As soon as I was old enough, I started to take long walks through St. Louis. Our neighborhood is entered through wrought-iron gates attached to stone columns, but the gate is always open. Other neighborhoods have closed gates, and instead of columns, narrow stone gatehouses for watchmen long since replaced by numerical codes. The public is not always allowed to walk in those neighborhoods, although they are beautiful to walk in, with tall trees that achieved their grace with years. The houses are so carefully built that they seem less like homes and more like representations of people as they would like to be seen, strong and beautiful—houses built for a world where age means accumulation not loss.
The poet Howard Nemerov liked to walk through those neighborhoods, ignoring the signs marked private. Nemerov often wore a denim jacket and jeans while he walked, his gray hair wild above his soft blue eyes. Someone saw him walking from their window, complaints were made, and he was banned (despite his Pulitzer, his Guggenheim, his two appointments as Poet Laureate of the United States). Perhaps he thought of those trees and those neighborhoods when he wrote of, “the file of giant trees/whose order satisfied and stood for some/euclidean ancestor’s dream about truth.”
The ban outraged a lot of people and other neighborhoods put up signs saying, “Howard Nemerov is welcome to walk here.” They welcomed him with pride. As a formalist poet, interested in balance, I hope the latter gesture softened the snub in his mind.
I also love to walk in the Botanical Gardens, especially on weekdays after school field-trip hours, when I can walk the oval Japanese Garden’s raked gravel paths and pretend that it is mine. The St. Louis Botanical Gardens, Shaw Park, and Tower Grove Park were all donated to the city by Henry Shaw. Shaw’s will stipulated that the head of the Gardens be provided a house on the grounds and a carriage (now car). These practical gestures also provided future directors with the two components most necessary to love his gardens, or to love anything—closeness and the ability to turn away.
If places retain the tone of their occupants, Henry Shaw must have been a lovely man. In early evening, golden light hits a walkway enclosed by white blossoming trees and the faint sweetness of their smell envelops you. Shaw’s papers reveal that he used dashes instead of periods—no endings, just breaths. So, I assume he would be pleased that many locals still refer to the Gardens affectionately, respectfully, as Shaw’s Gardens.
I rarely walk by the Mississippi, that brown and muddy river that is referred to with the reckless femininity so often designated by men to hurricanes and nature when she’s larger than a park and harder to shape to hand. She is a mighty river. Huckleberry Finn belonged to no other waters, but the casino boats attract a rough crowd. The son of a family friend was robbed at gunpoint by the river. The robber told the her son to withdraw money from the nearby ATM. The son was a student, busy paying off loans and trying to find a job with no more than a liberal arts degree. While the son withdrew money, he began to cry and say how worried he was about what to do after graduation, that he didn’t know how to make it on his own. The robber took the bills from his hand, turned to leave, walked a few steps, and turned back. The son braced himself for a shot, but instead, the robber handed him back half of the money, and ran away.
The Mississippi River gives off a similar aura of decency limited by desperation. It has an unsentimental, practical, we’re-in-this-together-but-me-first mentality that feels more real and secure than generosity. Or maybe these are just things I want to believe, because I think people are shaped by the landscapes they grow up in.