Window and Wall

for Mayor Steve Benjamin’s State of the City address, 30 Jan 2018

“Cities have awakened….”
Harlan Kelsey and Irvin Guild, The Improvement of Columbia, South Carolina (1905)

It took nine months of work.

Painting the wall, he carved out a tunnel, hung the sun in front of us.

Nine white overhead lights lead us through the tunnel to the other side.

We did not deem it desirable, at this time, said Kelsey & Guild in 1905, to place too much emphasis upon detail, because, in doing so, the main objects sought might easily be lost sight of.

The details of the mural trick the eye, the real stone merging with the fake, the real metal barriers beside the painted traffic signs.

The things that seem to block the way are the things that make you see.

The real windows on the wall look fake, become part of the painting: the vision of what’s beyond is the point.

Cities have awakened, wrote Kelsey and Guild, to the urgent need for a systematic plan for [the] future.

In 1976, People magazine called the image “a brilliant orange sunset.” The State newspaper later called it “a descending sun.”

A comprehensive plan for development, said Kelsey & Guild, should consider well the tendencies of growth, and the physical features that … govern such growth.

Two white arrows show both lanes going forward, no one is headed back.

It is not clear, really, if the sun is rising or setting.

My first few weeks in Columbia, a friend drove me over to see it, early evening, the moment the tunnel seems most real, as if you could drive into it.

The sun is the same size as a yellow traffic sign that warns of a right turn ahead, the road curving away and out of sight. Forty years ago, he warned us of a hard swerve to the right, something we couldn’t yet see.

It is quite possible, Kelsey & Guild admitted, that this report will be more useful in its suggestions that in the plan outlined.

Blue Sky told People magazine, I wanted to reach through that wall, touch something larger than life.

Rumor is a kid once drove right into the mural.

The South Carolina Encyclopedia reminds us that Kelsey and Guild’s proposals were too ambitious to receive serious consideration, but they set a precedent for comprehensive planning.

The things that block the way must be
the things that help you see.

The wall was a way out.

The windows are dark,
the sun is shining in front of us.

 

The Sound of a Needle on Vinyl

written for the launch of Amplify, a Cultural Plan for the Columbia Area

with thanks to the many friends who responded to my question on Facebook about their first experiences of arts and culture, many of which appear in the poem

 

I give you the macramé owl, the one with broken pinecones for eyes.

I give you the candy dish on the coffee table, its hard nuggets of sugar and color stuck together.

I give you the turkey made from a drawing of your hand.

I give you those big picture books with cracked spines that your mother read to you, the way her voice changed to shape the story.

And then there’s your dad, putting on the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, turning it up and dancing around. Not gracefully, a little unhinged, but with a lot of passion.

I give you that first concert—was it Michael Jackson? You memorized the names of all five Jacksons, memorized the songs. You were jealous of your cousin’s pierced ear, that dangling glove earring. You slept with his albums under your bed in hopes that you would dream of him and his tiger. You were eight.

Can you see the little girl in pigtails, dancing in the dining room till dinnertime?

Or the little boy obsessed with mime?

I give you that moment someone explained to you that when someone dies onstage it’s make-believe.

I give you that moment you fell asleep during the musical, or during church, and then when you woke up during the last song, you thought you had woken up in heaven.

What was the first song that made you cry?

Do you remember the first time you smelled a darkroom?

I give you the bright plaster tropical fish swimming across Aunt Betty’s bathroom, fish not found in nature, but found in Aunt Betty’s bathroom.

I give you the bronze and copper statues of deer in your grandfather’s office, the way they felt in your hand when you played with them. You were not supposed to play with them. The doe with a relief image of a fawn on her stomach.

I give you the stiletto heels you mother spray-painted gold and placed elves inside, your favorite Christmas decoration.

I give you the carnival glass cup your grandmother drank her coffee from, iridescent, you thought it beautiful, and the demitasse spoon she used to stir in the Pet Milk.

Who was the child in that framed portrait at the back of Granny Lola’s house? Was the child dead? They used to do that. I give you that dark, hand-carved frame.

I give you the old man at your grandma’s church who taught you to sing with shaped notes. It was serious business. It was like a foreign language.

I give you the women’s syncopated clapping, the shuffling of feet, the bending and rising of bodies with the lyrics of the song.

I give you that moment you picked out your mom among the other women, sure you heard her voice alone.

I give you Mrs. Slavin’s weekly music class, the five-line chalk holder she used to draw a musical staff on the board, the way it would sometimes squeal, then she’d write in the notes. You loved her weekly visits and the songs she taught you. You still remember “Hava Nagilah.”

