Vox Populi: A Public Sphere for Politics and Poetry
You must take another way…. – Inferno I
The old South Boston Aquarium stands
In a Sahara of snow now. – For the Union Dead
The seventh apartment was closely shrouded
in black velvet tapestries…. – The Masque of the Red Death
Tomorrow, following the christening
of your adopted son, I’ll take some time
to see the National Aquarium.
I’m writing this because a poem
is all I have by way of gift
and I find that what I mean to write
isn’t just about your sudden life
as parents of a multi-racial son,
but about the Baltimore – as place, yet more
than place – that you’ll be living in.
Each time I come
I watch the fish spin round and round
the great, illuminated, multi-story tank.
Silver and gray-green, like currency in wind,
they flicker, each according to its kind.
Sea bass, mackerel and halibut,
they speed and spiral: Ceaseless. Sleepless.
Oblivious. Intent. Outside, the buses
idle at the curb. Boarding visitors
recall the banners, glass pavilion shops and food
of festive, redeveloped Baltimore. It’s sad,
a kind of spiral in: how people mill around
this tidy city built for them to see,
less like a city than a mall back home,
and still believe in it, don’t find it false
or feel some loss.
In contrast, your adoption was
a movement outward: legal papers
and your signature, a costly, wavering blue line
deployed in ordinary ballpoint pen,
recorded with the deeds at Houston’s courthouse,
while you stepped out, an infant at your arms,
into that huge and foreign sky, its great
piled waterstacks of cloud, so open and so high.
To visit you we cross Antietam Creek.
Pale companies of leaves plaster the water
and drift to the Potomac, past the battlefields
where both sides lost. They dapple
the entry porticos of gated towns
and sprinkle the swing-sets and fall upon
a child’s sneaker in a private lawn.
They flicker like a dream among
the mortgage tax-deductions and the infrastructure bonds.
They gather in the swales along the Interstates
and by the wheelstops in the shopping center lots.
They spiral through the subdivided farmlands
that the Army of Northern Virginia
could not save. Then, at last, float down
to segregated Washington.
We drive on
through failing twilight into Baltimore.
Baltimore, that border town and sometime home
to Douglass, Poe and Key. Even from a distance
we can see the halo over Camden Yards.
The Orioles have won again, it seems, and as we drive
the post-game fireworks appear – to us
like brittle, shattering chrysanthemums,
but to the ticket-holders in the stands
like overarching and fantastic rooms
of blue, then purple, green, orange, white and violet
and then – b-bang-b-bang bang-boom –
a room of black. I imagine all those human faces
looking up. Then the ghostly crowd, the parking lot
(Black street-kids rove among the rows of cars),
the doors unlocking and the keys, the silent engines
flaring up and driving home. The smoke –
like one of Poe’s uneasy dreams – descends
upon the darkened and divided town.
Tomorrow, at a polished and ornate
baptismal font, you’ll set apart your son
from all the principalities and powers of dark.
But there, in the sunny transept, with the flowers,
with the stolid congregation dressed to please,
where the rector dips his thumb and makes
the watery mark on Gibson’s forehead, the powers
are gathered in the room. It’s not that vestments
or the people in their suits and floral prints
are bad. Yet they can form a narrow circle
like the font’s dark wood – a circumscription
savage, harsh and dense, and filled with temptations
to protect and shield.
So, what can I
who haven’t come so far or risked as much,
possibly say to you, to guide or bless?
I’ll give you only my imagined picture
of a place. There, women lean across
the fences of the tiny yards – to mark a union
or to mourn a loss. Their small, unconsecrated plots
enclose some beaten soil, a strip of vegetables
or, maybe, blue forget-me-nots. A tap runs.
And, through the humid evening air, you hear
the dishes sloshing in a sink next door.
On summer afternoons, the neighborhood cascades
down low front stoops, along the baking rowhouse block.
A small patrol of dogs sniffs trash. And children
chase each other on the street and walks.
Someone with a wrench has turned a hydrant open
and the kids converge. The shirts and shoes fly off.
The water froths – anarchic and impure
and shared – and all the taxpayers’ money
overflows the gutters and the broken curbs.
From Each Perfected Name by Richard St. John (Truman State). Reprinted in Vox Populi by permission of the author.