In November of 2018 I composed and performed a poem about my city and all of its many changes – read “gentrification” – for TEDx Columbus. Posted here is the video link and the text of the poem. It ain’t short.
In the face of decades of gentrification and rapid development that frequently outstrip answers to questions about local identity and justice in Columbus, Ohio, poet and critic Scott Woods debuts an epic poem in response.
Life in a Razor-Shaped City
(Composed and recorded for TEDx Columbus on November 16, 2018)
[Enter reading from index cards]
I would like to welcome you all to your first HQ Blacks pitch meeting.
We will be assessing all of your proposals for their respective merits.
As you know, HQ Blacks is a highly sought after company,
dealing in only the finest talent.
If we sound a little sure of ourselves it is only because
we stand resolute in our ability to meet the needs of consumers.
We put the H in HQ Blacks and the H stands for “Hi”,
so good afternoon and welcome to your first HQ Blacks pitch meeting.
We will be assessing all of your blacks for merit and respect.
If we sound ourselves, it is only because we stand in need of consumers.
We put the H in HQ Blacks and the H stands for “hunger”.
We are so used to being consumed we are experts in the field.
Serve ourselves on plates so large we are a hog the size of progress
that stuffs whole orchards in our mouths to remind you
that we are sustenance, happy to be consumed.
Every bite of our offerings a Thanksgiving.
All prey should be so lucky.
We put the “black” in HQ Blacks and the black stands for “delicious”.
Black quality control is our top priority.
Our brand is smoking, literally,
just left of the right shoulder blade.
Our culture is dying in the streets to meet you.
But to do the work efficiently
we’ve compiled a short list of things
we require if you wish for us to establish
HQ Blacks in your city:
First, we require earth.
We were imported wholesale from a land of big skies,
the shipping and handling a caress of waves and whips
prices hung on our toes like body tags,
a distant cousin’s belly for bubble wrap,
we cannot drink water without wanting to
drown a 400-year-old song in our throats
that sounds like Marvin Gaye
singing the National Anthem after
crying in a locker room,
needing to kneel,
not yet knowing that
one day that will be an answer.
No place to put those knees, those tears, that water,
so it hits the ground in buckets of song
so earth –
ground that doesn’t move or sway or rock or flow,
that swallows all memories and bones equally,
the entire democracy of sins –
earth, my dear city, is a non-negotiable.
Do you realize how much land it takes to make the blues?
How many acres of cotton,
plots of shotgun shacks,
rentable plantation getaways you have to
by the dead root of an oak tree
minus a noose,
carry the dead,
use an inverse sin function
raise sweat to the power of whip
take the log of a coon hunt
hit the integer button on an abacus with skulls for beads,
a lot of land.
Somewhere in there someone called it blues.
Skipped all the other obvious colors:
could have called it reds for blood,
browns for skin
purples for bruise
blacks for night.
Someone skipped blacks for night,
went straight for blues.
Bypassed all that stygian firmament with its twinkling naps
teeming with prayers and manifestos and jambalaya recipes
and instead cast their eyes to the body lying
next to them in a cabin,
the moon somewhere else but leaving behind just enough
midnight luster to read the braille of scars on a lover’s back,
the shine – such as it was – gone indigo
on her crossing peaks.
And when she was taken,
he went back to the night as if it were an altar,
lay in his bed of straw and lice and empty,
felt her runaway scars still under his fingertips,
each a poltergeist flipping his insides in despair,
then put a fiddle bow to it.
Named it after dem scars, after her.
You don’t even want to see the math on gospel.
We might’ve done jazz with a backyard way back when, but
the real estate footprint of hip hop is enormous!
So sure, you live in a city, but it’s a razor-shaped city,
Got us standing on an edge that’s cut us so many times
we just keep dancing through the tears.
A city that puts your name in lights as it cuts your electricity.
Shoots you a block away from a park that swears it cares,
every grass in it a blade shaving away resistance
like a please grater.
Which albatross do you want us to be?
The one that flies always at sea, wings wide,
held aloft on hope and maybe and soon,
far from proper civilization?
Or would you prefer the burden fowl,
hung ‘round the mariner’s neck,
a mewling reminder of your crimes
when all you wanted was to get in a little sailing?
And see? Right there.
I went to the schools you told me to.
I’m not supposed to know either one of those analogies.
When you know one of us knows / some of that?
You gotta do something else!
You don’t pull over someone who rocks Samuel Taylor Coleridge
when a Jonathan Livingston Seagull reference will do.
See, this is the kind of pop-up HQ Blacks experience
we can provide a thriving city
on the come-up!
A razor only serves to cleave us from our best offerings,
and statistically speaking, no one can survive on
fifty percent of themselves.
So we’re gonna need some land.
Where else will we put all these things you love?
I don’t mean to inside trade here but
if you knew how powerful we were?
You could have saved your money
and killed us a long time ago,
put us in the ground,
that knowing embrace of dirt and memories
dressed us in our funeral best
had Elvis sing all the hymns we left behind
smashed the organ with your glee at our demise
hired all white gloved ushers.
That’s a beautiful gentrification.
Instead, you have chosen all the wrong pallbearers.
Your way don’t have the upper body strength to carry
a people who refuse to die.
You would be better off handing out shovels,
planting us where we fall,
pave over us with blacktop like licorice to the tongue,
a headstone of sandwich boards touting the flavor of the week.
Give me a chai mocha pumpkin spice latte tombstone any day.
We also require wind
by which I mean air
by which I mean breath
by which I mean my life
by which I mean breathing
by which I mean resuscitate
by which I mean trachea,
by which I mean open
by which I mean alive
by which I mean breath
by which I mean hogtied
by which I mean choked
by which I mean held
by which I mean embraced
by which I mean a lover’s nook
by which I mean hold
by which I mean choke hold
by which I mean safe
by which I mean breath
by which I mean oxygen
by which I mean two parts hydrogen
by which I mean water.
We’re gonna’ need water.
Not that water you save for rainy days.
Violence can be a water fountain
if you speak its language, read its signs.
The problem isn’t that we don’t like nice things.
We don’t build any sidewalks.
We are not too poor for your clean water;
you are just too rich to care.
– – –
we require a ten-year abatement on death
to put HQ Blacks in this city.
Not natural causes.
We get that we’re only immortal when we sing.
Just the deaths by razor, the deaths that should not be.
We have sweated over all your earth.
Thrown all OUR prayers into YOUR winds.
Drank the flintstone silt at the bottom of all your waters.
The only element we do not require of you is fire.
Fire we have in abundance.
Fire is the one thing we kept for ourselves.