The Tallest Building in America cover

The Tallest Building in America

Jaswinder Bolina

Copyright © 2014 Jaswinder Bolina. All rights reserved.

The Tallest Building in America

In the season of her first cancer, my sister looms over lampposts,
over broadcast antennas, over cicadas in flight. News helicopters
chuckle below her, but I can see her from every corner druggist,
I can see her from the pier at Pratt Street Beach, from the botanic
gardens in Glencoe, from every expressway and ring road.
I can see her from Ohio, or maybe it’s her tumor, yes,
her tumor is the tallest building in America rising into her chest
like a spire shoved into the troposphere. I call it her first cancer
because any cancer that isn’t the last cancer is an only fleetingly
crowned behemoth crowding her skyline. Any new cancer
will be much, much taller, so the next cancer becomes the tallest
building in America. Every road goes there. When I think this way
of the epic, encroaching future, I become the tallest building
in America able to see over quivering horizons. The President
must feel this too when our civic maladies metastasize
into national disasters, and when he does, he’s the tallest
building in America until his agenda is thwarted by the Majority
Whip so the Speaker of the House is certain he’s the tallest building
in America, but the Fox Newsroom overlooking The Avenue
of the Americas is taller. For years, the kitschy white folks
who yammer there tell me Osama bin Laden is the tallest building
in America, and it’s better to throw boots through his windows
until the weather gets in, until his rebar corrodes, until
he teeters into the sea. When this happens, the headquarters
of the Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Virginia,
becomes the tallest building in America, though the Chamber
of Commerce is much, much taller. It worries China’s rising
monstrous and tall, but I remember when stern Russia
lumbered larger, and I’m nostalgic then for our antique enemies.
Nostalgia always has been the tallest building in America, but later
I’m walking through the elastic shadows of Fullerton Avenue
to the Lincoln Park Zoo to wonder at the hopeless, daffy
giraffes, or I’m in the Signature Room of the Hancock Building
for a bourbon alone, and I think, No, above all these,
my sister is the tallest building in America. But all her joists
are showing. Scaffoldings hem her. Work lights scream
from floor-to-ceiling gaps in her where windows should go,
but there aren’t any windows, so the monsoons of autumn
roil clear through, and from this height the other buildings
are small, the people beneath them smaller, their other concerns
minute, their other catastrophes smaller, those other folks remote
little lymph nodes about their diligent business, their other lives
enduring in a sanguine nation, in a small and temporary country.

* * *

Sélection de Vin de Proprietaires

Your cheekbones jut polar-hued in the daemon light
of a smartphone screen into which you text home
your version of Paris as if it’s a fact: synaptic
shimmer of moon on the river, gaslights of the certain
café, the stop-motion theatric of so many perched Rodins,
but in a story about Paris, you shouldn’t bother with these
or with pigeons and the cathedral, with hatchbacks
and hatchbacks and scooters on a Rue, with the hours agog
in the Pompidou supplicant beneath all of that barking art.
In a story about Paris, you shouldn’t mention Paris,
which is an idea baroque and embellished as God.
Of course the street names are hummed ditties,
the crosswalks are keys of a courtly piano, and you order
a Côtes du Rhône as if there’s a metaphysic in it then sing
a merci to the server as if all gratitude is music,
all music gratitude, which it probably is, but
I still haven’t figured how everyone here wears a scarf
in the kitchen heat of summer, how they all smoke
and nobody runs and if they do we never see anybody panting.
Don’t they have interest payments? Have they no finicky
circuit or jittery transistor? Do their supply lines never corrode,
their bodies never go to Les Centres de Santé to ride gurneys
like black taxis from the Pont Oncologie to the Place Radiologie
where the apparition of the brain meat is petals
on a black bough and all of that but also arteries
and gutters and zones, so the pulp of the mind emerges
a city we also inhabit on holiday from a native state,
a more permanent occupation, the self as a tourist fiction?
I suppose they must, but you wouldn’t know by looking
at them, which is what makes me feel so foreign and gloomy
and in Paris no less! which is better than Boise
or flat Tampa, and I’m with you! even your thumbs
are exuberant as the fizz in a Vichy water, the plum sex
of your scarf, your swift cigarette, you look so authentic,
I’d almost believe it’s the 61st minute of the 25th hour.
The pigeons are fat oboes, the cathedral thinks it’s a dove.
My name is Elise, yours is Henri, we’ll loiter here, my liege,
for two thousand, two hundred, and sixty-two years.


