Observations from the Road: Philadelphia

29 08 2010

As I travel to give presentations from A Poetics of Resistance, I’ll be updating this blog with brief observations, that are, in one way or another, relevant to the themes of the book and the related work. Here, then, is dispatch number one:

In Phillie, I had a terrific event at Wooden Shoe Books, a worker-owned collective bookstore on South Street. Just before the reading, a friend, local poet and activist Martin Wylie took me to what he said was the largest black-owned comic book shop in the country, and we perused the comics – a genre I wish I had more time and attention to devote to – before starting the event at the store, where about a dozen people had come out for my presentation of A Poetics of Resistance.

The next day I managed to have some time to get around the city.  At the Ellen Phillips Samuel Memorial of the American History, a sculpture garden that stretches along the Schuylkill River near the Philadelphia Museum of Art, marble sculptures memorialize the iconic figures of American history: The Puritan, the Revolutionary Soldier, the Preacher, the Poet, the Miner, the Laborer, the Ploughman. It is, of course, a noble history, in which all suffering and sacrifice have been made in the name of an enlightened ideal for the betterment of all. Nowhere do we see the Slave, or the Immigrant, or the Prisoner, because these figures – equally important to any accurate account of the costs of nation-building – must be categorically removed from the history in order for History to continue on its inexorably future-ward course, as if History were a river running in one direction, with the detritus left behind in forgotten eddies, like spumes of industrial foam.

Bronze figures gazing into a bold and prosperous future

Etched in granite at one end of the memorial are the words of the poet Archibald MacLeish:

America is west and the wind blowing.

America is a great word and the snow,

A way, a white bird, the rain falling,

A shining thing in the mind and the gull’s call.

Sitting in the Memorial garden in the shade of an enormous sycamore, the hum of the highway beside me, I can imagine a different sculpture garden, updated to reflect not the dreams of a young nation rising toward its God-ordained crescendo of wealth and liberty in some misty future where strength and hope have triumphed, but the brutal downslide of the dream, a true reckoning of the costs of the imperial mission in lives lost, in ecosystems destroyed, in cultures dismantled and abandoned: a series of sculptures, perhaps not in marble but in chewing gum wrappers, or in crushed aluminum, or in bauxite and old tin, or in mud and straw, depicting the Sweatshop Worker, the Welfare Recipient, the Drug Dealer, the Winter Soldier, the Cancer Victim. And etched in stone above the sitting bench beneath the drooping sycamore, a rewording of Archibald MacLeish’s heroic verse might read:

America is lost and the wind is down.

America is a bad word and the snow, too much or

Not enough, a blackened bird, the black rain falling,

An oily shining thing in the mind and the gull’s long, silenced fall.

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