Body Politic

Written for Mayor Steve Benjamin’s State of the City address, 31 Jan 2017.

Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many. – I Corinthians 12:15

When thousands of women with pink hats
and placards fill the streets, think
about how a city handles
bodies, guides them down sidewalks
and streets, between walls of stone
and state, about the way a mass
of bodies is a way of saying
something, as when a march exceeds
its brief circuit of the city
and ends up on the interstate,
as if to say these bodies matter,
precarious, here and now. A city
is a body, the old philosophers
say, a leader the head, the soldiers
his hands. A church, they say, or palace
is like a brain, a place to pause,
reflect. Or it’s the heart, stained
glass and cold walls, glimmer
of something larger. But that’s too easy
a figure of order and power. A city
is many bodies, moving, touching,
talking, gathered together, a place
where differences matter and meet,
a song written to the beat of many feet.

In the neighborhood assessment, the teacher
asks us to think about how bodies
move, how and where they go.
How many banks or payday lenders
within a mile of your house, she says,
how many grocery stores, libraries, schools?
These are moral questions. How far
is health care from where you are,
if you had no car? Are there
sidewalks where you live? She turns
her hands up as she asks—as if
they could be filled. What can people do?
What do they have access to?

Sometimes, the prophet says, your body
is your only weapon, he says,
you put your body in the street
to say what needs be said. Sometimes,
he says, you tuck your body in
so the wheels don’t turn. You hold
your hand up, empty. You lift
your hand above your eyes, as if
to shade the sun, as if you’re looking
into the distance, when you’re just
looking to the future, for what’s
not yet here. Hold your hand out
to someone—we do it all the time—
consider how we greet each other
in handshake or bro hug, fist bump
or bussed cheek, what we do
when we meet, the grammar of hands
and bodies, of who we are and what
we think of one another. A mass
of bodies is saying something—
whether it’s a market shutting
down Main, a dinner on a bridge,
a great crowd of witnesses watching
a flag come down, or maybe a room
of people sitting together, listening
to a man who asks them to imagine
themselves part of one body,
one city, one place,
sharing each other’s fate.

*

Our city lifts its hand to shade its eyes.
Our city wants to see into the distance.
Our city does not turn its back.
Our city does not hog the table.
Our city knows everyone is disabled in some way.
Our city offers a hand, opens a door.
Our city likes to talk.
Our city would rather build a bridge than build a wall.
Our city wants to hear your story.
Our city leans to listen.
Our city knows its soul is filled by art.
Our city sets a light out when it’s dark.
Our city is not a clenched fist.
Our city does not turn its back.
Our city never says I alone can fix it.
Our city knows we only get there together.
Our city wipes its brow, gets to work.

At the corner of Lady and Main

a poem for South Carolina Pride, 3 September 2016

Here at the corner of Lady and Main,
I’m thinking about a First Lady—
not the former First Lady who may
become the first, but the first
First Lady, the one this street’s named for,
her husband,Washington, a block away.
And I’m thinking about Kenny Rogers,
or maybe Lionel Richey, who wrote
the song—Lady, for so many years
I thought I’d never find you—and after
so many years of marching around
this city and state, we found the place,
Lady and Main,and we’re here, we’re queer,
and we’re ready, I think, for a party.

Here at the corner of Lady and Main
I’m thinking about where and when
we live. Ten years ago and a block
behind me, a bunch of men decided
to put an amendment on the ballot
for that November, and they would fight
to the bitterest end to keep our love
illegal. That March, a group of students
stuck black tape across their mouths
in a room of legislators who liked
to talk about us but not to listen.
Ten years ago this very week,
a rich white guy complained when our
campaign included anti-racist
training. He said that he would cancel
his fundraiser and cut off his donations
to the cause, if we made race
a part of what we do. We did,
we worked hard, and lost the vote,
but still we won, and still the work’s not done.

Here at the corner of Lady and Main,
I’m humming Lionel Richie, but maybe
also a little Lady Marmalade,
since I’m sure there are some
voulez-vous couchez avec moi
conversations out there in the street,
as there should be on a gorgeous day like today.

Here at the corner of Lady and Main,
I’m thinking about where we live.
Main is straight, stops at the statehouse.
There’s a wig shop or two, a few
places to eat, and the only theatre
in town that shows that queer film
you really wanted to see, and Main
may lean and swerve around as you head
up north and out of town, but here
it’s a street that’s very straight
that begins and ends at the state.
Stand here at the corner of Lady
and Main and you can’t help but think
about gender and race, whose story
gets told, whose stories don’t, here
on a street that stops at a monument
to men who died fighting for a lie
they’d been told, that black bodies
only matter when they’re bought and sold.

