Vulcan’s Hollow

by Austin Segrest

Vulcan drops his torch in increments so small
you’d have to watch the angle of his elbow with a sextant
to see. He takes a rust-slow glance over his shoulder,
cautious like he’s walking past a sleeper
in the dark, never knowing if their eyes are closed –
or, in Vulcan’s case, whether the extant population
of Birmingham’s Over the Mountain community –
the ridge-suspended clan of steel descendents
with a view of the iron man’s ass – is standing at their windows
gaping at the sixty-foot statue letting down his guard.
There is relief in the ember-strewn quiet
of yellow lights behind him, a latch-catch of peace
known by the teen when the back door seals behind him
and the world gleams, indifferent under sidling stars.
But there is also disappointment, because no one cares
about the iron man anymore – the heaven-hurled,
lame god of foundry and furnace – if they ever did.
A train moans through Jones Valley, and Vulcan blows out his torch,
shimmying down the recessed brick of his pedestal,
a motion practiced but nevertheless awkward.
Against the receding thunder of Vulcan’s lumber
along the ridge, his naked pedestal presides
over the Magic City, a stark absence, a golf tee of the gods.
The moon is a peeled grin, showing off its craters
in half-light relief, and you could see this
through one of the refractor scopes in Vulcan’s head
(a quarter for two minutes) during his hours of operation,
when the iron man holds his breath and clinches
every crafted muscle in a city-funded stillness,
dreaming of his silver lady. Now the scopes
are spinning wildly as he shifts his weight. They squeak
in unison, a flower-picking whistle. Vulcan stoops,
a giant darkness against the dark, a black on black
occlusion of stars. He reaches in a tuft of thicket
on the dynamited cliff overlooking the expressway
and clutches a handful of mangled school desks,
shopping carts, paint cans, electric motors, and his favorite:
train-car hunks of crispy coal, sometimes substituted,
to his disappointment, with burnt trees.
Raining a glitter of refuse down the stepped stone,
he crunchingly savors his city-staged stash,
his bribe to be still – the single, secret effort
on which the city government of Birmingham
and the Over the Mountain municipalities collaborate.
He crosses six lanes in a single step and plucks
a pink-faded sideboard from the Red Mountain Museum.
Looking east, toward his lady in waiting, he picks his teeth.
These south-most foothills of the Appalachians stretch
northeast like the swipe of some god’s finger-paint.
He can remember when these mountains peaked and towered
with the exuberance of the Himalayans. The contrast
of the hugeness of his foot, iron-sandaled
behind the alabaster cross commemorating Crystal Donner’s
fatal corkscrew exit off 280 onto University
is astonishing. A clubber along 20th’s lighter side
catches the bulk of Vulcan’s calf in the corner of his eye,
and tugs his lover’s sleeve to tell him something’s there,
but doesn’t know what to say over the bass.
Where the ribbon of new highway girds the eastern city rim,
where reforested pines, blue under street lamps,
nestle the hills like gauze, she waits, almost his size,
silver from his perch but getting greener every hollow passed.
The Smith god’s moon-shadow crawls over the shell
of Shades Mountain, where Mountain Brook lies drugged
among crevices. His kilt eclipses enclaves of homes
tucked into twists of stream-blown bluffs, and fastened
to the limestone eighty years ago by Vulcan’s very own
hammer, anvil and vice. Nearly to Irondale,
he crouches in the trench between mountains, with a view
of Lady Liberty: her sullen eyes gazing torchward.
He spreads his body flat along the banks of the Cahaba,
lying on his belly like a gunner. “I see you,”
he whispers. She glistens over swaths of new development,
as far as Vulcan’s peaking eye can see. It’s for this
heedless expansion that he loves her, just as the city planned:
liberty to complement his exhausted industry.
He purses his mouth and breathes over the sewer-grate
of his teeth, a sound like trains or wind diving into shafts.
There, he sees it. The beginning of a smile, his cue.
Out of the shadows, he side-steps the mountain:
a looming Romeo, naked in the muscular highway lights.
He takes a knee beside her podium, offering up his usual
gift of iron-ore, crushed to an orange poultice
in his rough, nervous hand. As usual, she refuses,
but lets him rise beside her. Inches from her neck,
he lights his torch from her green, spangling flame,
and backs off the summit to light her way.
Lady Liberty avoids his mongrel eyes and flits
over the same ridge he just crossed. He follows,
bulky and deformed beside her. She spins north
into the open palm of Jones Valley, a ballerina
in a box, where, millions of years before, a volcano
narrowed its cannon and seethed before backfiring.
Heaven’s outcast, Vulcan cannot pluck a star for her.
She is silver, now green, now yellow beneath the Pleiades,
and he plans again, he swears, to fashion her in iron,
but how, how to re-create that copper patina?
He’s never made anything so smooth. They touch
once, when she drops behind a vacant lot in Tarrant City,
and he cups her heel and lifts her leg, behind the knee,
from a caved-in shaft. Even then, her gown glides free.
Imagine Vulcan’s pleasure in those slender sweeps,
her every twirl a promise of rebirth. Vulcan, whose mother
dashed him headlong against these hills, was reassembled
for the World’s Fair in 1891 – idol and scapegoat
for half a century of plunder, and made to stand still through it all.
Convict miners, in whose image he was fashioned,
fed the valley’s insatiable spouts. Shot-guns. Fire bombs.
Police dogs. But that’s all passed. Vulcan escapes himself
through the shifting imprint of her gown. He squats
behind the sole remaining furnace, knees spread
the breadth of Sloss’s bundle, and plugs, with fingers
thick as oaks, five of seven lower-level stops –
cold for years – and fits his mouth over the two main stacks.
He waits. His heart’s vibration carries through the bowels
of the earth, tinkling chandeliers along the ridge.
When she reaches the climax of her dance, he blows.
What more could Vulcan ask? He plays his solemn notes
as if rewriting laws, rerouting trains, refilling holes. With arcing
limbs she answers what he knows: he’ll never take her home.

Originally from Alabama, AUSTIN SEGREST teaches at Lawrence University in Wisconsin. His poems appear in The Yale ReviewThe Threepenny ReviewNew England ReviewPloughsharesEcotone, and others. This fall he will be a Provincetown fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center.