A personal look into the city from the local poet, muscian, singer, and educator
Sonia always puts the words a place called before your name. Girl, you’ve been called so many names. Been called out of your name, too. Philly. Illadelph. 215. Killadelphia. You are corner stores and cranes, murals and museums, litter and Love Park.
I used to be a girl poet from the suburbs in the backseat of my stepfather Doug’s army-green sedan, yearning for you to look my way with your tragic smile. Doug knew you like the back of his hand; I memorized all your street names: Indian Queen Lane. Rising Sun Avenue. Minerva Street. Venango was a poisonous fruit of a word, cassava-sweet:
o’ city lights,
bless the crimson-eyed junkies praying over vents,
guide the urine of canker-sored bums to the sewer grates, help the comic-stripped hookers push back poverty tears.
o’ city lights,
the eyes of a lame flute player on 52nd need your attention—
shame on you, for forgetting.
Riding the R5 down to Market East Station to promenade in the Gallery in a tennis dress with my hair wrapped tight and smooth like Halle Berry’s in Boomerang, I acted grown so you’d notice me. I would drive myself into you one day:
malona is cruisin with the girls
Mischief, a satin kerchief easin out her back pocket
it’s gonna rain young, full-hipped malonas wearin the city on the shelves of their...
And then I started to really hear you, came to love you beyond pity and promiscuity. Fed you black beans and Jean Toomer’s “Georgia Dusk” at Toviah’s Thrift Store out West. Sat straight-backed in a plastic chair—room M18 in the Bonnell Building of CCP—while you coaxed a soprano out of me, and I sang—yeah, I sang—“Thank You, Lord” with your sinners and your savers. I caught your spirit.
You’re always in season, blooming with another renaissance. Artists all up in your first forests, heathens all up under your churches and mosques. We come to you as atheists and leave as preachers. Railroads run through your gut. Harriet’s tribe raced through here on their way to Canada. Archaeological shards vibrating with black-bottomed beats.
Sometimes I hear heels outside my window and mistake a woman for a horse from a neighborhood stable. Once I saw a young woman, like a petulant-shouldered Ntozake Shange with black and blonde braids, red lipstick, and tight blue jeans, riding a stallion down the middle of modern-day Morris Street like she’d been doing it for centuries. I think these women are you. No offense, I see you in the stray cats on the block, too. I can’t name all of the dangers or kindnesses in the broken glass of their eyes.
Walking up Schoolhouse Lane makes me think about old black schoolhouses in the woods of Northern Neck, Virginia, where my people are really from. Proud teachers in crinolines. Children dusty, but hungry for knowledge. When I taught at the Quaker School four blocks up, your kids would walk alongside me in the morning with bags of red-hot pork rinds, hungry for knowledge. Eleven-year-old Cheryl would be on her way to Pickett Middle School where the hard rock (she said bad) kids didn’t let her learn. Could you take me to your school?
I’m still thinking about how to take Cheryl (and a couple of the hard rock kids) with me. And here I am, walking my daily, grown woman sojourn through you. Someone’s planted irises and tiger lilies in a bed á la feng shui next to the train overpass. Past the Mactavish home, huge, with its big guard dog that has learned to like smooth rocks like me. The droopy branches of their heirloom trees form a canopy over the pavement.
When I get to Pulaski, I reminisce over Jackie-turned-Sis-Het-Heru who years ago saw my husband Mark on the street and said, “Here, take these books to your woman. I know she is a bibliophile.” Hundreds of books from her personal library, a Ph.D at Temple University. She had forsaken the academic gods up North for your Egyptian ones along Germantown Avenue, rocking a bald head and a tunic in December. We wheeled her Baldwins and Emechetas home in a little red shopping cart. And so, as I stroll through your Green Society Hill streets, I say a simple prayer to/for Jackie-turned-Sis-Het-Heru, which is also a prayer to/for you.
And I get to singing something out loud, maybe one of my own songs or some jazz standard I’m practicing for a gig, and it’s when I’m walking up Schoolhouse like this, or any of your streets whose names I’ve made romantic, that I feel like I’m on stage—a real chanteuse—and I’m perfectly pitched as I get to Wayne Avenue, not before I nod towards your brothers on the halfway house porch and to the banana tree in front of the Sawyer house. I got married in the Sawyers’ backyard, beyond that banana tree.
Born to you and not from you. Bound for you and bound to you. I find pieces of you on each block and gather them up. You give me love. Like the brother walking up the street in a funk and a daze. Like the kids smoking an L in the brash light of morning. Like the sister on a corner prowl. The part of you I love best is darker than Poe.
I was searching for a pyramid in you, Philly. But pyramids don’t grow here, and that’s alright. Poems do.
Named Montgomery Country, Pennsylvania’s first poet laureate at the age of 23, Yolanda Wisher is now head of the Art Education department of the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program and a Founding Cultural Agent for the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture, a new citizen-powered initiative. Her first book of poetry, Monk Eats an Afro, was published by Hanging Loose Press in May 2014.
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