When I’m waiting in the examination room
at the dermatology clinic for Dr. Fine to arrive
and undo the six stitches knitted into my jawline,
it’s superfluous to ruminate on beauty
and the marvelous human machine. The city
doesn’t need another treatise on healing,
another ode to pulchritude. It needs more lidocaine,
compression wraps, 0.9% bacteriostatic solution,
and more diamond-edged cutting blades
for the road workers incising Halsted Street
four stories below the window, more gauzy cirrus
bandaging the jawbreaker-blue dome
of early afternoon, more of the scaffolding
that gives the skyline the appearance of a patient
in traction so the whole of Chicago feels always
unfinished. Beauty is too easy. The serene
brown bottle and its white block font plainly
stating ALCOHOL is beautiful for its honesty,
and the glittery diode in the catastrophic red
of the fire alarm on the wall is beautiful in its pent-up
vigilance, and the cover of People magazine there
on the rack is flat-out ravishing with its full-page
photographs, its pronouncements. It says ELIN NORDEGREN
IS DATING AGAIN. What a relief! Elin Nordegren
is too gorgeous to go alone, and though I’m uncertain
who she is or on what reef she’s been lacerated
after what wreckage of marriage to emerge again
into romance as if a deity from the sea, I’m concerned
for her wellbeing same as the motorists who pull
to the curb to permit the anonymous, wailing ambulance
to pass, a gesture that serves as proof humble acts
of astonishing beauty are possible even in the rancor
of traffic. And it’s true Dr. Fine, first name Lauren,
possesses a confidence that begets elegance
which begets grace, so she’s awful beautiful too,
more so than Elin Nordegren, and more so
for the ring on her finger which makes her
utterly unavailable for dating, but I wait for her still
on the butcher paper of the exam bed with sutures
in my face that give me the appearance of being
more rugged and vulnerable than I am, more beautiful
and true, though honestly I’ve had my fill of truth and beauty.
I need to know the uncertain and the scarred also
so I don’t mistake this for a place I’m welcome
to linger in ever expecting an exquisite other to enter
and mend me. No, don’t dally any longer, doctor.
Open the door and bring me some terrible news!

Second Variation on a Theme by César Vallejo

I’ll die in Chicago on a Tuesday midsentence on a muggy evening
my entreaties unfinished I’ll die demented and murmuring asleep
in my bed I’ll wither in a ward in Chicago I’ll die of woe
as if an infantry in 1914 or like a codger of pestilence
in the 14th century I’ll die irradiated and eradicated
in Coral Gables in 2076 I’ll die everywhere and for all time
like a loosed balloon or blunt as a beer bottle dropped
from a fire escape I’ll die in Chicago on a Tuesday
on a muggy evening lousy with estate planners and anesthetists
in a week perforated by serial blips of a renal pump I’ll die quiet
in Chicago what a drag it’ll be how feckless and feeble it will be
to die on a Tuesday amid the zoom zoom of weed whackers
the unending industry of the trash collectors buzz in the fuse boxes
not furious as a Hoover in a stairwell or regal as a bugle on a 747
but meek as the reggae whine bleeding from earbuds plugged
into the head next to mine on the 22 bus what a humdrum thing
it will be on a Tuesday in Chicago in which I lope into the long spike
of death and become simple as the bodies this morning in Homs
and in Hamah in Damascus and Deraa I’ll die on a Tuesday
like today is a Tuesday and I’ll be dead in Chicago in 1978
and dead in Paris in 1938 and dead in Aleppo in 2013 I’ll be dead
everywhere and for all time as when a body is lashed and is shelled
as when a body is punctured this morning in Idlib in Baba Amr
its torn animal interior its machines un-machining it dies in Chicago too
no soul prattles eternal protein mishmash and cortical noise
the soul shudders on dirt among despots a rifle butt can end it
but today the bones of my arms are fixed in their good sockets
the soul is wired by dendrites into its power supply
all my exiles and all the roads are ahead of me and I rouse myself
in the democratic vista to launder the sheets and hit up the Kroger
for yogurt and bread I empty the dustbins and Tuesdays forget
all my trash at the curb I sit at the plasma hearth of the television set
like an ancient at the tribal fire in his brute regime and I’ll die this way too
in the confederacy of the Tuesdays and Thursdays the sweeps weeks
and no-term annual contracts unlimited nights and weekends
in the mundane practice of life dull rot of the flesh on a Tuesday
so like a Tuesday in which Jaswinder Bolina is dead as the dead in Deraa
their lipids combusting too on Dearborn Avenue their dendrites
disconnected slick tesserae on the façades of Chicago their ulnas
on 95th Street humeri dead wet and steaming on 117th on a Tuesday
so like a Tuesday in which Jaswinder Bolina is dead Molotov his palace
fell every monument and rechristen the roads on a Tuesday
in which Jaswinder Bolina is dead and Bashar al-Assad is dead
and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is dead Shimon Peres is dead
Vladimir Putin is dead and the eye sockets of every dead executive
are lidded with half dollars Xi Jinping is dead Ban Ki-moon is dead
Barack Obama is dead as Jaswinder Bolina is dead as every dead idol
every prophet Ibrahim and Isa dead Muhammed dead the dead bells
stilled in their steeples the dead minarets emptied of dead muezzins
now sing, all you daughters of Deraa, if it please you to sing.