Here at the corner of Lady and Main,
I’m thinking it’s nice that Lady runs
athwart, across, she runs at odds
to Main, reminds us there are other
places to go, other ways to live
than those dictated a block away.
She lingers by the river, heads over
to Waverly, the city’s first suburb,
a home to black artists and activists.
Lady reminds us of place and time,
one end rooted in a history of civil
rights, the other ending at the river
that keeps sweeping by, gone
before you can hold it in your hand.
She keeps a little distance between
herself and that big copper dome
that kept out blacks too long, doesn’t
welcome many women, and has never
seen an open queer of any gender
or color take a seat at the table.

Here at the corner of Lady and Main,
I remember when I was growing up,
in church, we talked about the kingdom,
about living in this world but living
for another at the same time.
It’s like living in two worlds at once.
A few years ago at Charlotte Pride,
there at the corner of Tryon and Trade,
three people in a row stopped by
the South Carolina table to say
that they were the only gay in Gaffney.
They had to go to Charlotte to be free.
There were at least three queers in Gaffney
who didn’t know each other, couldn’t
see each other. They had to go
somewhere else to see what was possible.

So here at the corner of Lady and Main,
look around,and see what’s possible.
Live what is possible, love
who you want to love, and be kind
to one another. Sometimes we’re not
that kind to one another. There is no
somewhere over a rainbow, somewhere
a place for us. This is the place.
Put the rainbow here at the corner
of Lady and Main, and make of the here
and now a future—a there and then, not if but when.

PRIDE_rt_31

Dear Mississippi

Mississippi House Bill 1523 allows individuals and businesses to refuse to provide services to same-sex couples. Among the goods and services that may be refused, according to the Mississippi law, is poetry. South Carolina poet Ed Madden’s poem “Dear Mississippi” is a letter to Mississippi about marriage, family, his Mississippi husband, and a trip to a rural cemetery.

River Poems

City Poet Laureate Puts Poems on Coffee
“River Poems” project brings poetry to the people during the month of April

COLUMBIA SC April 8, 2016 – The City of Columbia Poet Laureate Ed Madden is pleased to announce a new project in conjunction with National Poetry Month. Poems from eight Columbia-based poets about the rivers have been stamped on coffee sleeves to be distributed at area coffee shops, Drip (locations on Main and in Five Points) and Wired Goat (locations in The Vista and Chapin).

The Columbia-based poets that have provided poems for the project include Jennifer Bartell, Betsy Breen, Jonathan Butler, Bugsy Calhoun, Monifa Lemons Jackson, Len Lawson and Ray McManus as well as Ed Madden.

“As a project for the poet laureate, last year and this year both, we put poems on the buses. We had already decided the theme this year would be the river, because it is the theme for Indie Grits, but I think the flood added additional urgency to the theme,” says Madden. Along with the bus project, the second project this year was to put the poems on coffee sleeves. “We’ve been trying to think of ways to promote poetry in unexpected places, so coffee sleeves felt like a really obvious place to put poetry,” says Madden. “You can drink your morning cup and read a poem about where you live.”

April is National Poetry Month and over the past 20 years has become “the largest literary celebration in the world with schools, publishers, libraries, booksellers, and poets celebrating poetry’s vital place in our culture.”

The owner of Drip, Sean McCrossin explains why they participated, saying “I feel that one of the roles of a coffee shop is to offer a platform from which people can express themselves. That is why I was very excited when Lee from one Columbia asked us to be part of this project! Everyone in Columbia was effected by the flood (or knows someone that was) and to read what some of our great South Carolina poets had to write about it and have a good cup of coffee hopefully reminds us that art can express things that we sometimes are unable to express ourselves.”

from "I Told the Storm" by Bugsy Calhoun
from “I Told the Storm” by Bugsy Calhoun

Wired Goat owner, Jessamine Stone agreed to participate for a similar reason, saying “We got involved in the project to connect with our community and to raise awareness about the fantastic literary talent we have right here in South Carolina.”

The poets have come together to stamp the poems on over 10,000 coffee sleeves and the project will run through the full month at four different coffee shop locations.