Central Avenue Beach
—Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, 2016
Just off of Highway 12, Sandburg’s signature
of time & eternity: the muggy marshes
& thick forests of the mind, sand that sings
its memory of glaciers & the glaciers before
them. 14,000 years of them. After
the Potawatomi got marched away & before
the steel makers’ smokestacks & the abandoned
Bailly Nuclear Plant cupped this lakeshore
like hands around a beach party’s last
dry match: Lake Michigan’s wide-brimmed
posture as close to an ocean as the scrub
brush, gulls, & rocks around here will get.
Every town around here
has a Central Avenue, complete
with blustery flags & home-
cooked meals. Blank storefronts
& churches next to other churches—
lake light filtering through
their stained glass windows
most sunny afternoons after 3pm.
Steeples, one after another,
like the Great Lakes’ waves
trying to blink constant sand
out of wet eyes. & at night, all
of the avenue lights up. No street
lights, but stars & moon blinking
in agitated water while the industrial
lights on the fringes dim like blank
faces traced in constellations.
Listen to the Sand
Hill Cranes folding
into the dim fringes
like prayer hands.
Listen to the yellow
up in the middle
of knotted branches
like a hungry chorus
in these perfectly
paused trees. Even
at night, the birds
grab sand-swirled air
with nonchalant wings.
In the day or at night, central is centrālis in Latin & means exactly
what the warblers, trees, & restless dunes think it means: ruffles
of sand between the angry human fist & the equally angry
human face of industry, deregulations & pollutants as uninvited
as the sea lamprey wiggling through the locks & canals.
After the canals & their creaking locks
& the oxidized ships & their bleary horns,
the sun edges the blue between cuffed waves
& unrepentant shore. After gravity’s
insoluble gears pull all of this water away
from Central Avenue & back to the center
& the fish swim away from shore through
the gills of noises & sediment in that sideways
way fish do. In a lake this big, it’s possible
to swim in circles all day & get no further
from the moon than this parade of whitecaps
on the edges of the dunes. The same
frustrated tendencies of circle, these waves.
The same cornered ingenuity, this great lake.
These dunes, always on the mainline’s wet
cusp—polished, brocaded & fabulous.
Copyright © 2016 by Adrian Matejka. This poem was commissioned by the Academy of American Poets and funded by a National Endowment for the Arts Imagine Your Parks grant.
"Carl Sandburg said the Indiana dunes 'constitute a signature of time and eternity' and that seemed to be the right place to start a poem about Indiana’s only nature-focused national park. Especially since the park itself serves as a time signature with several terrains and mature ecosystems in a relatively small space. The park’s location is also prime real estate for industry—at the end of Lake Michigan, between Chicago and several centers of manufacturing in Northern Indiana. When the developers were stopped from building over the dunes, they built at the Eastern and Western ends of the park, bracketing it with smoke stacks and steel works. In the poem, I tried to balance the ecological vibrancy of this remarkable park with the boot prints of industry that surround it."