How Can You Know What It Means To Be Here

 

Look past the litter, graffiti, and mayhem, and Devil's Pool is still a magical place | Photo: Bradley Maule

Look past the litter, graffiti, and mayhem, and Devil’s Pool is still a magical place | Photo: Bradley Maule

Since his return to Philadelphia over a year ago, it seems that Hidden City co-editor Bradley Maule has hardly slept. Brad often gets up before dawn, often after a night of socializing, and heads into the woods near his Mount Airy home. One day last week, at 6:15AM, Brad had his first jump off the rock cliff and into the Devil’s Pool. A few days before, he had helped a team of volunteers to free the spot from litter—only to see it smothered in it again 48 hours later. In collaboration with the Friends of the Wissahickon, Brad has been working relentlessly to clean the park through a project, “One Man’s Trash,” he has been recording on Philly Skyline.

Fairmount Park: where city and nature converge in Philadelphia. Pictured here, McCallum Street Bridge over Cresheim Creek | Photo: Bradley Maule

Fairmount Park: where city and nature converge in Philadelphia. Pictured here, McCallum Street Bridge over Cresheim Creek | Photo: Bradley Maule

Brad’s love of Philly started with its buildings and architecture, but it’s been confirmed through this immersion in Fairmount Park, the sublime landscape, the mingling hand of man. (Beginning this weekend, in support of the Friends of the Wissahickon and Hidden City, Brad will lead two special hikes in the Wissahickon, details HERE.)

Since at least Edgar Allan Poe’s raft trip down the Wissahickon, Philadelphia writers have taken note of the power and the dangerous beauty of this landscape. One of the most startling recordings is a prose poem history of the Schuylkill River, Flow, by the intuitive and visionary writer of novels and memoirs, Beth Kephart. Temple University Press originally published Flow in 2007; now it has brought out a new edition. This is sensory ecological urban history, told with wit and utter despair, as I noted in a review of the original edition, “a finely-tuned and moving work of art, an exquisite book of loss and wanting.” There is no more profound or moving exploration of Philadelphia’s history.

Here is the chapter called “Nostalgia,” in the voice of the river herself:

Every now and then the music will pour down from George’s Hill, as if the musicians are sitting high on the hemlock trees and performing for the birds. Someone sitting on a steamboat or walking along the west canal will remember Bobby Arnold’s Tavern and the catfish that it served, the rum punches and mint juleps, waffles they’d spend a month dreaming of, and not only that, but how, after a long nap following a big meal, they’d all go swimming nude.

And then the storytellers will get around to old Godfrey Schronk and his blessed dip-net, his habit of lifting thousands of fish straight out of their schools. Black-backed catfish and perch and grown-to-fullness shad, the fishing boats latched to the rocks and the seines so heavy it took a mind of strength to lift them.

And someone will say, River don’t give us fish like that anymore.

And I’ll want to say, River’s given more than you ever should have taken.

Kephart, I wrote then, “is a master not only of descriptive memory, but of constructing a vocabulary of existence.”

For those of us whose work it is to characterize place as something alive inside us, such a vocabulary is essential; the search for it obsesses us. What makes a landscape or a building or a street corner or a tree or a slash of graffiti bristle in our hearts? What binds us, beyond personal memory, to physical space?

The poet Stephen Berg, who died twelve days ago, spent his lifetime searching for this glue. Here he is, on 18th Street, in Center City, mid-1990s, in a prose poem called “Burning:”

This is all there is, it is burning, birth death like a palace of leaves, burning, saw dogshit clog my cleated sole scraped it off on a curb then on grass by a tree, then used a twig, the hundred different quartz watches, buttons, displays, black and silver, in the electronics shop across from Pour Vous, Sue’s Fruits and Vegetables with its packed stalls juice machine customers, Rindelaub’s restaurant now nothing but a cheap bakery, even the faeces, even Christ, even the cracked fucked-up pavement under my feet, the gift of its drab heart (pray? should I pray?) burning–these must have told me what I had always known in my prideful terrors, but I can’t say, only God who needs no God can, or insects communicating their next move, or the pulse of a leaf–every building, shopper, car and garbage can erupting with the praise and grace of existence, a kind of delirious grief in gratitude for the possibility of existence, who yearning for who yearning for who, it was weird–instantly I resisted, windowshopped, studied books skirts shoes, watched faces, did my interminable shit-scared cretin philosophy, calculated the feel of bills in my pocket if I had enough for lunch, any appointments?–but it was happening: picture yourself caused by light witnessed by light stated by the throat of light redeemed by light.

