west of philly
they asked me to write a poem like a lush life, a johnny hartman poem. a poem that would make your fake eyelashes fall off. a poem with the city all up in it. a poem, matter of fact, like a city, one that can only be reached by train. yeah, write us a poem like a train, but not like coltrane. just write a coltrane poem that contains the essence of the city, the way the horizon sounds like elvin jones playing cymbals & trash trucks. i mean, just write a poem that contains the essence of west philly—a poem you’ve already written—write that. yeah, write a recycled philly poem about a philly that doesn’t exist anymore. write the sequel. write a new romancing the stone, but set it in philly, starring a black woman poet & a belizean sailor. write that scene where your angry neighbors shut down a fast food joint with danny devito or those motley kids discover the smirking mouth of a creek buried under 43rd. make sure it’s juicy with brotherly love & that other stuff. drop-in a cheesesteak, but make sure it’s gluten-free because our audience is particular. y’know, like people who don’t like poetry. not that you can’t write what you want, but for now, just write it like you love every damn inch of the city. even the hawks & vultures & raccoons & the characters like knives sharpened by the week, or like fruit bruised & first-frosted. write it like you believe the city has seasons, that it can change in its deepest cracks, unseen corners. write like you know these corners, you know why this building is painted pink, why this one is empty, why this one is a missing tooth on the block. write it like you know what it’s like for a tooth to be taken. write it like you know what it’s like for a home to be lost. or try writing it like you carry the voices of lost homes to bed with you. like they are evidence & you are a detective. like they are memories & you are family. write it like you can see beyond seeing. like you know the origin of shoulders sharp as javelins, can decode 3-pointed stars hunched under streetlights. like you are related to the men selling socks & incense, oils & belts. like you can read the compass on their faces. like you can recreate the arpeggios of the one-eyed singer or the $200 upright with beer-colored keys at the thrift store. just write a poem like a secondhand store full of dishes & leather jackets. vibrating with the leftovers of people. bleeding in solidarity with a woman in a ripped red sweater like an ear, wailing in the street one summer night. a poem full of peach seeds & lightning bugs. a poem that can change the color of the sky.
Copyright © 2018 by Yolanda Wisher. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on October 9, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets.
About this Poem
“Last year, I was asked by an editor to write another poem just like “5 South 43 Street, Floor 2” from my book, Monk Eats an Afro. At first, I struggled with how to approach the impossible challenge of writing the same poem twice, especially because that little block of West Philadelphia has changed so much since I lived there almost twenty years ago. But after a week or two of stewing, I had a breakthrough—I finally found the words to ‘rewrite’ the place where I had once lived. When I submitted the poem to the editor, he said I had made a mockery of the assignment, wasted his time, and refused to publish it. At first, I was shocked and hurt, but then I came to adore this notoriously rejected poem, which exposes the absurdity of the assignment, the limitations of memory, and the edges of poetry's ability to bear witness to the razing loss of neighborhood culture through gentrification.”
Yolanda Wisher is the author of Monk Eats an Afro (Hanging Loose Press, 2014).
Date Published: 2018-10-09
Source URL: https://poets.org/poem/west-philly