* * *

As a Copper Monument Greening in Dew

I’m in love with a woman who doesn’t love me also I don’t know why.
I earnestly inhabit my barstool daily mulling the crossword puzzle
in the USA Today, but she never strolls over all coy and jaunty to say,
Yes, love, that’s a gun in my pocket, but I’m also happy to see you.
She doesn’t wisecrack or tease, Hey, hombre, come give us a peek
under your burka. She goes on lounging at the other end of the saloon
with some other guy who’s unconscionably in love with her also,
some guy with his brand strategy refined, with a Bacardi
and wingtips, a svelte linen suit. He’s studied her demographics.
He’s ventured his capital. He streamlines his supply chain,
leverages his assets, and corners her markets, but for all the color
in the pie charts of his PowerPoint presentation, there isn’t any hint
of Kandinsky. For all the lunar blue in his klieg lights,
not a flicker of any celestial. Still, I’m eclipsed by him in love
with this woman who doesn’t love me also I don’t know why.
I shutter my windows and double-check the deadbolt,
but she never comes prowling. My passwords are twenty-letters long,
they contain three foreign numerals, two random characters,
but she doesn’t come hacking. If she shattered my patio door,
I wouldn’t holler. If she invaded through a gape in my gate,
I’d only invite her. I’d offer plantains and tobacco, petrol
and saffron, a samosa, a mimosa, but like a mistress in morning
she rushes always away, so what’s left is the sheepish disquiet
of waking into the ruined estate of a hangover. I’m in love
with a woman who doesn’t love me also. I don’t know why
aerial drones patrol all her borders, a barbed wall encloses
her Iowa of piety, her insular Dakotas. I’m in love with a woman
who doesn’t love me also I don’t know why, but my condition
is a dusky aftermath, is a stance of waning, is the last act
in the life story of a wood fire, replete with a terrible sense
of warmth and mournfulness. I’m an ember caught in her wind shear.
I’m a paper lantern run aground on her breakwater. I’m a seedpod
ferried in the mouth of a seabird and spat on her shore. She’d prefer me
returned to whatever jungle blossom loosed me, her fences electric,
her guard dogs awake at their stations, her snipers alert in the birches.
She doesn’t need my queer number cluttering her phonebook. She doesn’t
want me crooning in her area code. She needs no brute approaching
her stoop with less than a dinar, less than a carnation, the sandstorm
of my body tumbling toward her, a rush of dust, a front of grit,
an erasure of her prim, her darkening horizon.

