The Six Cities

This summer, we present a special series on poems as maps. Read the introduction to the series.


ladies and gentlemen: the city of blocks.
—city blocks, not children’s—one letter
at a time we learn words are walls,
houses, bridges; but that’s children’s. city blocks,
one letter at a time we learn words can stain.
blight is a word. as is tag but not children’s
games. the blood in the city wells. ladies
and gentlemen: the city of letters.
we plan words one letter at a time. we stain
cities well. tag! not children’s games;
lessons. if at first you don’t succeed: ladies
and gentlemens, the city of childrens. not
the blocks. gentleman, lady: we
learn words, well, unwell:— m o r p h o l o g y p r o b l e m s
one letter at a time—
                                  like children? yes.


yesterday, I woke and believed I was a city, a green one.

but the city fell away like a gray robe of taxis and neon,
of mannequins and manholes. sweetheart, let’s go down to the water,

yes, though not the water of what we don’t want. rather

that river we remember flowing from the thick, damp under-
brush. a place we’ve wished to visit, both of us. now, let’s really go.

we’ll follow the water like a child learning to walk shadows

its parents, both wearing green jackets as though the wind
tells them: teach your child that people can be places, can be coppices,

can be groves, a stand of trees. and I learned this. I’ve been so many places

in my life; once, perhaps a city with emerald colonnades and spires
like a thousand jackets hung on steeple-backed chairs.

but that wasn’t it. I was a forest whose roots hadn’t destroyed

a green city but had tasted it into themselves, even as I did,
when I found myself at the mouth of the place you are called river.

and when I drank to be changed, I became a gully. right there,

in the hollow below the city that was not there at all—
but distant, like a place in a brochure. still, we had become several

rushes, so to dream of paper would be to dream of children un-becoming—no,

I am riverbank, silt pulled slowly back into the current, where the salmon,
weary in its crimson envelope, says: children are a place; drift too long

they will be behind you. you look at me to name the place we become.


city of pavement groves
and cement plots,
tarmac gardens
and cinderblock vineyards,
concrete fields,
plaster orchards
and asphalt patches:


and we opened each locked gate
in the crowded city. we knew how,
what to do. we broke down
the city’s walls. they fell out.
all the children we had been
waiting for. each we looked at
more beautiful than the last,
the last more beautiful than—
and knowing the one we chose
would be the child to live,
weren’t we proud? our eyes
broken with such smiling,
didn’t they just weep pink, blue?


the city of black cohosh.
the city of arginine.
the city of red clover blossoms.
the city of zinc—zinc and copper.
the city of tribulus and saw palmetto.
the city of selenium, l-carnitine.
the city of gotu, of gotu kola.
what to do. what to-do.


in the city of dented infants
to-be, the clocks have all stopped.
the eyes’ tears, geometric and foul. dirty
tractor-trailers lumber up, urgent—
the skid marks, the shards and fluid
—with crooked cargo. keep reversing
into fire hydrants. keep humping
over the curb. porch lights missing
every doormat. kitchen doorway’s warped—
in, out, out, in, my woman, stirring her empty
iron pot. the bottom of all things, dry-
snake-in-a-drained-well-like. fucking
fire—below that great obelisk—
knocking its broken neck against the smoke.

Editors’ Note

“Six Cities,” by Douglas Kearney, was published originally in Washington Square. Reprinted with permission from The Black Automaton, Fence Books, 2009.

About the Series: Poems as Maps

Our series on poems as maps features work by Elizabeth Alexander, Bao Phi, Joanne Diaz, Nikky Finney, Sean Hill, Andrea Jenkins, Douglas Kearney, J. Drew Lanham, Claudia Rankine, Barbara Jane Reyes, Sun Yung Shin, Evie Shockley, and Ocean Vuong.

Douglas Kearney, “The Six Cities,” Places Journal, August 2017. Accessed 03 Oct 2023. <>

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