Poems for our City: a Project of Cincinnati Poet Laureate Pauletta Hansel

Cincinnati’s first Poet Laureate Pauletta Hansel (2016-2018) crafted three poems in collaboration with Cincinnati’s poets during her two year term. Each were created in honor of a specific civic occasion. Pauletta invited poets to submit lines of poetry in reponse to specific themes and then wove the lines into a single poem. Here they are, one for each of the three calendar years of her tenure.

 

2016

In honor of our Mayor’s 2016 State of the City address, I invited poets from throughout Cincinnati to send their responses to the prompt “The State of Our City, 2016,” for me to weave into a poem carrying our varied perspectives. Here is the result, by twists and turns candid, appreciative, reproachful, humorous, compassionate—and ultimately hopeful. We, the poets, present:

Cincinnati: The State of Us, 2016

She first blooms, a surprise beauty,
blossoming between the Cut in the Hill,
Queen of the West in her 21st Century dressed.
Can you find her?
We’re the south south side of Chicago, an easy commute
by a not-yet-built fast train. It’s a slow
rumble now, easing through Indiana
as fragrance from the Shasta Viburnums
waft throughout the seven hills.
By some calculations,
fifty-two equals one
city, seven hills and
a river to bound it,
above a hidden unfinished underground
of metal and glass.
At dawn, over the river
rises a haze of contradiction.
This is a city of neighborhoods,
the kind expressways divide.
We make do: our beach,
a waterpark; our parks
no Central Park
but forests and woods,
an island of homes
between the garden cemetery
and the factory.
Our parks are beautiful and free.
Colorful murals paint a story
on walls left blank from another era.
We count as neighbors both the blind wanting walls
and the unseen paying for their construction.
We carry our stained-glass decisions carefully packaged.
The Island of Misfits has become Disneyland…
(In a big sports town that plays on words,
everybody knows the cabin cleaning nits
aren’t in the same league as the nine rancid tics.)
Adding attractions are important, but the people?
Who gives a damn? I see them again and again,
men and women, lying or sitting
on the steps of the stately old church,
some clutching bags of clothes,
others with nothing.
The night is dark, bordering on cold
and I wonder who they are,
why they are there.
The name of the street?
Liberty.
The highs? The lows?
Who can read such weather?
At Findlay Market, 10:03 AM,
fallen unnoticed in flat November light,
one too-ripe-to-sweet-soft strawberry lies
like a cat’s heart on cold pavement.
At Walnut and Sixth,
blue sky hangs framed from skywalk roof to floor
to sidewalk. Hey! It’s under there!!
My city’s under there!!!
(No matter how deep you bury it in money,
the love and loss leak out…)
Careless on my bike, I got my permanent
teeth knocked out on Tweed near Linwood.
My Cincinnati metaphor: decades of trauma
with just the crooked smile I needed to cope.
The people, we’re who
give a damn. By some calculations
300,000 equals one
people spread among hills and vales,
villes and gates, parks and woods and sides
and dales and heights.
We know where East and West meet
but does each have an ending?
Because Race Street only runs one way
(runs rough to our river,)
because the city-county line
is not just a dotted streak on a map
but a pulse that won’t quit
throbbing through the veins
of our streets with people,
a linchpin people made of fifty-two pips:
our city is definitely alive!

Composed by Pauletta Hansel with lines by Ellen Austin-Li, Valerie Chronis Bickett, Michael Burnham, Owen Cramer, Sean Foster, Jonathan Goolsby, Richard Hague, Pauletta Hansel, Michael Henson, Annie Hinkle, Pam Hirte, Bucky Ignatius, Linda Busken Jergens, Theresa Kulbaga, Steven Paul Lansky, Jai Washington, Scott Whitehurst, Annette Wick, Sue Wilke and Tyrone Williams.

****

2017

In honor of poetry month, poets throughout the Cincinnati area offered me lines on the subject of poetry in our city to craft this poem—not mine, but ours.

Our Words

Cincinnati, April 2017

I.
This blue city
is on fire
with words
marching across the page.
In rooms quiet as sanctuaries, our words
like light through stained glass
blend disparate notes in poetic symphony.
River crossings connect us,
bridging the arteries of our lives.
Most folks stay pretty busy
breathing, eating, looping ends
onto themselves or trying,
writing the poem entitled
survival.
If all art is political,
we’ve been given a lot to work with.
Hone your craft; spark
a question in someone’s silo.
Perhaps, there is a destiny for words.

II.
A fair city’s pendulum swings
away from
Porkopolis
back to
Paris.
We, planted in Cincinnati’s glacial till,
have roots and rhythms deep in red-brown
mountain soil, all made plain
by the writers and readers and songsters in our midst,
the ever-rivering lines of the Ohio
carrying a river of words, voices
plush with silt.

