Sunday, January 27, 2013

"the earth torn, split open"

Richard Blanco, who read his Whitman-esque poem "One Today" at the presidential inauguration last week, is a Miami native and FIU alumnus. And like so many poets, he has a day job. He is a civil engineer. In 2008, he was involved in a road improvement project on Sunset Drive, the major artery running through downtown South Miami. While working on the project he became captivated by one of the black-and-white photographs at City Hall that depict South Miami long before his or our family arrived here. Thinking about the temporal space between himself and the single figure depicted in the photograph, he responded in poetry. Here is the text of "Photo of a Man on Sunset Drive: 1914, 2008," from the groundbreaking ceremony of the Sunset Drive road improvement project (published in 2011 in Floating Wolf Quarterly):

And so it began: the earth torn, split open
by a dirt road cutting through palmettos
and wild tamarind trees defending the land
against the sun. Beside the road, a shack
leaning into the wind, on the wooden porch,
crates of avocados and limes, white chickens
pecking at the floor boards, and a man
under the shadow of his straw hat, staring
into the camera in 1914. He doesn't know
within a lifetime the unclaimed land behind
him will be cleared of scrub and sawgrass,
the soil will be turned, made to give back
what the farmers wish, their lonely houses
will stand acres apart from one another,
jailed behind the boughs of their orchards.
He'll never buy sugar at the general store,
mail love letters at the post office, or take
a train at the depot of the town that will rise
out of hundred-million years of coral rock
on promises of paradise. He'll never ride
a Model-T puttering down the dirt road
that will be paved over, stretch farther and
farther west into the horizon, reaching for
the setting sun after which it will be named.
He can't even begin to imagine the shadows
of buildings rising taller than the palm trees,
the street lights glowing like counterfeit stars
dotting the sky above the road, the thousands
who will take the road everyday, who'll also
call this place home less than a hundred years
after the photograph of him hanging today
in City Hall as testament. He'll never meet
me, the engineer hired to transform the road
again, bring back tree shadows and birdsongs,
build another promise of another paradise
meant to last another forever. He'll never see
me, the poet standing before him, trying
to read his mind across time, wondering if
he was thinking what I'm today, both of us
looking down the road that will stretch on
for years after I too disappear into a photo.

Thanks to Pam Lahiff, chair of the South Miami Historic Preservation Board, for pointing us to this poem. The Preservation Board will host an event at South Miami City Hall Monday evening, 7pm, to introduce their new brochure, "A Walk on Historic Sunset Drive."

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