Country Western

Via carriage and steamer and saddle and rail,
via twin-prop and airship and ship of the desert,
via savannah, via steppe, via zip line and glider,
under moat and under rampart, over barb
and under wire, under three green seas, via burro,
via grapple, via ballistic trajectory, like broke satellites
cratered in alien dirt, like banged knuckles on the door
of an uneasy speakeasy, we were the party after
the party nobody wanted, sober and famished,
we were the parched fronds beggared and supplicant
to the clouds, the clouds distant and cool
as a bourgeoisie, and we without our sleet coats,
and we without our hail hats, with less than a shekel,
less than a rupee, less than a kroner or any glinting
Kennedy, three pence short of a peso, we arrived
over guard and under sentry, via catapult, via coyote,
via many genies blinking, we arrived bats in a manse
no bat should inhabit, so we grew fin and we grew talon,
we scrambled arachnid and jaguared in the canopy,
dissembled, reassembled, and it’s true we piss now
in marbled closets and shower indoors as if
we are clergy, it’s true no junta defiles us, no furious
drone or hegemon’s boot, but the faces on the currency
all watch me, the paintings in the museum all say,
This is life on earth! This is life on Earth! so I’m jealous
of their candor, but that isn’t my pasty duchess,
that isn’t my butchered messiah, that isn’t my bounty
of meat beside the gilded chalice, I’m no Medici,
and that isn’t my life on earth I arrived in via wormhole,
via subspace, via mother ship descending, in a snap-button
sarong, in a denim sari, in my ten-gallon turban, I look
so authentic you'd almost believe it's the 44th of July,
I'm the sheriff of this here cow town, I'm one jack better
than a straight flush, buzzards above the valley,
I can see the whites of your eyes, my name is Consuela,
you can call me Mr. President, you can reach for the sky.

Love Song of the Assimilated

The moon’s a doubloon over the bay where we live in our houseboat. Bunny razzes
I’m a busboy on account of my black moustache, because my cowlick and skin coat,
because my name, she knows, is Sergio Al-Ekaterinoslav, but I say,
I’m no busboy, Bunny, I’m a yachtsman. She says, Somos mismos, sailor, when we’re
necking in the blue shade of the blue tarp bluing the deck, seeming inveterate
as market forces, unassailable there as the Federal Reserve. Still, I
tell her I bathed as a tyke in floodplains outside Jalandhar and stewed later in
tenement flats and thought once of drinking from a rifle. Life frightened me, Bunny,
but now my day labors are ended, all my water buffalo are in escrow,
my laundries automated and taxi cabs dispatched, I’m the crack proprietor
of seventy-six motels between here and Virginia. Now I get paid, I get
paid, and get laid, which isn’t alien to the arc welder, the cocktail server,
or stone mason, to the lavaplatos, dhobi whalla, or gunnery sergeant
second class, but what they call a mountain in the valley, Bunny, we call a hill
on the mountain. What they call a prayer in their temple is an algorithm
in our commodities exchange. Better a loose tycoon, I say, than the wick in
a worker’s lantern. Better a natty cummerbund for a tool belt, our wine flutes
sweating in a tuxedo heat. Better not bother conserving our resources
for the next life. This is the next life! she says. No reckoning is coming. No,
only New Year’s is coming and Oscar night and Derby Day and the balloon-drop
ballyhoo of the delegate conventions I’ll do up dashing in linen suits
and pocket squares, in blazers and chinos. I’ll pass dapper as a Dixie lawyer.
If anybody asks, Where is he from? Bunny, tell her Baton Rouge, or say South
Carolina. If anybody asks, Where’s he really from? meaning the Rangoon
Nebula, meaning the seventh moon of Guadalajara or the ice planet
Karachi, tell him I come in peace or I pledge allegiance. Tell him, those tyrants
beat their keep tonight, and widows wail in wilds where the nascent widows wail, but I
let Allah triage the bodies in his Red Crescent stations, let Abraham play
arbiter, Jesus raise the dead, I’m not a tyrant, Bunny, I’m a citizen,
that land is their land, I lie with you now on the bay in our houseboat where I dream
in English, algorithm, algorithm, let no cussing widow wail at me.