III.
You can’t understand the world
without telling a story.
At the corner
of Memory and Silence
a rogue cat in the heat of the word,
prowling for rhythm and rhyme,
open mouthed and echoing
through the dusting brick,
sings
and bodies sway to her speech.
After seven too-early moon rains
seven robin men
stand in jagged, fabricated rows,
digging for ancient worms
in a public park
while three dove women fly
crooked and broken wings into a sun
of their own making to protect
our young who are unveiling their voiceless
voices through rhythm and rhyme,
their stew of stories and poems a blessing,
my belly growling, aching for that food.

IV.
Words flourish here,
roll along like the Ohio River,
sometimes clear as glass or murky as churned mud.
They grow under glass, these hot house voices,
spring ephemerals, trilliums which emerge
each April, seemingly delicate,
little crocuses peeking from under the snow,
these words that change the world.

Composed by Cincinnati Poet Laureate Pauletta Hansel with words by Ellen Austin-Li, John Cruze, Mark Flanigan, Terry Focht, Sean M. Foster, Karen George, Richard Hague, Pauletta Hansel, Annie Hinkle, Pam Hirte, Desirae Hosley, Karen Jaquish, Kamal Kimball, Theresa Kulbaga, Elese Monet, Rhonda Pettit, Lynn Robbins, Roberta Schultz, Sherry Cook Stanforth, Chuck Stringer, Thomas A. Trevor and Dick Westheimer.

On Wednesday, April 5, Pauletta read “Our Words” to Cincinnati City Council and its guests when April 2017 was proclaimed Poetry Month in Cincinnati. Listen to an on-air reading on  WVXU’s Around Cincinnati.

***

2018

On January 2, 2018 a group of poets braved the bitter cold to perform a choral reading of our poem for the City as the new Cincinnati City Council was sworn in. On behalf of Cincinnati’s poets, I offer you:

Cincinnati: A Song of Ourselves

By some calculations,
fifty-two equals one
city, seven hills and
the ever-rivering lines of the Ohio
to bound it.
This city.
One that chose long ago to outgrow itself.
Cut the hill, see the western shadowed buildings
pulsing urgent in the city street pentameter
above a hidden unfinished underground
of metal and glass, arteries, entrails,
all sorts of plumbing, rivers and viaducts,
ad infinitum.

O City, know your poetry –
river, hills, valley in which you shine and sing –
from your smoke and mirrors.
Listen, City, to your song, the poetry gumbo
becoming to its soul made lively,
becoming more.

Voting with your mouth is useful
in the process of the seven hungers,
but in the shadow of heavy tannéd hill-folds,
lines grow longer, queued for a light from the West,
from some reborn magi of the deep pockets.
Each empty stare is a warning, and a way to begin.
Each tattered leaf, a scrap of time
you can never put back on the tree.
Instead of pretending to be colorblind,
open your eyes to the rainbow of color in this city,
like an advent calendar,
a pleasant surprise
hidden behind each window.
Feed the hungry, leave the gleanings,
open doors, embrace the ragged and wealthy and rough hewn
to make a resting place for all
who wish to call us home.
Do not let our smallness hem you in.

“I drag my feet unintentionally / this is to say / I am not a broom
but a city of stars illuminated by strangers,
welcomed by arts and parks and poems and outstretched arms.
The pride of rainbow banners point the way
to a city for all.”

And if all art is political,
we’ve been given a lot to work with.
The OSU/U-M rivalry
can’t begin to rival the Skyline/Gold Star one.
And in the neighborhood murdered by medicine,
giant buildings saunter
where our houses once stood still
and hugged us.

With just enough of the year left to plant daffodils,
winter cold reminds us
that energy is made of ice and glass, too.
And if we breathe, will we stoke the fire, or blow it out?

I am here.
You are here.
We don’t trust each other,
not as lungs go,
but someone was god-like and left us no choice.
(Move thru it, move thru it—that’s the only way out.)
And so, a blessing on us,
a goodnight Tiara shimmering in the dark above
one city,
ours,
spread among hills and vales,
villes and gates, parks and woods and sides
and dales and heights:
May the exquisite tones and turns of our words
wear nothing more than small hills, river-licked;
contain the lands and bodies of water we cross;
form a tight braid to root us in kindness, grace
and joy for all we are,
for all we hope to be.

Composed by Cincinnati Poet Laureate Pauletta Hansel with words by Ellen Austin-Li, Michael Burnham, John Cruze, Ella Davis, Mark Flanigan, Sean M. Foster, Karen George, Richard Hague, Pauletta Hansel, Annie Hinkle, Bucky Ignatius, Theresa Kulbaga, Elese Monet, Rhonda Pettit, Lynn Robbins, Raya Schweitzer, Chuck Stringer, Kelly Thomas, Hilda Weaver, Dick Westheimer, Tyrone Williams and Zohreh Zand.

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