Valorie Grace Hallinan   


City Beautiful

“The things he wanted to work in his mind were sleds and
batting averages and leather caps that made you look like an
aviator. So some day he would die. So big fat deal.”

The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread
Don Robertson

I chose Dover Beach from a list, not knowing one poem from another.
So you chose it, too.
We are to visit the library in search of scholarly wisdom.
Our teachers believe this an undertaking worthy of a Cleveland winter’s day
while our parents work on the assembly lines and in the mom-and-pop shops
to put food on the table, pay the mortgage, launch us into life.

On the bus we pass through a landscape so familiar we don’t
see it: Four-Square Gospel Church, Charlie’s Tavern, AMVETS, First Presbyterian, the
undertaker, cannoli in the bakery window.

Arnold’s poem is a puzzle; you and I prefer our homegrown
novelist whose boy hero walked into the East Ohio Gas Company
holocaust of 1944 and saved a life or two.
I imagine the writer godlike at his
Remington, filling an ashtray to overflowing,
transcending himself.
Morris Bird III pulled the burned lady and the legless man
in the Crimson Streak block after city block.
It had to be done.
At seventeen, Morris was funny and quick, just like you,
with a girlfriend who played the piano, just like me.
Between chapters we gossiped about them on the telephone
as if they were part of our crowd.
The final outcome broke your heart but in eighth period
Mr. Day said there can be no beauty without death.

By the time we turn in our papers you will have
moved on to a long-limbed redhead I’m sure has never read a book cover to cover:
a smart girl’s worst nightmare.
Stunned by my erasure, believing our reading an intimacy,
I’d had only a walk-on part in the greatest thing that
almost happened.

Ah, love, let us be true to one another!

They say Arnold, faithless in his Victorian Age, wrote Dover Beach on his honeymoon.
In English class we would call this dovetailing of the poem
with my disappointment in love an instance of irony.

But we are still a couple as our bus descends into the valley of
freight yards and smokestacks and Republic Steel’s eternal flame.
A bright-eyed Lucky Strike gal smiles down at us from the industrial sky.

The wind off Erie nearly sweeps us away.
We climb steps wide as an avenue,
under a vaulted ceiling of rose, blue, and gold,
through a great hall flanked by staircases of Botticino marble.
The city fathers and architects and librarians have assembled Apollo, Athena,
Plato, Confucius, Moses, Sappho, and Shakespeare
to shower with blessings all who enter,
even the likes of us.


Too many years later, having been to the seashore, heard
Arnold’s eternal note of sadness, 
I listen to couples murmur in the reading garden.
A tower of light and steel soars alongside the old grandness.
Inside, Clio lords it over me as she meditates on
past, present, and future,
grasping eternity in a single moment.

These days I’m learning to live in the sum and total of now.

Still I read too much, expect too much.
I do know this:
memory colors the present and bends the future like a beam of light,
love is the engine and it will have its muse.



In fond memory of Don Robertson and The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread, The Sum and Total of Now, and The Greatest Thing that Almost Happened.


This poem was previously published in Great Lakes Review.


Valorie Grace Hallinan recently left her position as a clinical librarian at UR Medicine in Rochester, New York to write full time. Her writing has appeared in Great Lakes Review, Verse-Virtual, Library Journal, and other publications. A former editor of educational books for children, Valorie believes books can save a life and founded a blog by that name. She has a BA in English and master’s degrees in broadcast communications and library science.