* * *

Texting the Beloved

Lo the ghetto lark puffs out a ditty in the cucumber glow
of the BP filling station sign tonight I should be in Taipei
with you I’m not in Taipei but isn’t it easier to adore you
for the fact you aren’t around like a bumper crop prefigured
in a blank field by the idle farmhand in winter alone
who is me now wheeling the Ford through this and every
adjacent county you aren’t resident in when you’re landed
at Pudong at Orly are in a railcar of the TGV these messages
you send I read and read again as if the letters made better
than a dumb phonics as if the slim brick of Gorilla Glass®
in the cupholder could make the vapor your mouth makes
the way a beached conch makes the rush of the sea
which is a myth and bad analogy though when I reply
you become the Aegean I sink my sheet music into
these notes I send jingle and fidget in your shirt pocket
or better your pants pocket! whatever time zone country
code you inhabit my dispatches ping into your couchette
your hushed museo your distant kabuki its audience lit up
sudden then hissing like flares sprung over the countryside
I traverse now knowing what the flare knows its only effort is
in arresting your attention these thumb-punched confessions
I transmit to you in Beirut in Khartoum or in San Sebastian
I should pull over to type them but I don’t pull over I go
faster past radar patrols and dashboard cams past local law
and local trooper and those sexless analysts at the NSA
who sit awake all night intercepting your reply
my love they couldn’t possibly apprehend it!

Letter to a Drone Pilot

In my dream of you perched in a turret in your white chemise
with the blue star print, my oxen move through your spyglass
trained on me in a far-off valley where my caravan trundles
into my dream of you on an overpass in your helmet
and overalls lobbing fruit at my pickup truck while I drive
on into the dunes of my dream of you in a flight suit
at your high station noting every blink of my turn signal,
every dhaba I stop in for tea in my dream of you
as a thin motor whine pervading the airspace between
the fellaheen markets of my dream of you who follows me
down every arcade and into every courtyard, who listens
to my soft swallows on the phone, rifles through
my every communiqué, and watches me undress
from a skylight in the thatched roof of the plaster house
of my dream of you where you sit with a panther at the foot
of your rocking chair, a hatchet on one knee, and I enter
through a beaded curtain from the kitchen with a bowl of dhal
and a jug of lassi for you in your dress blues and your headset,
its microphone grazing your lower lip in the monitor glow
of my dream of you, you slip your tongue into my ear, your hand
in the damp between my legs, I’m naked as the rain, and you
are a banyan tree with your tangle of prop roots fingering
my entire earth in your dream of me I tumble and flail
with a nine-pound awl and a rope saw in your dream of me
as a stupid bull you push your sabre through in my dream of you
as an office tower and me as the zealot boy bringing you down,
darling, I do mean you harm, and you do mean me harm,
so why do you feign restraint as if it’s a kind of habit,
dress yourself in cloud cover, and raise your hand like a nun
nearly unwilling, as if there isn’t any lust in your malice,
no feeling like a good fuck when you land your hellfire home?


None of it is ghastly. Not the hot nickel in the earhole,
not the molars on the awning, not the shrapnel in the nieces.
Waziristan is a ripped meniscus. Yemen is a slit tendon,
Peshawar is a cut eye, and Boston is a plunked batsman.
Look at its broke nose. Look at its plum contusion.
A cow town on a cow path on the crooked coast
of a cowed country, look at it rocked and fuming in a mimic
of Gaza, a spit image of Tel Aviv. None of it is ghastly.
Not the bone meal in the poppy field, not the plastique
in the pressure cooker, not the ball bearings in the corpses
or the robots in the clouds. Go, you drone turret gunners,
it isn’t the ordnance erupting in the bystander but your distance
from her that’s ghastly. Go you keen jihadi, it isn’t the bone-
wet massacre, but your deliberate imprecisions are ghastly.
Homicidal the bureaucrats, genocidal the martyrs.
Immolate your own Toyota not me in my Fiat.
I only want to flirt with the bartender. She’s a Pisces.
Her name is Judy. She speaks seven languages.
I forget how to spell mahjongg when she whispers
mahjonnngg in the beer light. I forget my address.
I would give her four roses. I would cook her paella.
I’d invite her to Guernica. The whole city is a gravestone,
su nombre es un sinónimo para muerte en cada lenguaje,
but it’s near to the sea and the hills, the hills, the hills.
Lipid and sinew in the alluvium, I’d walk the fatted earth
giddy with Judy in Guernica where carnage is a fact,
so it isn’t the facts, but how I become accustomed to them
that’s ghastly. Here are four roses. Here’s a bowl of paella.
It’s the fifteenth of April. It’s the sixth of August
and the fourteenth of February. It’s the eleventh of September,
Judy, we live now in Guernica. Let’s buy insurance.
Let’s open a 401k. Let’s make a baby and name her Fallujah.
Name her Mumbai which is Hindi for Boston which is English
for Kabul. Let’s name her New York City. Daughter,
I know not who you’ll slaughter or why, but do the killing
at least with the meat of your own good hands.

