Thursday, August 26, 2010

Dear Thomas Paine,

There’s a plaza named after you here in Philadelphia, just north of City Hall. On the front steps, in front of the Municipal Building, a giant Frank Rizzo statue is frozen, tyrannically, in mid-wave to traffic. Over his right shoulder a statue of the Philly Phanatic like some harmless little alien of a vice-president, about a third of the size of the actual mascot, tries to welcome us. And over Rizzo’s left shoulder is a sculpture of a game piece from the board game Sorry!

Big pieces of Sorry!, chess, checkers, Monopoly and dominos are scattered throughout Thomas Paine Plaza. The installation is called “Your Move”. You can climb on the big replicas and write your name on them. That’s what the kids do. The older, more permanent piece of public art here is the Jacques Lipchitz sculpture “Government of the People”: chunky human bodies squished tightly together, many feet and hands, holding each other up and some nebulous object at the top that’s hard to make sense of. A dedication on a plaque interprets it for us:

“Symbolizing family life, the wellspring of society, the hope of the future and the concept of government being of, by and for the people. This sculpture is dedicated to the people of Philadelphia.”

What’s at the top of the sculpture must be a big piece of shit then, my brother suggests. He’s a bike messenger. People I know always see him fly by and then tell me they saw him, so it’s like he’s everywhere. As far as jobs go, he likes it. He likes the freedom of riding his bike all day, which he does anyway when he’s not working. The bodies in the Lipchitz sculpture do not look free; they look uncomfortable and ridiculous—and looking at the top, at the ultimate production, it doesn’t seem that what they’re doing is worth it. Maybe they should all take a break and climb down from there and each get on a bicycle and go for a ride.

No family life for the bike messenger, who achieves freedom horizontally, not vertically. He goes home and makes music with his friends, and that is a kind of family, and that is his wellspring. Or he goes home and thinks about himself and the world that presses him, another wellspring. His ambitions are concentrated and few since he does not think vertically either. If there’s a heaven above, who cares?

I’m sorry, Tom, that there is no bicycle named after you. There’s only this plaza which is an ugly, painful emblem of the limits of freedom we impose on each other and ourselves, and of the shit we collectively produce. It gets worse: inside the Municipal Building is the Streets Department, which this year initiated the Unlitter Us campaign. The ads are all over the subway and on TV. The print ones show a person speaking a poem about the virtues of throwing away your trash. The words appear (littered, you could say) on the speaker’s profile. All but one of the poets I’ve seen so far are dark-skinned. Here’s one of the poems:

          Outside looking in
          All they see is trash
          If you’re a product
          Of your community
          What does that make you?
          Reconsider your litter
          The kids watch what you do
          So c’mon
          We can end this cycle
          Reconsider your litter
          The brush is in your hands
          Paint a pretty picture.

While the rhyme of “litter” and “picture” is charming, I wonder who the “they” is looking in. Tourists? White people? People with money who don’t litter? Maybe just the kids that arrive in the middle of the poem? Let’s see—the brush in my hands would have to be more of an eraser, and the pretty picture what exactly? A city that doesn’t look poor? If there’s such a thing as “big government”, this must be it—an implicitly racist campaign of bad poems that isn’t going to make the city cleaner or anyone in it more responsible. The program itself is a total waste.

I propose a Litter Us campaign instead. It’d go something like this: we all go around town knocking over trash cans in a fury, perhaps imagining each can as someone who’s done us wrong, and then we all get drunk somewhere. When we wake up the next morning, hungover, we write about the emptied contents—what we saw and felt—and then mail what we wrote to our mothers, fathers, sons or daughters, lovers or ex-lovers. Or we draw a picture or write a song or make some kind of thing and send it to them. I figure if we do it on a grand scale, this repressed culture of ours will begin to see what art is for, value it and evolve.

Oh, as for the trash—the mayor, city council and their families could clean it all up.


christ on a bike

i’m just following
the man’s plan
with a corner
that opens out its
fingers like planks
that sigh small businesses
moms and pops
to bounce from
to buy gum from
to chew the plan
to shake hands
with all the bands
play a show
make a demo
quit your job
be a slob
be a slob
take a bath
a bird bath
a nothing people
a sadness like
standing water
in my chest
so there’s nowhere
to go but do
what the kids do
for real: schoolbook
old nostalgias
into fists to toss
in the schuylkill
as pennyboats water home
in the weathered know-how—
my love will be here
when i wake up
as an old man
city on top
of me
til i tell it
what to do
tell it to stop stealing
my gas

                              for Brandon Eckes

Thursday, August 12, 2010


so when i’m buddhist
finally and gin pints
at frank’s become
trains into trees
in a distance
liberty then water
thru bench slats
all the presidents
wet dogs at gunpoint
in the open-faced
park you once lived
in to tell people
about—hey, i was a kid
once and now last so
in your thought clouds
as stamped pieces of
comic strip dialog
that’ll drift around
for a borrow and
all you can get
is the drift
a pigeon
this morning flew
into my place
panicked and calmed
into an owl and
perched, so i opened
the window, my mouth
and it flew out, a ghost
and i miss it, i miss it
i miss it

                          for Brandon Holmquest

wised up

worn stupid
i hear you
in myself
when i talk
to people
in the scrapped air
worn the corner
of 10th & oregon
plain as day
you can see
the highway
as a beam
thru the ballgame
cars passing thru
the crowd
in calm swift lines
that make my eyes
things to do here:
sit or sleep or go
down there all
lazy in the papers
of hunch scraps
founded on
hunch scraps
airplane or thunder
i don’t cross
the crossing guard
i don’t tie forth
for nothing
i don’t change my
for the standings
of quacks
to grow a science
broker than a duck
of self

more than i could

a bunch of the bar
starts really getting
into sinatra’s “my way”
peter sellers looks up
from his magnifying glass
and fixates on this one
guy who’s singing it
into his girlfriend’s half-
averted half-embarrassed
face as she texts a friend—
half here, i think, a licked
sadness and that half
the whole bar up in its
own business, as always,
as if any of the world
that’s not this bar
could give two shits
and so what if it did
anyway—would it be
what it needed to be
would it eat up doubt
and spit it out
like the street outside
going by as taxis
as people looking
for money or ass
and a thing to reassure
them they’re wrong
a thing to reassure
them they deserve
to be punished
forever and ever?