Where once began a poem | Playing Angels (and President Grant) seen from across the Schuylkill in Fairmount Park | Photo: Bradley Maule

Where once began a poem | Playing Angels (and President Grant) seen from across the Schuylkill in Fairmount Park | Photo: Bradley Maule

As many University of the Arts students know, Berg himself was a raw being, sensitive to both dark and light; he gave back to Philadelphia what the city gave him: pulsing reckless insistence, indeed a kind of delirious grief in gratitude. You’ll find a lot of this in the excellent collection Shaving (with the cover drawing by the late great Sidney Goodman). I’ve always been particularly fond of the poem “On the 33,” about a bus ride from Spring Garden to Center City.

Once, you could find parts of Berg’s poem “Sleeping Woman” on the Schuylkill retaining wall on the east side of Fairmount Park. Berg and his close friend the artist Thomas Chimes, who died in 2009, were commissioned by the Fairmount Park Art Association (now the Association for Public Art) in 1991 to create the poem-sculpture about the river. As soon as the work was completed, a storm destroyed the first 250 foot section of the wall, taking out the first 61 words of the poem. Berg, at Chimes’ insistence, decided to leave the poem as it was, and today it’s almost entirely worn away. (For more on this story, please see an article of mine on Fairmount Park and the nature of the city from Philly Skyline HERE.)

In memory of the great poet and in honor of the park (and Brad’s devotion to it), here is “Sleeping Woman.” Best, on a beautiful day like today, to print it out, find a nice grass expanse, and read it aloud. The poetry, like the river, ought to live on.

how can you know what it means to be here

in the clear silence without need listening
fed by the lost source of nature where you

are now voices hover breathe on the abyss
are the abyss bare songs faint streaks traces

gusts scribble of leaves cloud scrawl unpredictable
storms calms black trees table of weeds and stars

you could die here watching pick twilight haze
become night daybreak dusk igniting the

dark water step into the flickering
meadow beyond opening to you its

bright deep surface a mind not yours throat
humming before we had out lives places

cry out for images of you of me
if they had tongues what could they say to

explain us what to do the crazy years do
to us who hope to live forever sure

of a life after in the tenderness
of knowing this amazed by cherry branches

each blossoming stripped in a day o gods
we hear speaking to us on pages time

fuses its cold flame to out souls we put
our human hands together pray murmur

your names that are no one’s this tiny body
of flesh of bone answerless composing

its last message again again again
but the river consoles urgent hypnotic

geese rift on the rough water mirror
holding nothing spilling across falls long

body mouth fireladen sky in it where
all images are broken on the meeting

of two eternities between by white
chrysanthemums scissors hesitate

only an instant no words to say it
thought these rise from anonymous stone to

help the mystery speak like a letter to
an intimate friend and not hinder the

sacred troubled beauty love is was will be
love has shaken me like wind rushing down

from the hills hitting an oak you
burn me with what eyes look me in the face

friend to friend nothing’s sweeter than sleeping
with your love it heals the dying soul with

what eyes what pain love gives you burn me show
me what’s behind your eyes of death’s tremendous

nearness kneeling to any phrase hear me
talking in my sleep to you to whom I

gave birth how can you know what it means how
can you face the edge of time who does not

think of himself is given the keys offerings
glimpses of torn mist who the kindness

infinite of my hands who now where you
stand touch me give me my name

About the author

Hidden City co-editor Nathaniel Popkin’s latest book is the novel Lion and Leopard (The Head and The Hand Press). He is also the author of Song of the City (Four Walls Eight Windows/Basic Books) and The Possible City (Camino Books). He is senior writer and script editor of the Emmy-winning documentary series “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment” and the fiction review editor of Cleaver Magazine. Popkin's literary criticism appears in the Wall Street Journal, Public Books, The Kenyon Review, and The Millions. He is writer-in-residence of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia.



4 Comments


  1. We are all so blessed to have such fine and elegant writing here on Hidden City. Thanks to all who write here. You encapsulate how so many of us feel about this beautiful, if timeworn, place.

  2. Beautifully written and a great tribute to Stephen Berg. Just to clarify, the Fairmount Park Art Association (now the Association for Public Art) is actually the organization that commissioned “Sleeping Woman” in 1991. More information and to hear the Museum Without Walls™: AUDIO program with Stephen Berg speaking about the artwork: http://museumwithoutwallsaudio.org/interactive-map/sleeping-woman#video

  3. Wow, this is beautiful…and I loved the poetry included from the poet and Beth.

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