[Angel Island, 1961]

[Photos: Steve Deutch]

One of the great American novelists of the 20th century, Nelson Algren is always associated with Chicago, where he grew up and gained fame as its most ardent chronicler — Carl Sandburg, Saul Bellow, Richard Wright, and James T. Farrell notwithstanding. Algren’s notorious love-hate relationship with Chicago went beyond the city’s limits with A Walk on the Wild Side and The Devil’s Stocking, but filled his best-known novel The Man With the Golden Arm and his least-known Never Come Morning, and his long-limbed poetry.

Below are a few excerpts from a 28-page poem, entitled “Ode to Kissassville,” which to my knowledge has never been properly published. Filled as it is with sardonic humor, lyrical grace, and an outrage that is more timely than ever, “Ode to Kissassville” would make a wonderful chapbook. It was written more than 40 years ago and centers on Chicago but surely applies to the current state of our Banana Republic.

The poem once appeared as an epilogue in 100 copies of a 1961 reprint edition of his prose poem Chicago: City on the Make. The edition now in print from the University of Chicago Press, with an introduction from his old friend Studs Terkel, does not include the epilogue.

“Ode to Kissassville” begins:

Hog-Butcher, Stacker-of-Wheat, Freight-Handler, Piano-Mover,
Tall bold slugger set vivid among the little soft cities and
Where else (Contentedly at rest before the evening telly)
(WGN-TV assisting the forces of law and order
By entrapping two derelicts into a feeble attempt at mugging)
What other city could show me eight armed cops
Beating the living bejesus out of two defenseless winos
In Living Color?

Show me another city so proud to be alive
That it can fit two citizen-dress men into false bra’s
And tight gowns
Then send them down Skid Row bravely swinging handbags
And hips rolling.
What New York’s police would like to do, Chicago’s really can
In that contented evening hour when we learn to Trap Our Man.

It has stanzas such as this:

The perch — the alderman reminds us well —
Have disappeared.
The underwater population now consists
Of bloodworms, sludgeworms
And fingernail clams.
Yet once, where Marina Towers’ twin-atrocities now stand
The Pottawattomies hunted down both banks
And the river flowed cleaner and more deeply then.

And this:

Under the terrible burden of destiny
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs
Who has never lost a battle
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse
And under his ribs the heart of the people —
Hurray for our side.
If my City of the Big Shoulders
Stormy, husky, bawling
Yipping, yapping, yessing, crawling
Would only stop giggling like a farm-boy wearing earrings
On North Wells Street for the first time
Maybe we could find out what kind of joint we’re living in.

And this:

Again that hour when taxies are deadheading home
Before the trolley-buses start to run
And snowdreams in a lace of mist drift down
And paving-flares make shadows on old walls
When from asylum, barrack, cell and cheap hotel
All those whose lives were lived by someone else
Who never had a choice but went on what was left
Return along long walks where thrusts of wintry grass
By force of love have split the measured stone.

If by chance a publisher reads this and is prompted, inspired or brave and crazy enough to bring out a “Kissassville” chapbook, please let me know.

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