Poetry Friday: The two faces of Ithaca

h1 March 27th, 2009 by eisha

I know I tend to run on a bit about how much I love my newly-adopted city. Ithaca is a good fit for someone like me – it manages to pull off a friendly small-town homey feel with walk-the-walk social consciousness and an unabashedly intellectual core. But the longer I’ve lived here, the more I’ve come to realize it’s even more complicated than that. Layers upon layers. For instance, you’ve all heard me rave about the abundant natural beauty we’ve got going on:

Ithaca Falls. This is seriously a few blocks from my apartment. I know, right?

But then we also have this:

Ithaca Gun Factory

This is the long-defunct Ithaca Gun Company factory. It was empty for years before being condemned in 2006, and after long discussions of how to deal with all the toxic chemicals it’s been leeching into the ground and river, demolition finally began last month.

My friend Justin Souza, one of the Poets Upstairs, has written a poem about the dual nature of our fair city. It’s called “Scenes from Other Summers,” and it was published this month in Oak Bend Review. Here’s how it starts:

When snow slides away into summer
and the buds swell and pop, Ithaca
is every world in bloom. Nebulas
of cottonwood pollen in the breeze,
roofs specked
with errant petals and lightning
bugs flaring.

The hill is dotted with smokestacks
and sunlight. Gorges
of clear runoff, swimmers
in bright suits here and there in the curves.

Please click here to read the poem in its entirety (you’ll have to scroll down to the last poem on the page. Please ignore the javascript butterflies. Or if you can’t, I’ve found that clicking on one of them makes them disappear.)

I’m sure many of you are familiar with the old “Ithaca is Gorges” tourist t-shirts and bumper stickers. There are a few tongue-in-cheek variants to be spotted around town, such as “Ithaca is Cold” (true!) and “Ithaca is Gangsta” (so totally not true!). My favorite, though, is “Ithaca is Weird.” It’s SO true. I mean, Ithaca is a town that churns out Cornell-degreed lawyers and MBAs and Ithaca College-educated actors, dancers and designers alongside homegrown hippies and organic farmers. Indie craft stores thrive alongside Starbucks and Target. This sweet, flower-powered, funky little college town was built on guns.

I think Justin’s poem uses the symbol of the gun factory to great effect to illustrate a few of the dichotomies that keep Ithaca weird.

* A note on the photos: I didn’t take ’em. Click on them to see the source. The gun factory one is part of a great set of photos – I recommend it especially.

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Ooh! You guys! Julie Larios is hosting this week’s Poetry Friday round-up at her beautiful blog, The Drift Record. Julie’s quite the poet herself, you know. What am I saying? Of course you know! You’re poetry people! So go check it out!

24 comments to “Poetry Friday: The two faces of Ithaca”

  1. Ooh, Eish, I like this one a lot. “history
    squirming behind spreads of ivy”
    and then the final stanza, “Don’t be soothed by the cheer of birds.” Nothing is really ever as it seems, and yet, there is a strange beauty in the old gun factory, even as it (and guns) poisons the land… one way or another. What a dichotomy.

    Great photographs. Glasgow is hugely industrialized and just as hugely decaying — I’ve learned to see the beauty in this, but I would wait all of my life for Glasgow to be as conscious of the decay and move to do something about it like Ithaca.

    Thank you for the help on the butterflies. Seriously. What were they thinking?

  2. I know, right? I felt goofy even typing the words “javascript butterflies” in reference to a literary journal. Bad idea, OBR. Very bad.

  3. Eisha, I like the beginning of that poem so much. I’ll go read the rest. I am fascinated by all the old factories in New England and the rest of the Northeast. I can’t help wondering “What happened here?” when I see them. Untold stories, I suppose.

  4. Cool poem — love those chittering squirrels. Thanks for enlightening me about Ithaca. I had no previous concept of what it was like or what went on, other than awesome Eisha lived there.

  5. I miss Ithaca. Never lived there, but we used to visit (to shop at the Pyramid Mall, or stay at a cabin by the lake and swim in the cold, cold water, or hike nearby Watkins Glen). Great poem choice.

  6. You always make me wish I lived in Ithaca. Perhaps you moonlight for the Chamber of Commerce?

    Of course, if I moved there, I’d expect to have Poets Upstairs and a Waterfall Nearby, which I don’t imagine comes with every rental. *sigh*

    Off to avoid the manic butterflies and read the poem…

  7. One of my brothers-in-law (before he became a b-in-law) went to grad school at Cornell in the ’70s, and I took a bus up there to visit him once. Cornell itself knocked me out (of course!) but I also really liked Ithaca College, and the Greyhound bus was full of guitar- and book-lugging students, half of whom got off at a stop (as I recall) closer to Ithaca than to Cornell. Do they still have the music building shaped like a grand piano?

