my chest thick
with damp. The prophets thumbtacked to the wall
watching as I watched back.
In apparent homage to Rilke (and possibly Flannery O’Conner), Webster writes “Letter to a Young Poet,” and offers sound if slightly irregular advice:
Do whatever it takes to rest. When sorrow
Sites on your chest, give him a lick. I have no clue
If I’m old or young. I think you’re a young lady
who should know I’ve never been to a castle,
though I did spend a day at the Climatron and,
after, scooped lotus pods from the mud. They
didn’t dry too well. I wish you well. It’s possible
for a year to forget where it left itself. Don’t
worry. The trees immolate. My waking dreams
involve shoeing horses, pounding silver sheet
into a lake…
(In case you don’t know, the Climatron is the geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller to house the tropical plant collection at the Missouri Botanical Garden; it’s about four blocks in a straight line from the intersection of Grand and Arsenal.)
I loved this collection, and not only because of the St. Louis references. Webster describes a landscape here, an urban landscape I know and experience every day. I’ve often biked near the intersection, and have had friends who lived in the area.
The poems in Grand & Arsenal are true.
Post by Glynn Young, author of Dancing Priest: A Novel
Buy a year of Every Day Poems, just $2.99— Read a poem a day, become a better poet. In April we’re exploring the theme Candy.