Patricia Gray


After reading Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry"

This morning, standing on the sweet spot near the Capitol,
where tourists like to stand, I watched workmen heft bollard posts
into deep, cement pits. On this same spot, you too may stand,
deterred by the barriers today being placed. I imagine you, visitor
or friend, walking ahead of me in your future-clothes. You will not
know the Capitol we have known, nor the area generations before
us knew—when the grounds were open and citizens could drive up
to the steps, or even earlier, when horses were tied to wrought-iron
hitching posts that, later, were converted to park benches.

But if you have already visited, you may know me as the stranger
in your family album, the blurred figure passing through, as
you snapped a Washington memory—for I was born here: took
first steps holding my parents' hands on Pennsylvania Avenue,
the southeast side, away from the residence of power. If you asked
directions, I gave them. If requested, I held your camera, opened
the quick lens and captured you with the dome, its Statue of Freedom
on top—the same statue that was removed to the parking lot for cleaning—
a Romanesque figure with a helmet, and not the Native American
we had supposed. Just this morning, visitor, I heard, as you will hear,
birdsong and twitter, the scattering under feet of squirrels scampering
aloft at my approach, the caw-cry of crows in the distance.
And today, a cab driver may tell you old stories of neighborhoods
in days when doors were left open, cars unlocked, and about
Capitol Hill, on hottest evenings, when children in nightgowns
sometimes slept under low branches on the soft, Capitol grass.

Recently, too, we could walk on the front porch of that ediface
and look out over the Mall at the spokes of L'Enfant's city streets
leading away from its centerpiece hub toward traffic circles uptown.
Just a decade ago, I went upstairs in the Capitol on the day of the
Million Man March and looked out over the Mall from a small
window at the sea of faces full of passion, brotherhood, and
the deep urge to do good. This morning, as usual, dawn runners
hurry past, while others, dressed for work, speak brightly
into cell phones to no one nearby. Thriving and busy, the city
forms itself around Jersey barriers, metal check-points—though, still,
over there, you may see the Potomac's mild ripples where swimmers
once splashed, men fished, or others hunted its banks. And just as
the tidied-up Potomac sends its fresh breezes eastward toward the Hill,
the neglected Anacostia will also be cleaned. Have you sculled
the Potomac, or paddle-boated the Tidal Basin? Like many, I have
walked under cherry blossoms in April, which sprout from tree trunks
as easily as from branches, and touched the pink-tinged blossoms
damp after showers, glistening against rain-blackened bark.

Shushshsh, do I have your confidence? Come here. There is
still magic on this spot and—though the city can be cutthroat
in its clubs and drug dens and neighborhoods overrun and pulled
down—on any street near the Capitol, when the honks and shouts
die down and Congressmen leave for the weekend, you can hear
the soft scuff of your shoe soles on the sidewalk, and the city becomes
a simple hometown. Elders and youngsters come home. A mother
pauses to sit on a bench, lift her blouse and nurse the new infant—
its small hand, only a tenth-size of yours, while indoors, grandmothers
pad in slippers to pick up their newspapers. By now, a line has formed
at the coffee shop, where a Hispanic father continues to hold his own
against the day-to-day forces that, at times, would bring him down.

And, on any given weekend, while the media and cranes doze,
when you pass others on the cobblestone walk, look down
at the contours of tree roots buckling the brick path and remember
the poet who walked here and who tended wounded soldiers on the Mall.
Walk farther from the Hill, past the halfway house where small miracles
still occur each time a life that has died to the root sprouts again,
past lethal cravings. Then, you will know 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.

Patricia Gray's book Rupture (Red Hen Press) was selected by the Montserrat Review as one of the best books of poetry of 2005. In September 2005, she was a guest reader at the Southern Women Writers' Conference in Georgia, and in 2006 she is the grateful recipient of an Artist Fellowship from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Patricia Gray was on the Coordinating Committee of the 2005 city-wide festival "DC Celebrates Whitman: 150 Years of Leaves of Grass." She coordinates the Poetry at Noon program at the Library of Congress.


Published in Volume 7, Number 3, Summer 2006.


To read more by this author:
Patricia Gray
Patricia Gray: The Whitman Issue
Patricia Gray: Poets in Federal Government Issue