Sidewalk Tectonics
by Scott Ruescher

  In town for less than a day, I was eager to see
Where he, the Reverend Martin Luther King Junior,
Had fallen, like a black star across a white sky.  
                                                          - Scott Ruescher
                                                             "The Vacant Lot Blues"
Published by Pudding House Chapbook Series
First Edition
ISBN 1-58998776-4

Pudding House Publications
81 Shadymere Lane
Columbus, Ohio 43213  

Sidewalk Tectonics
takes the reader on a journey from the real and mythic lands of Abraham Lincoln to the sad horror of the Lorraine Motel, in Memphis, Tennessee where Martin Luther King was assassinated.  Although on the surface the six poems in this chapbook tell of the narrator's mundane hired journey from Boston to New Madrid, to deliver a Ford Taurus, geology along the waywhich includes subterranean caves and earthquake faults, particularly near the Ohio and Mississippi rivers assumes metaphoric proportion. Tectonic plates that gradually shift and cause the earth to quake and change become a symbol for gradual shifts in American society that suddenly cause tremors, creating fissures and cracks in the historical and social psyche of a nation.

Although the voice and settings are for the most part ordinary,

"...I passed the two swimming pools, one
For toddlers and mothers and one for nervous teens,
And pulled into the parking lot of the Riverside Motel"  (11)

this is no journey for vacationers, no shallow trip. Rather it is a passage alongside  the Ohio River to its confluence with the Mississippi, where the reader contemplates, "The draining influence of those magnificent waters/On  half of the country" (14).

Subtle references to the American writers Whitman and Twain are laced through these poems. Walt Whitman’s love for Abraham Lincoln urged him to write poetry that helped heal a nation stunned by the assassination of a great president.  Iconic recollections of Whitman are juxtaposed with images of Mark Twain’s Memphis, the ideal city toward which Huck and Jim longed to float, but which they missed. Scott Ruescher’s Memphis chafes like a tectonic plate against these American myths and icons, because the Memphis he presents in these poems, Martin Luther King’s Memphis, is a place where warm blood flows like a river, an archetype, surrounded by images of glass shards and poverty.

Juxtaposition, joining points, places where tectonic plates converge is what these poems are all about. They rub the past with the present, noble figures with common folk, native American hunters with modern tourists, metaphor with common speak. Scratching up against the grand figures of Lincoln and King, for instance, are two drunken men who, in the night, threateningly approach and pass the narrator, then bypass an ordinary sidewalk puddle that becomes a critical metaphor:

“At the headwaters of a brown puddle formed by the faulting
Of six tectonic sidewalk plates, grinned to see them skirt both shores
Without falling and come back together and keep on going, side
By side, across the wide gap, the rubbled divide,
Between the sloppy slums and the center of power” (20)

Ruescher also provides concrete images and foul language to ground his poetry in "reality."  Take for example this description of the interior of the abandoned African Methodist Episcopal Church of Mt. Zion:

“…several long rough-hewn pews scattered around the room
In no particular angular or hierarchical order
Upended on their back or pitched completely forward in prayer,
Each a vivid testimony to the power of the particular
And all of it obscured by a layer of fallen plaster” (5)

And this discovery of “three weathered toilet seats” in an outhouse.

“…less a sacred tool shed
Than it was a vulgar shrine to those who’d fled the scene
for freedom from profanity—the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost
Returned to Heaven on a train—that don’t pull no gamblers,
No midnight ramblers, cigarette puffers, hootchie-cootch shakers
Cigar smokers, jokers, extras, or Charleston prancers.”  (6-7)

Just as Walt Whitman spoke for a nation at the death of Abraham Lincoln, and Mark Twain used dialect to assume America's voice, Scott Ruescher articulates metaphorically and profanely for a country still wounded by the murder of Martin Luther King.  At the end of these six poems, Ruescher compares the blood-soaked King to the sacrificial “Lamb of God,” perhaps reminding us of gospel narratives that recount how, long ago, the earth quaked and trembled at the death of Jesus.

These six unadorned  poems are significant.  They are important.  They hold the power of six tectonic plates.  Read them, please, and be drawn into a journey that has the force to  alter the “geology” of a nation.


-Mary Ann Sullivan