Cities have always attracted people, drawing them in from their rural, even nomadic roots, with the promise of prosperity, protection, and opportunity. Archaeologists tell us that the first city was Jericho, whose walls were constructed over 11,000 years ago. In the Bible, the first thing Cain does after his reprieve from a death sentence for killing his brother is to found a city, symbolizing a new start in life. Gilgamesh builds a city so that he will leave something permanent behind. In the late medieval period, peasants who fled the nobles to whose lands they were bound and made their way to a city were freed from any obligation to return to their former lives if they managed to avoid capture in the city for a year and a day.
The Industrial Revolution spurred a great migration from the country to the city, because that’s where the factories were (and the jobs), and that migration continues today. According to a recent UN report, 54% of the world’s inhabitants live in cities, and that number is projected to increase to 66% by the year 2050. In the wonderful 2004 film Crash, one of the characters conjectures that in a big city, even though people are everywhere around, they sometimes get so lonely that they have to crash into each other just to have human contact. City life is the norm for most people today, and while social isolation is a reality for many, the majority of city-dwellers embrace urban life with its benefits and its challenges. Not only do they embrace it, they revel in it, they celebrate it.
Since the invention of writing, authors have lauded the cities in which they lived, or in some cases from which they were exiled (Dante’s Florence, for example). Some writers are particularly identified with their home cities, which almost function as characters in their works: Langston Hughes with Harlem, Elmore Leonard with Detroit, and our own Carmen Tafolla with San Antonio. Carl Sandburg is usually associated with Chicago, and many of his poems are set there, but as we’ll see in the pages of this issue of Voices, other cities also captured his imagination.
“City lights and life” is the theme of this issue, with many pieces extolling the joys and struggles of city life, the inspiration that cities provide, and the ways people express themselves in an urban environment. Starting with Sharon Bibbee’s High Rise on the cover, readers will encounter a variety of perspectives on cities large and small: Chicago, Corpus Christi, Cleveland, San Miguel de Allende, London and Lagos, Berkeley and Ferguson, Pisa and Rome—and others as well.
This issue also features the winners of the first annual HEB Youth Poetry Contest, co-sponsored by HEB and Voices de la Luna. Out of more than forty submissions, first, second, and third place winners were chosen, along with three honorable mentions. If these youth poems are any indication, the future of poetry in the U.S. is bright!
In Plato’s Republic, Socrates advocated banishing poets from the city because of their persuasive powers. Much as I admire both Plato and Socrates, I have to disagree. We who live in cities need to listen to the voices of poets, writers, and composers, and we need to interact with the works of artists and architects. In a time of increasing violence and conflict around the world, our hope lies not with governmental authorities and agents (who sometimes use violence themselves) but with artists and poets who offer a better, more beautiful vision of what the world can become.
How they dressed you hundreds of years after you died— in a blue dress swarming in roses. Their stems curled like scorpion tails mid sky— a dress only your mother could have imagined as you slept in her rough blankets, as she carried you to water, as she plucked grit from your closed fingers, removed the cloth webbing from between the bent nubs of your toes, as she warmed water in the cup of her hand How she may have wanted others to understand— if she could display it on cloth, if she could embroider the slow burn in her chest, put to thread the flood that could have broken her ribs open every time she realized you had weight outside of her body— that your face purposed her arm, thigh, and hand. How she may have wanted a cloth so wide sky goddesses could see it spread near the dusty bridge, to defend you, if needed, with arrows or fatal storms. And so the man who carved your image into wood knew how to dress the mother of God. Had heard how queens’ robes stretched neck to ground. Wanted a summit of blue cloth. Wanted people to think of sails, ships heavy with raw gems. Imagined the eye of wind spreading behind the full skin of your dress. And made it blue as if to say it was made of an ocean reflecting those constellations that multiplied inside your mother as she fed you her own beams of human light.
To the victims of Hurricane Katrina
Walt Whitman would love you Even more today, Grimy jewel of the South Glowing in the foil Of Big Muddy. He would walk all over you, Count the red brick buildings Rich with soot Streets bright with the heavy confetti Of shopping bags and fliers. He would amble through the French Quarter, Paint peeling from facades Its telephone wires sheathed in vines Before he wolfed down gumbo in big bowls, Crab claws floating on top like mermaids Ever present as flashing breasts. He would swallow Louie Armstrong’s highest notes, Gulp down jazz, blues and zydeco Breathe in the ghosts of Williams and Capote Before he strolled Canal Street Standing on the neutral ground To take in multitudes: The young man rapping on a corner, A harried intern racing to the hospital Handcuffed teens Piling out of the police van Like reluctant clowns. Maybe he would see the live show at Loew’s With the Voodoo Sex Queens from Outer Space. Further out, beyond the Superdome, he would hear The Natchez Queen puffing up the river Like an athlete out of shape, Or hitch a ride on the fabled train Chugging through the heavy evening air, Rich dark laughter Shining like gold in an alley. He would smell the sea and Lake Ponchartrain Perfume and sweat, chicory, trash and magnolias, Catalogue the whorls on an oyster shell. Later he might loaf along the levees, Stroke their voluptuous shoulders Take his ease under oaks and sleepy cypresses, Spanish moss trailing from their limbs Like tattered shawls. He would pass Through both the shotgun shacks And antebellum dowagers of the Garden District Becoming part of them, Of everything. Then, under a starry night He would watch the endless pageant Of streaming lights To find his way to Duncan Plaza Where Avery Alexander points the way, Leaning into civil rights And remembering the auction block Where John McDonough wants to do “Good, much good, great good” For his fellow man. At last Walt would stretch out By the homeless man Asleep at the feet of George Washington And dream, Curled into the heart Of New Orleans, Grimy jewel of the South Glowing In the foil Of Big Muddy.
First Place, HEB Youth Poetry Contest
Her voice meanders through narrow cobbled streets Harmonizing with the splash of canals Walking the arpeggio of a bridge Her voice beating wings and pages turning The echo of people’s lives, ringing feet on stones Now just a reflection of the past Her voice, the glance of eyes behind jeweled masks And the rain thrumming on bent heads as they hurry home. She is the murmur of the sea As the waves take another sliver of the city. Listen and you can hear the tide coming in.