Jesse Millner Estero (Michael Hettich)
for Joseph Kromelis, the Walking Man
For decades, Joseph Kromelis walked alone along the city’s busy downtown streets, mile after mile, regardless of the season. Tall and lean, with a bushy mustache and flamboyant hair, the urbane, sharply dressed stranger fascinated his fellow pedestrians and Loop workers. He was rarely seen talking to other people in the crowd, adding to his mystery. Chicago Tribune, June 11th, 2023.
The homeless man I saw often in downtown Chicago all through the 1980s,
wanders down Wacker Drive this Saturday in August.
Now it’s the 21st century, and yes, he still has drooping mustache, a chiseled face,
but the long hair has grayed, and his waist has shrunk to bone.
He wears old clothes and he’s always walking.
Yes, that’s how I remember him and how I see him now,
as my wife and I walk south on Wabash,
where the Trump Tower has long replaced the old Sun-Times
black, aircraft carrier on the Chicago River. I whisper
to my wife, try to explain the shock
of seeing this ancient figure, almost like a Chinese
poet resurrected from the mist, how strange
this old memory pasted over the new city,
bones emerging from the tired flesh.
Yes, we are both older, the wandering man and I.
Yes, I used to drive a bus in the city,
and he crossed against the traffic lights,
ignoring those flashing signals of “yes” and “no.”
And sometimes his jaywalking pissed me off
as he held up my right turn on to Michigan Avenue,
but now that anger seems less than petty,
and now I’m seeing the true shape of this city,
this world, this life with all its roaring emptiness.
For hundreds of years, old poets wandered
the cold of withered landscapes that shivered
in the shade of western mountains.
For hundreds of years they crapped in the fields
and tried to capture the still beauty
of that one cloud above, shaped like the horse
they knew in childhood.
Yes, that horse, the one who so mightily
trembled when given the apple.
Yes, it’s always good to bring horses
into poems, whether they come from the sky
or from memory, or from some tattered
weaving of sky and yesterday.
Yes, I see my grandfather’s horse, a brown
figure in a sea of green tobacco leaves,
Billy Buck sweats in the hot Virginia sun,
pulls a sled filled with the dusky harvest.
Each bead of perspiration is a “yes.”
The white diamond on his forehead
affirms every motion of his brown body.
I can still hear the pounding hooves,
fifty-years later, five decades into my continental
drifting from South to West, to Chicago,
and finally to this morning in Florida,
and yes, it’s hot, and yes, the summer
flowers glow orange, red, and yellow,
and yes, the cloud factory is simmering
deep in the Everglades, and yes, this summer
afternoon will be filled with rain and lightning,
and yes, I will gather every storm memory up
into my arms, and yes, I will love
those days that have circled, then fallen into the ring
of night. And yes, I will be more humble
as I look into the faces of trees and animals,
into the wet beauty of this living world,
waxy tangerine, gleaming slash pine, stout mango,
even a blessed pineapple rising from its spiny green throne.
Originally published in Millner's chapbook My Grandfather Singing (Yellowjacket Press, 2009).