I give you Leontyne Price and some guy singing on PBS when you were flipping through the channels. It was Samson and Delilah. You didn’t understand what they were saying, but you were, for that moment, in another world.

I give you Bugs Bunny and The Rabbit of Seville.

I give you that place under the piano where you’d sit while your aunt played.

I give you the first time you saw deaf people waving their hands in applause. It was after a dance performance. Their silence and motion was as beautiful as the dance.

Do you remember the May Day celebration at Earlewood Park, decades ago, your dress made of crepe paper—it was the prettiest dress in the world—crepe paper like the streamers, weaving in and out, plaiting the pole.

I give you your mother laying out the pattern for a dress on the dining table and cutting out the fabric pieces.

I give you Spirograph, Etch-a-Sketch, string art, Light Bright, Play-doh, and that little plastic handmade potholder loom.

I give you your grandmother’s quilt, made of old clothes, tablecloths, sheets, anything. They were not traditional patterns. They were beautiful. They kept you warm.

I give you the oriental rug in the floor of your family’s military housing. It mesmerized you. You could ride the elephants all day.

I give you the black and white prints of classical architecture—Ionic, Doric, acanthus leaves—hanging in the cramped rooms of a tract home.

Your aunts would tell stories in the living room, and your uncles would tell stories outside under the oak trees. When did you realize these were two very different sets of stories?

I give you your uncle’s swanky Eames chair.

I give you the tacky ashtray of an exotic topless woman that your dad and his buddy passed back and forth every Christmas. The lei of flowers was perfectly placed, her figure perfectly balanced to rock back and forth. It was the 1950s. You grew up to be a feminist.

I give you the drum solo in In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida by Iron Butterfly. You listened to it with your dad in the car. It’s the reason you took drum lessons.

I give you your mother singing, her clear powerful soprano, until chemotherapy and radiation took her voice away.

I give you the organ in the corner no one ever played.

Your father brought it home from the war, that little Swiss-made wooden music box. Your mother used to wind it up and place it on her pillow when you lay down for a nap. When your father died, your mother gave it to you.

When was it you realized you were tone-deaf and started to sing only in the car or in your head? I want you to sing again.

I give you Aunt Mary’s sound system, the red velvet panels and wood carvings, and the sound of Billie Holiday.

I give you Billie Holiday’s voice and the crackling sound of a needle on vinyl.

I give you the crackling sound of a needle on vinyl.

[Note: A shorter version of this poem was read aloud at the Amplify Launch Event on January 29, 2018]

Crossing – for the 2017 Gervais Street Bridge Dinner

Crossing

for John Lane, who writes about our rivers, and for Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler, who protects them

Back then, crossing over was an event—
the bridge told you so, its arches and fancy
lanterns—time moved on below you. Crossing

over meant becoming someone, a different
being headed to a different place. Of course
Sherman had burned an earlier one. Back then,

you could get off the trolley at the Richland end
of the Gervais Street bridge, walk up the canal
to Irwin Park on Laurel, with its tiny zoo

and its view of the state penitentiary, a park
blacks could use only on Tuesdays and Thursdays—
so many ways to lock things up, block things

off, like dropping rocks on the toxic sludge
of coal tar that leaked back then and now lines
the river bottom from here down to Blossom.

Turn the tap and take a glass of water.
Imagine it, the whole watershed distilled
into eight clear ounces in your hand,

filtered first by the mussels before it ever
reaches a treatment plant, the slabshells
and heelsplitters, the pink rayed fatmucket.

Upstream, rivers of traffic now converge
on the I-26 bridge, slow down to sluggish
in the daily rush, and we’re lucky if we even turn

soon enough to see the great blue heron
like an origami trick, a cantankerous kite,
unfolding itself into flight against the sky.

On considering the bronze bust of J. Marion Sims at the northwest corner of the South Carolina statehouse grounds, at a reading for the monument’s removal, 7 Sept 2017

This poem was written for MEND: A Poetry Marathon to advance the removal of the J. Marion Sims Monument at the S.C.Statehouse and read aloud at the monument on September 7, 2017.

