How a Sign Became the Title for a Book of Poems

brains_cover_-_MoWhen I lived in St. Louis (1973 – 89), our house in Lafayette Square was a mile from Servian’s,. Part grocery store—cold cuts, white bread, canned vegetables–and part take-out lunch counter, the building was on Choteau Avenue. Nooter Boiler Company and other heavy manufacturing companies across the street.

Factory workers bought their lunches there–two thousand calorie, I would guess. A plate cost about $3.00. Boiled or smoked pig ears, snouts, tails, turkey legs, meat, loaf, heaps of mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, mashed potatoes and gravy, spaghetti mac (a St. Louis specialty), greens of all kinds, chicken stew, fried fish—I remember these.

But there were no brains on the menu by then. The building gone, burned–sadly with Mr. Servian asleep in his apartment above the store–then demolished years ago. The photograph remains.

The poems expresses the sign’s spirit as I see it. An age. A fried brain sandwich you could buy for a quarter. Slice of raw onion, mayonnaise, thick, on the top slice of bread.

Along with the Gateway Arch of Westward Expansion (The Arch), the picture is a St. Louis icon, an icon of the underbelly.

Before the book was published, I was talking by phone with St. Louis poet Jane Ellen Ibur about the cover and the title. She said on the wall that she faced across her office was the photo.

Some time later I described the cover to theater director Jim O’Connor, former chairman of the theater department at USC, Jim had directed plays at St. Louis’ professional theater, the Loretto Hilton. O’Conner said that he has the photograph in his office. Coincidence?

Many own copies of the photo. William Stage, (he is on Wikipedia) St. Louis journalist, is also known for his photographs and books of painted signs from the mid-west. He used to sell the picture as a post card from Kumquat Press.

Years ago I told William some day I would use the picture for a cover for a book of poems. He said go ahead. Decades later here it is.

(The main St. Louis icon is the Gateway Arch of Westward Expansion. Look to the left edge of the cover where the sky meets the buildings. What do you see? Two icons in one picture.)