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Love Song for an Enormous Pair of Red Lips; Or, The Key to the City is Not Always a Key

                                    Mary Biddinger


I rarely paid mind to anything that wasn’t moving. The train was alive, the other cars on the road were alive, and my two hands were alive, but the clouds were fiberglass ceiling tiles and the radio merely a console issuing the Doobie Brothers at a barely audible pitch. Sometimes we’d pass an alley and see nothing but a series of stocking caps—orange and red striped, solid blue—and glowing tips of cigarettes, or the stray newspapers that haunted the gutters of Chicago in the early 1980s. 

Occasionally we would pass a house that was only bones. I felt like a house that was only bones. When I pressed my forehead into the nubby bedspread I closed my eyes and saw the absence of a front door, the studs and charred curtains of what was once a bedroom. That is how poetry found me. I had my own red brick house and postage stamp yard, a plastic pear clock in the kitchen, a hound dangling her paws over the edge of the porch, but none of these things haunted. I wanted to be haunted. I got what I wanted.

In “Poetry and the Mind of Indirection,” Jane Hirshfield states that, “Poetry’s fertility lives in the marriage of said and unsaid, of languaged self and unlanguaged other, of the knowable world and the gravitational pull of what lies beyond knowing” (124). Before I had any awareness of poetry’s gravity, I added to my arsenal of alleys and abandoned houses a major Chicago landmark: the enormous, illuminated red lips of the Magikist billboard, which loomed above the Dan Ryan expressway at 85th street. As backseat rider and juvenile citizen of the south side, these lips belonged to me, and I to them. I had no idea that other Magikist billboards existed on other sides of the city, not until years later. To me, the lips were a singular attraction, a blazing and almost supernatural beacon. 

I was too young to watch The Blues Brothers in its entirety, but for a brief moment in the film the trademark Magikist lips sashayed across an advertising marquee. This glimpse was no equal to the beacon in its enormous form, selling not the carpet cleaning services it was supposed to promote, but the bold defiance of a grungy backdrop. Red light was the opposite of red brick, and it ran on a different fuel entirely. Our grandfathers made bricks, and built with them. We were the inheritors of the light. We were the generation that would invent a new sort of flame.

The enormous lips, though they bore no words other than the ubiquitous Magikist slogan, created a new language. Simultaneously they symbolized the knowable world and the world beyond the knowable. They were at once luscious and revolting, intimate and public. They were not magical, despite the slogan. We were magical. I stared at the lips and then closed my eyes, and the lips were superimposed on my eyelids. Some might say that metaphor is a thing constructed of words, subject to the limitations of words. I would argue the opposite. Metaphor is an image spoken on the back of your eyelids. It might be an empty apple cart, a pair of red lips, or the key to a city you always thought you knew.


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