 

Now   wasn’t there some good?
            – Bettina Judd, “After Memory,” Patient (2014)

“That a historical figure existed at a different time, with different norms, is not irrelevant. But it is only one consideration in the fraught and important question, as to who should loom over us on pedestals, enshrined in metal or stone.”
– Ross Andersen, The Atlantic, 6 Sept 2017

“The first surgeon of the ages in ministry to women, treating alike empress and slave.”
– from the left panel of the Sims monument, SC Statehouse                       grounds

 

Because he was not, in fact, physician to empress and slave alike; because he used the bodies of black women and poor women to launch what would become a lucrative practice among wealthy women; because he would not have been physician to an empress in a mansion if he had not first experimented on enslaved women in a shed behind his house;

Because Anarcha and Lucy and Betsy are named as enslaved women in his autobiography but are never given voice;

Because he says of Betsy that “she willingly consented”;

Because he invented 71 instruments to aid in childbirth, yes, but because he started with a pewter spoon and a cobbler’s awl; because an awl is a long spike used for piercing leather; because this monument remembers the Sims position and the Sims speculum, but it does not remember the shoemaker’s tool that he used to pry the bones of a newborn African infants’ skulls into proper alignment; because the fatality rate for those operations was 100 percent;

Because he did not use anesthesia on black women; because he was sure they could endure the pain; because they thought blacks had a higher tolerance for pain; because the pain was so great, he asked other men to hold them down;

Because he asked his students to pull the buttocks apart so that he might see better;

Because he whitewashed his woodcuts of black women’s bodies when he moved to New York, so his patrons and students there would not know that he experimented on the bodies of enslaved women;

Because this monument was erected in May 1929 by the Women’s Auxilliary of the South Carolina Medical Association; because the most popular radio show in American in 1929 was Amos ‘n’ Andy; because Martin Luther King Jr. was born four months before in Georgia;

Because the elegant cement curve of the steps of the Sims monument, and the wall broken by the bust of J. Marion Sims so ironically echo the elegant curve of the African American History Monument across the South Carolina Statehouse grounds, a wall of images broken by the historical fissure of the Emancipation Proclamation;

Because the bronze bust of J. Marion Sims, his disembodied head and chest, suggests that this is a monument to reason and affection and not to the body, the disappeared and disappearing body, the disappeared, disavowed, but not disowned bodies of enslaved women;

Because the black women’s bodies erased by this monument are described in great detail in Sims’ biography as loathsome and disgusting;

Because he tells the story with such ease, because he stopped at the store and bought a spoon and then he stopped at his office and called out to his students, “Come, boys, go to the hospital with me,” because he then asked them to lay hold of her buttocks and pull them open; because he says Betsy “willingly consented”; because a jaunty “Come, boys, go with me” is the story of the invention of the speculum;

Because he performed clitoridectomies on women, because hysteria and improper sexual behavior were pathologized as gynecological illnesses;

Because consent no longer means the consent of your owner;

Because consent no longer means the consent of your husband;

Because the elliptical arch around this disembodied head suggests a cartouche, suggests the hieroglyphic oval enclosing a royal name; because the elliptical arch around this bronze bust suggests the halo arching over an image of a saint; because it suggests the clitoris under the hood;

Because when you stand in front of the bust of J. Marion Sims, he looks down on you, on us, looks down on this mixed crowd; because when you stand in front of the bust of J. Marion Sims, he can’t quite look you in the eye;

Because getting rid of a monument is not the same thing as erasing history; because the installation of a monument is not an accurate representation of history but an elevation of a particular representation, a particular representative, a particular reduction of history;

Because we should continue to teach the history of J. Marion Sims, his 71 instruments, his bent spoon, his shoemaker’s awl; because we should teach the names of Betsy, and Lucy, and Anarcha; because we should say the names;

Because even though some say the history of J. Marion Sims may be nuanced and complex, this monument is not.

 

 

[A note on the form: I had in mind the series of “because” clauses that often structure a formal resolution. This does not end, however, with “be it resolved,” since there is not yet resolution.]

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.

Where is Your Next Stop? Launching Poets on The Comet This Sunday, November 1!

On Sunday, November 1, One Columbia and The Comet will host the launch of our city’s first major poetry as a public art program—poems on city buses—with a rolling poetry reading on a downtown bus route followed by a celebration and reading at Tapp’s Art Center (1644 Main).

Repost from The Jasper Blog. 

Poetry on the COMET Announcement and Event

I’m pleased to announce that the poems collected for the project with The COMET have been posted up on the advertising area of the inside of the buses! Here are a few photos of some of the cards:

To celebrate this project, there will be an event titled “Poetry 101” held on November 1. A number of poets will be reading on COMET Route 101 North Main, rotating at select stops. After the rolling reading, the event will proceed at the Tapp’s Arts Center (1644 Main), where there will be light refreshments, and a poetry reading. Anyone who would like to ride along with the poets should report at the Sumter Street Transit Center (1780 Sumter) at 3:30pm. Limited seating, first come, first served.

One Columbia has also collected poems into a chapbook which will be free and available at the event on November 1 or at the One Columbia office (1219 Taylor Street).

As an added bonus, all rides on Route 101 North Main will be free to any riders all day on November 1!