Splendors of a
The 1904 World's Fair
Prose Poems by Holly Iglesias
The Louisiana Purchase Exposition, also known as the 1904 World’s Fair, has for more than 100 years inspired writers and artists to try to capture the scope and ingenuity of the enterprise, but the originality of these prose poems stands alone. Holly Iglesias, who grew up in St. Louis and whose grandparents all attended the Fair, began this collection in 2003, when she came to the Missouri History Museum’s Library and Archives to “steep [herself] in the primary materials.” Iglesias has said that one of her goals is to “convince academia and the museum world that creative writing and historical archives are natural partners and mutually beneficial.”
The park fills with noise, saws, hammers, gossip, complaints about the mud, flies, the cow gone dry. Glad for the work, the lot of us, camped in tents and abandoned streetcars. My Larry hangs plaster, huge gewgaws molded by the Italians, on the palaces taking shape behind falsework.
Baby’s due any day, bigwigs planning a fuss. For the papers, not me. My job is to push her out, then present us proper for the baptism, quaint little family all cleaned up. Priests and dignitaries will press in for the photograph, their faces close to hers in hope of sharing the fame—Louisiana Purchase O’Leary, first-born of the Fair.
New Century, New Woman, New St. Louis
Were it not for the battle of beautification, for our dedication to municipal housekeeping, the World’s Fair visitor’s sharpest memory might be that of choking on coal smoke and the dust of unpaved streets. Had we no concern for the loose class, tenements by the station might have remained rubbish piles, unrelieved by any touch of privet or paint. Had the Civic Improvement League simply busied itself with box suppers and quilting bees, the water might still be sludge, the color of a Morgan Street quadroon. Instead, we have launched an era of moral awakening.
Miss Roosevelt, Stopped in Her Tracks
The only urge she shares with the crowd is to leave some mark, some tiny scar on the log cabins, those relics of the great men of our brief past. She circles a primitive structure, upon its walls the mounted heads that serve as testament to her father’s prowess in the wild. She finds the perfect spot, works her autograph in splendid little tacks.
A L I C E
The remainder of her day is dedicated to the Philippine Reservation, where the bevy of photographers stalking her captures the rare sight of her at a halt. She faces a Moro man, the muscles of his stomach clearly defined, a curious smile parting his lips. Alice, the picture of feminine hauteur, stunned, unable to regain composure.
We never go home, we stay and stay, in huts or barracks or plaster cliffs. But Sundays are ours, free of the obligation to pose for strangers. Fathers and mothers hover at the perimeter of the sandbox, humming in alien tongues, first head to head, then opening outward, gesticulating tales of their beautiful lands. Hammocks sway in the breezeway, empty until tomorrow, when the exhausted children of visitors will gladly sleep. We are too busy for rest, laughing in the shade of private languages, drawing intricate maps of our villages in the dust.
Centennial: Against the Grain
In 1804, President Jefferson dispatched Lewis and Clark to find the Northwest Passage, to chart a vast wilderness, to greet all tribal peoples with a message of good will. Children, the Spaniards have surrendered. Henceforward we become your fathers and friends. You shall have no cause to lament the change.
Their return was met with wild celebration, of forests and rivers and animals beyond counting, of entire geographies reined in with compass and pen. In St. Louis, the men were greeted as though they had been to the moon.
From a century’s remove, we see their trek as the seed of our manhood, the bittersweet passing of youth. Thus it is fitting to honor them with a view to past and future, judging progress against the measure of mercy, profit against patience.
Geronimo, Tiger of the
I hear Pygmy sing across the way day and night. Ota Benga, he scares the shadow-men with his tricks and the women with his pointed teeth. But to us, he’s a man still free to roam.
The hunter buried inside me, I whittle toy bows and arrows, pose in a top hat like the One-Eyed Father in Washington who refuses to release me. When Ota sings his name to me, I cannot reply, having surrendered mine to strangers for twenty-five cents.
We did our sums without fussing, recited the new pledge to the flag, and finished with a flourish of dumb-bell exercises. Now, beneath a willow, I await the reward, my first ice cream cone. Eyes half shut to the sights—Festival Hall, the Cascades tumbling toward a sea of bowlers and bonnets, gondolas drifting by—vision becomes a heavy cloud of slumber and contradiction. Snow on the Pike, summer everywhere else and no way to know if I’m dreaming.
I roamed the grounds for days like an Arab in the desert, searching for something just right for my wife, stuffing my pockets with buttons, pins, calendars you could lose in a breeze, till I tossed them in the rubbish. Each trinket felt smaller than experience, too cheap for the weight of our time apart or the cruel quiet of her confinement. Twelfth birth in ten years and who can say if the tiny soul will make it to winter, or when she might allow him a name. I would heap the mantel with souvenirs of a shrunken world to amuse her—gunboats, telephones, geisha girls, canoes—but I fear she is beyond diversion. My present hope fits in my hand, a silver-plate walnut with a clasp, inside a fan of vistas reduced to a bearable size.
Up to Their Old Tricks
Seventy-five thousand people pack into the Plaza St. Louis on the hottest day of the year for the Pygmy dance. The savages, half naked, brandish spears and knives in a well-practiced imitation of tribal rituals, the audience thrilling to the simulation of violence. Indulging an antic impulse, the dancers charge to the edge of the stage, crossing an invisible line as titillation dissolves into panic. Blood curdling war cries are countered by shrieks from women as the crowd heaves instinctively forward. An entire regiment is required to restore order. The Africans, escorted back to their huts, set up a chatter through the night that sets the nerves on edge.
Julia Davis and the
Reconstruction of Heaven
We take our rightful seats on the Wheel for the world’s greatest ride. We, grandchildren of slaves, we the prize and the promise, the lifting of the veil.
Hundreds and hundreds of humans joined in a circuit of perfect joy and bewilderment. Men in turbans, men in homburgs, dowagers in mourning weeds, sweethearts, strangers, enemies, all released from gravity.
We pause to take on more passengers, the car rocking like a cradle. Across the way, Geronimo’s face against the glass, eyes wide to take in the whole valley with a single glance.
The Palace of Machinery teems with processes and products alike—electric potato mashers, turbines, typewriters, batteries—though what will linger is the image of blind boys making brooms, their exquisite finger tamping straw, chins raised in expectation, one so intense his thoughts are nearly visible as I place myself in the path of his gaze, steeled for the thrill of it passing through me like an X-ray.
Too Long at the Fair
My Dear Husband,
I hope your leg is all right.
This afternoon we went to the Fair Grounds—ruin, desolation, not a stone left or the least sign. The lagoons are nothing but a rocky waste. It makes your heart sick.
I am home-sick for the Fair, and just as tired as if I had been there. Your affectionate wife,