    I’ve got a friend and former editor who lives up that way, in a little town — a village, actually — called Dryden. His blog is all about Dryden; I have no idea what his readership is like but he’s been writing it for years. At the time he started it, it was a very unusual blog (he started a project to photograph every house in Dryden and post the photos at the site), and it’s still (IMO) one of a kind. A recent post, as it happens, was “A Rant about Cornell Architecture” — no mention of the gun factory, though!

  8. You’ve definately got a sort of charmed life thing going on there, Eisha. Gun factories notwithstanding…

  9. Great poem. Thanks for sharing it. I’m an IC alum. Always felt our campus had elements of that struggle between harmony with nature and industrialism. It’s been a long time since I’ve been back. Truly a special town. What were some of our old haunts — State Street Diner? Plum’s? Dos Amigos? Memory Lane this evening …

  10. Susan, agreed. There’s an oddly romantic charm to decrepit old industrial buildings like that. I’m sad I missed my chance to urban-explore this one before they tore it down.

    Thanks, Jama. I always feel the same when you talk about Hawai’i.

    Kelly! You can come visit any time – we can hit the mall and the Glen. Not sure I want to swim in the water after reading those articles, though.

    Sara, you’re right – I should start charging the CoC for my promotional services. I’m not sure about the poet ratio, but you really are within walking distance of a waterfall almost anywhere in the city.

    JES, I asked the husband about the music building. He said it’s had a huge addition built on to it, so… not so much. Thanks for the blog link – Dryden’s library made big news lately when they sold that Lincoln document for $3 mil.

    I know, Liz. I know.

  11. Hey Martha – the State St. Diner is still going strong.

  12. Ithaca is filled with layers as is that beautiful poem.

    His imagery is perfectly painful.

    Thank you so much for sharing it.

  13. Ooh, I love that final stanza, in particular — that almost startling directive to the reader.

  14. Maybe it doesn’t matter whether or not we live in Ithaca (although it sounds marvelous, don’t get me wrong!)…maybe we all just need to pay close attention to our particular places and find their weirdnesses…and joys…and even their toxic gun factories…

  15. You’ve taken me back in time, to early impressions of Ithaca—and made me think that I must go and take another long walk through this town again. Thank you.

  16. Susan, “perfectly painful” is a great phrase. Very apt.

    jules, I know!

    Mary Lee, that is a brilliant take-away.

    Beth, you’re welcome.

  17. Ten years ago I spent the summer before my junior year of college in Ithaca, because my roommate and I had read that it was “the most enlightened town in America”–which never failed to amuse the people who asked why we’d come to Ithaca. I had a blissful time swimming laps at the base of the falls pictured above every evening, after I got off my job planting and pruning in the Ithaca Commons; shopping at the farmer’s market; volunteering at the Sciencenter; going to open-mike nights at the ABC Cafe…

    Thanks for linking to the lovely poem!

  18. Dude, that’s my poem! Thanks Eisha for this post, despite the javascript butterfiles haunting the publisher’s site it’s pretty fun to see some of my work in print. It’s been a while.

    Dana and I are leaving Ithaca soon and the preparations to move have made my affections for the place all that much more potent. I’m already nostalgic for the gun factory and I’m still down the street from it. Looking at it from California, I think I’ll be desperate to get back.

    Thanks everyone for the compliments on the poem, and I hope you take this as a sign that you all should come visit this most enlightened town in America sometime soon. In spring and summer, it’s every bit as great as you’ve heard!

  19. I hope Eisha lucks out again with whoever moves in after you all, though I know she’ll miss you. Maybe she’ll get, say, neighbors who are fabulous cooks…..Wait, you all are that, too. :/ I’m sad you’re moving away from B & E, and I haven’t even met you.

  20. I could use some of that Ithaca-blooming right about now. And the poem makes me nostalgic, too, even though we haven’t left yet. Also, it amazes me that I get to share my life with someone who writes like that.

    But shh, don’t tell him I said that. I think he’s almost on to me.

  21. Great poem!

    of clear runoff, swimmers
    in bright suits here and there in the curves.


    Root deep cracks ooze
    saltpeter and bullets of mercury
    down through the lake.

    are my favorite parts. And the ending–very foreboding. Thanks for sharing this–and glad you’re loving Ithaca. It stinks to live someplace you can’t embrace, and it’s wonderful to get your city, both good and bad.

  22. Ithaca! Thanks for the post, and the link to the poem, brings back a variety of memories…

  23. Popping out of lurkdom to say how much I liked what you said about Ithaca, which obviously hasn’t changed that much since I lived there in the 80s. I did some time in Cornell grad school and some teaching GED classes for B.O.C.E.S. and it’s hard to think of anything that could have shown the huge split between two of the sides of Ithaca better. Teaching there was wonderful – have such good memories of that.

    My older daughter was born there and I’ve always thought it would be lovely to go there sometime with the girls… long way from Ireland though! Nice poem. Nice post!

  24. Makes me miss Ithaca! Thanks for posting the photos.

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