Better Angels

for Mayor Steve Benjamin’s State of the City address, 29 Jan 2019

Hanging on my sister-in-law’s wall
is a print we’ve all seen: an angel
hovering over two kids walking across
a rickety bridge, kids sure to fall

if she weren’t there—there’s a board
missing at their feet, the rail gone
on one side. The poor kids are barefoot,
the girl’s got a basket, she’s got her arm

round the boy’s shoulder. Neither sees
the angel, who floats above the bridge, lightning
in the distance. The angel reaches out
as if she’s blocking trouble on either side,

as if she wants to gather them up in her arms
and wrap them in her robes. She hovers over,
unable to do either. In 1861,
Lincoln asked his secretary of state

for help with his first inaugural address.
South Carolina had already done its part
to start butchering up the map of who we
were, and it was about to get worse.

What could he say, given the state of the union?
Sewell was glad to help, gave the president
seven pages of suggestions and wrote up
something pretty for the end, calling on

the guardian angel of the nation.

~

Lincoln didn’t use that phrase.
Instead, he said, mystic chords

 of memory would swell a chorus of unity,
of union once again, if touched, he said,

as surely they will be, by
the better angels of our nature.

No, for Lincoln, the answer wasn’t
some agent, some angel outside us

or beyond, but here, among us, within us.
He wasn’t thinking about angels

and demons sitting on our shoulders.
He was thinking about a message,

something we can almost hear
now, a century and a half later.

~

In the empty lot next door, daffodils
are coming up—a message from the past,
drawing the lines of a house no longer there.

That image of the guardian angel was first
a German postcard. The print in my in-law’s home
hangs in homage to a Mississippi grandma,

who’d hung it with a light shining on it.
In ancient scripture, an angel was just a messenger—
sometimes divine, sometimes human—the same

word, mal’ākh, same task. Scripture tells us
when we feed the hungry, welcome the stranger,
whatever we do to the poorest among us, we do

to the divine in all of us. Is that her brother?
Is that his sister? Am I my brother’s keeper?
What’s in her basket? Loaves and fishes?

What if the boy wore a hoodie and carried
a bag of Skittles? What if they were tired
and tongue-tied kids wrapped in silver

blankets? What if she were wearing a hijab?
What if he were wearing a prayer cap?
Or what if he already knows his difference, hers,

and they will come back to that bridge
years later to look down into the dark?
The angel hovering over is not the angel

of history, winds of catastrophe caught in her wings,
blowing her back. No, she’s looking at what’s
in front, not what’s behind them. The angel wants

to fix the bridge, the missing step, the broken
rail, but she knows she can’t. To do that
takes something better. It takes human hands.

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.

 

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.