Keeping Amused with Leah Zeldes

Poems for Chicago

...A new wardrobe
for the clang, clang
workingman's river
until now, clad in railroad overalls,
the river that found itself
wearing one long leprechaun sleeve
in time for the parade.

-- From "Swimmer's Prayer" by Cynthia Gallaher

Most of the poets I have known -- the literary poets, that is, whose poems are printed in real books for anyone to read, rather than ranted into microphones in coffeehouses -- lived in ivory towers, keeping body and soul together by instructing undergraduates in English literature. Poetry is not a high-paying gig, and poets needs must keep their day jobs.

Cynthia Gallaher, however, lives in Albany Park, and spends her days churning out brochures and newsletters for a Lake Forest insurance company. This, on top of Oriole Park Elementary School, Taft High School and Chicago Circle, seems a prosaic fundament for the author of two volumes of poetry.

The poet, who admits to being in her mid-40s, says, though, that it was her poetry that led to her mundane career. "That's how I got my first job in writing. I worked for Marshall Field's, in the hardcover book department, and I wanted to work in the advertising department.... But I didn't have anything to show but my poems."

Gallaher is married to fellow poet Carlos Cumpian, author of "Armadillo Charm" (Tia Chucha Press, 1991). As a poet, she got her start in performance poetry, though "they didn't call it that then."

"I used to hang around Body Politic Theater on Lincoln Avenue, and Kingston Mines used to have open mikes (poetry readings). This was in the pre-'slam' days."

The best poetry, she thinks, is "good on the page and on the stage," though in general she disdains rhyme.

Gallaher's first book, "Night Ribbons" (Polar Bear Press) was published in 1990. Her second, "Swimmer's Prayer," has just been published; in both subject matter and style it differs from the work of ivory-tower poets.

"These poems are very narrative," she says. "Most poetry that's published today is lyric, in praise of something.... They don't tell stories."

Sometimes gritty, frequently first-person, Gallaher takes Chicago as her theme, writing about the river on St. Patrick's Day, which has a personal meaning to her ("The senior Mayor Daley wanted to dye the river green, so my stepfather was sent on a mission to find out how"). She tells tales of bag ladies wearing Jewel sacks for stockings, Berwyn ballet lessons and forest-preserve deer overpopulation. Often autobiographical, she remembers the Great Flood of '92 and the aftermath of a Chicago snowstorm, takes a "Wild Ride Down Bryn Mawr" and visits a Polish cafe on Milwaukee Avenue, a tavern in Harwood Heights and a carnival at Harlem-Irving Plaza.

I cover a lot of territory
from Niles and East River Road
down to Alsip and Hegewisch,
We're talking 50 miles?

Gallaher will give readings of her work at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, March 18, in the Chicago Authors' Room of the Harold Washington Library, 400 S. State St., Chicago; at 7:30 p.m. April 7 for the Guild Complex at the Chopin Theater, 1543 W. Division St., Chicago; and at 3 p.m. April 11 at Barnes & Noble Old Orchard, Skokie. She will also teach a poetry workshop at 1:30 p.m. April 17 at the Chicago Public Library's West Town branch, 1271 N. Milwaukee Ave.; reservations are required at (312) 744-1473. Her book "Swimmer's Prayer" ($10.95, ISBN 1-892034-02-6) is published by Missing Spoke Press, Seattle, Wash.

* * *

When I attended the University of Michigan, the line in the old school song proclaiming students "Champions of the West," always struck me as funny. So too does the idea of Chicago as "Gateway to the West" seem today.

And yet, as a new exhibit at the Chicago Historical Society shows, Chicago's railways, stockyards and business community made the Western expansion possible. Until the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, the West, for most people, was "totally inaccessible," says Olivia Mahoney, curator. "Today we take it for granted just to jump on a train or a plane or in a car and cross the country."

Telegraph lines followed the railways, so until the railroad went through, even communication was very limited. People thought the West was a barren desert, Mahoney says. Work on the railroad was a "closely followed, national event for most Americans." When the final spike was hammered on May 10, 1869, Chicago held a four-hour parade. "They really took this stuff very seriously," Mahoney says.

Chicago even was responsible for much of the Western mythology. The early westerns were filmed here at the Essanay and Selig studios, and "Buffalo Bill" Cody had his debut in Chicago in 1872.

The Historical Society's interactive exhibit features a model train, period film clips (including some of Cody's shows), a McCormick reaper, authentic 19th-century cowboy clothing (complete with sweat stains), Indian historical items and many other artifacts. It's a fascinating look at a time when Chicago was the launching pad of pioneers.

"Go West! Chicago and American Expansion," opens at 11 a.m. Saturday, March 13, with a variety of activities at the Chicago Historical Society, North Avenue and Clark Street, Chicago. Regular hours are 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. Museum admission is $5, $3 students and seniors, $1 children; free on Mondays. Related tours, performances, films and other special events feature throughout the exhibit's run. Call (312) 642-4600.