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The Washington Post

Washington, Through Poets' Eyes
By Marc Fisher

Thursday, July 6, 2006; page B01

The first clickable maps of Washington focused on where murders occur, what spots become infamous in some political scandal, or where the traffic has congealed.

Now comes a clickable map of the Washington where you can summon Walt Whitman on a street corner, stealing away from the wounded of war to write his lines about the passing parade, or Abraham Lincoln, riding down Seventh Street on horseback.

The editors of Beltway, a poetry journal with a yen for things Washingtonian, asked poets to consider this city, and now 52 of the resulting works appear in a special issue devoted to D.C. places. Click on the online map, at, and see what poets have made of the elegant marble ladies' room at the National Archives, the names on the wall at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Marilyn Monroe mural in Woodley Park, the X2 bus to Anacostia or a piano man at Twins Lounge on Colorado Avenue NW.

The scene might be contemporary, such as poet Dean Smith's describing gunfire outside his window in Mount Pleasant and then "a boy facedown in the street wearing a Redskins jersey . . . not the usual gang volleys but two shots, definitive, full stops." Smith recalls a brief exchange with the murdered boy that occurred "on my way home from Lautrec or the Mambo Room and consisted of a nod and a 'no thanks,' when he offered me 'rock.' " The poet sees the memorial to the boy at the base of a tree, and the "bottles of Remy-Martin drained in his honor" become "a soldier's goodbye."

The now mixes with Whitman's Washington, as in Sarah Browning's vision of those summer mornings when "Lincoln rode his horse to work down the Seventh Street Turnpike close to my new home. Down Georgia Avenue past The Hunger Stopper and Pay Day 2 Go and liquor stores and liquor stores. Past Cluck-U-Chicken and Fish in the 'Hood and Top Twins Faze II Authentic African Cuisine and the newish Metro station and all those possibilities gleaming in developers' eyes."

There are still places in the city where you can wander about and imagine yourself in Whitman's time, as Patricia Gray does along the cobblestone walks of Capitol Hill on weekends, "while the media and cranes doze." She writes that "freedom can return. It is possible to step across rivers of fear and, with feet wet and soiled, find the way, even as we construct barriers that hide from us the knowledge that once this city was open and can be again."

There is suspicion here, a pervasive sense that the city is being closely watched, to little effect other than to add to the residents' anxiety (what were all those military choppers doing zipping across the fireworks over the Mall on the night of the Fourth, again and again?).

Kathi Morrison-Taylor, who teaches middle school English in the District, writes about the Bomb Pop, that icy "novelty rocket of cherry, lemon and raspberry, a bestseller in this no-fly zone." When a bomb threat clears the monuments and closes Constitution and Independence avenues, the poet finds "a tourist dad stopped to cool off with a Bomb Pop," and she sees him lick "those memories -- Cold War, fallout shelters, brain freeze -- basking in Homeland Security. Forgive me, but I suspect someone's filming me as I ask for one."

The poems that work best speak of the real city, the one to which politicians are blind. Thomas Sayers Ellis, D.C. born, tells of Tambourine Tommy, "more man than myth, more myth than freak," a street character who would "run from Barry Farms to Mount Vernon with bricks borrowed from the wall around St. Elizabeth's Hospital in each hand. . . . No one thought of him as artist, no one thought of him as activist. . . . Part hustler, part athlete, tougher than all of Southeast."

Joseph Awad, a former poet laureate of Virginia and the son of a man who worked at the Mayflower Hotel, visits the hotel barbershop, where "you worked from eight to six, six days a week. I thought of my Georgetown years, lost afternoons when I dropped by near quitting time. I'd peruse the old Times-Herald or The Daily News until you finished your last customer, who, introduced, would say, as if on cue, 'Your dad is very proud of you.' "

And Derrick Weston Brown, who lives in Mount Rainier and is poet in residence at Busboys and Poets, the cafe on 14th Street NW, sings of glimpses on the train:

I smelled you at the Metro stop
Tasted you on the Yellow
Glimpsed you on the Green
Caught you on the Orange
Loved you on the Red
Lost you on the Blue,
Now I need a transfer
or at least exit fare,
cause no one deserves
to take such a ride,
and end up being taken
for every dime.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company