* * *

Self-portrait as a Gene Sequence

If this transmission should find you now continents removed
from my last confirmed location, now in your era of no-go
glaciers where your people tinder the jungle and marsh-make
their tundra and you’re reading this there on your screen porch
in the Tropic of Glasgow where you awoke this morning
to what seemed at first a loon beneath your pillow
but turned out to be an errant tsunami siren looning
through an open window from a tranquil valley nearer the coast—
If you have on a sundress in curl-kinking humidity,
in dense air greasing your brown skin as puffed sails bob,
dunce caps on a firth beneath contrails of space planes
too distant to hear as children ricochet around your yard
in polymer rompers when the youngest, the big-nosed,
sentimental one with a freckle on his right nostril, with a hint
of a lisp and a penchant for ketchup on his crackers
stops his slug hunt in the garden to peer at the city centre
in the lowlands through kilometres of smog—If he interrupts
your bagel and reading to ask what the cranes down there
are building or how the cranes are built—If he asks
about the invention of metallurgy or the inception of glass—
Why is there brick, steel, and siding? Why is there duct tape
instead of nothing?—as you’re reading this there in that nation
World Cups and World Cups hence, and you find yourself uncertain
of how to begin, then hand him a hammer. Show him how
his elbow should make like a lever, his wrist like a hinge.
Instruct him to mix his water into concrete, not the concrete
into water. He should stagger his cinder block and toe-nail
his jack studs. You should soap-test his gas lines, pressure-test
his valves, trip every circuit before he messes with any electric,
then tell him how the builders are lesser than the building,
the toolmakers lesser than the tools. No one will look
on his works and despair, but he might make time and a half
evenings and weekends. He might manage vision and dental
and retire with pension. He’ll certainly drink too much,
but all that will come later. Now smooth the cowlick jutting
from the cyclone of hair at the crown of his head like humans do.
Don’t mention the rest of us punched silent rivets in his cell walls,
us proteins that rebar his brickface, that buttress is animal architecture
now warm, now capable, now built of the junkyard dead.


Grateful acknowledgment to editors of the following journals in which versions of these poems have appeared:

BOMBlog: "Caterpillar"; Connotation Press: "Guernica"; Fanzine: "Sélection de Vin de Proprietaires", "Country Western"; Guernica: "Love Song of the Assimilated"; Pleiades: "The Tallest Building in America"; Qualm: "As a Copper Monument Greening in Dew"; Southeast Review: "Second Variation on a Theme by César Vallejo"; Witness: "Letter to a Drone Pilot", "Self-portrait as a Gene Sequence", "Texting the Beloved"

Jaswinder Bolina

Jaswinder Bolina is author of the books Phantom Camera, winner of the 2012 Green Rose Prize in Poetry from New Issues Press, and Carrier Wave, winner of the 2006 Colorado Prize for Poetry from the Center for Literary Publishing at Colorado State University. His work has appeared in numerous U.S. and international literary journals and in The Best American Poetry series. His most recent poems are included in current or forthcoming issues of Witness, Pleiades, Southeast Review, and Another Chicago Magazine. His essays have appeared at The Poetry Foundation, The Huffington Post, The State, and other magazines. They have also appeared in or are forthcoming from anthologies including Poets on Teaching (University of Iowa Press 2011), Language: A Reader for Writers (Oxford University Press 2013), and The Task of Un/Masking (University of Georgia Press 2014). He is currently working on a third collection of poems and on a collection of essays.