baltimore, Weekly Poem Project

Weekly poem project: pantoum

I’ve been working on pantoums over the past week or so, and have my first one to share. It is the second of what may become a series of Baltimore poems.

It was provoked–“inspired” isn’t the right word–by this sign that was stuck on a lamppost on a street where I walk my dog pretty much every day:

warning
Lamppost warning, Dolphin St., Baltimore.

I had actually walked by this sign several times before I stopped to read it. It begins: “WARNING. On 8-29-14 a person was sexually harassed here.” (You can click on the image to read the rest of it.) I was suddenly reminded of something I’d seen some weeks earlier, probably right around the end of August, that I didn’t make much of at the time. Now it seemed much more important.

The more I thought about all of this the more I thought of the repeating lines of the pantoum: in case you don’t remember, the second and fourth lines of each stanza become the first and third lines of the subsequent stanza. But enough of preliminaries. Here’s the poem:

SIGN (#thishappenshere)

A row of little linden trees march down
Along the sidewalk, turning gold in fall.
Amidst the shattered auto window glass,
A twisted piece of denim, a bit of lace.

Along the sidewalk, turning gold in fall,
The linden trees had seen what I had not.
A pair of cut-off shorts, a glimpse of lace
The trees could not protest, or intervene.

The linden trees could see what I could not.
Boys on dirt bikes, looking for some fun
The trees could not protest, or intervene.
Chanted, “We like them A-rab, Chinese, and white.”

Boys on dirt bikes, looking for some fun
They found a group of girls, a little drunk.
Shouted, “We like them A-rab, Chinese, and white.”
One pale, two dark-haired, dressed for Friday night.

They found a group of girls, a little drunk.
The girls were looking for some fun as well.
One white, two dark-haired, dressed for Friday night.
Some lipstick, just to bring to mind a kiss.

The girls were looking for some fun as well.
Two got away, but one got left behind.
Some lipstick, just to bring to mind a kiss,
Nightfall, trees, parked cars, no one saw.

Two got away, but one got left behind.
And here was left a trace of what went on
That night, between parked cars and linden trees.
But I didn’t know then what I know now.

I saw the traces, but they told me nothing.
The news came slowly to my ears, weeks later.
I didn’t know then what I’m sure of now.
And now just shattered auto glass remains.

I only heard about the girl weeks later
She’s gone now. Her clothing, too.
Just bits of shattered auto glass remain.
And still, the linden trees turn gold in fall.

I’m actually not sure what, if anything, I witnessed after the fact. I had simply assumed initially that someone had just thrown some old clothes out of their car onto the street. The amount of trash this street collects is kind of amazing. Tires, chicken dinners, blown-out umbrellas. Once someone left an entire TV box full of stuff, just chucked it onto the sidewalk. But somehow the sight of this sign brought this one piece of trash immediately to mind.

Maybe whatever happened here was purely consensual. Maybe I jumped to conclusions, what with all the news these days about sexual assaults on university campuses. (The drumbeat for change, unfortunately but predictably, seems to be fading quickly.) I definitely remembered the sign reading “assaulted,” not “harassed”: funny how memory works. But I suppose that in the end what actually happened isn’t so important.

Dolphin Street, where all this may or may not have happened, runs alongside the Fifth Regiment Armory Building, which now is the home for the Maryland National Guard but is also rented out for various sporting and social events. It was also the site of the 1912 Democratic National Convention, where Woodrow Wilson was nominated for president.

Fifth Regiment Armory Building, Baltimore.
Fifth Regiment Armory Building, Baltimore.

It’s weird to live in a place that has so many layers of history. I’m constantly reminded of history’s importance, but also, how easily things are forgotten– ignored– or simply paved over. As Natasha Trethewey implies with “Incident,” which I wrote about in my last post, the pantoum is strangely well suited for conveying the shifting memory of or perspectives on an event, a place, or a time.

All this makes me think about the park across the street from my house, of which I am the nominal caretaker. It also runs along Dolphin Street, also across from the Armory, and less than a block down the street from the sign that served as the occasion for my poem. It’s named after two African American shopkeepers who lived in my neighborhood, and was built on the site of what used to be a dairy farm. The grandson of one of the merchants still lives in the family house, with his wife Vanessa and his lovely daughter.

Contee-Parago Park, Baltimore. You can see the Armory in the background, to the right.
Contee-Parago Park, Baltimore. You can see the Armory in the background, to the right. My house is off the left side of the image, across the street. My neighbor’s house faces the park, to the left of the image.

When we moved into our house, the park was totally overgrown with poison ivy (I found out the hard way), the lights broken out, location for lots of drug drops and paid sex. It’s still kind of sad. We can’t afford to replace all the plants that get stolen every year, and none of us have time to water things as much as we should, but at least it bears some resemblance to a park. People sit in it now, especially on hot summer days. And we find fewer and fewer syringes and condoms in the beds during our biannual park cleanups. In ten years of living on this street, I’ve never actually seen anyone deal drugs or have sex in the park, but evidence gets left behind.

Unfortunately, the park seems to have been completely forgotten by the city. It took years of emails and phone calls before we could get anyone to replace the lights or to mow the grass. In the end, what worked was to insist on its historical importance, as the first Baltimore park named after one of its black citizens (it was established in 1971, three years after the race riots that resulted in the mass exodus of whites from the city). That got the lights fixed.

I don’t even know where to begin with the layers of irony here. I will just say this– it’s so Baltimore.

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4 thoughts on “Weekly poem project: pantoum

  1. That pantoum is great (a sentence I never really imagined writing)! You’re making me feel so prose-like. We also live across the street from a park, but it’s huge–huge enough for big-name concerts. Not necessarily a selling point. Your Parago Park looks pretty sweet. Nice work on the park and on the poem.

    Liked by 1 person

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