MAD Geopoetics

MAD Geopoetics… how’s that for the title of an entry?  No, not angry poets all over the world. Rather, geographers and poets and geographer-poets who write place-based or landscape-themed poetry. We held a geopoetics session at the annual meeting of the Middle Atlantic Division (MAD) of the Association of American Geographers, held at Towson University, October 31. Presenters included Alan Marcus (geographer and poet at Towson University), Shirley Brewer (poet/educator), Dewey Stepleton (Towson geography student), and myself. We had a small turnout of folks to listen (damn concurrent sessions), but we had a good time. Shirley read poems from her forthcoming book, Longing for Cairo.  Alan talked about the intersection of geography and poetry and read a few landscape-themed poems.  Dewey gave a more formal presentation discussing various ways to view place that drew from the humanities.  I read a series of poems set along the US 1 corridor in Howard County. My poems and a brief abstract about the presentation follow:

The Air a Mix of Diesel and Spices: Geopoetics of the US 1 Corridor, Howard County, Maryland

The US 1 Corridor, from Elkridge to Laurel, was the focus of some of the earliest urban and suburban development in Howard County, Maryland, including location of services and functions once found in Baltimore city. As a result, much of the corridor stands in contrast to the carefully planned and standardized suburban development in Columbia and other parts of the county. In recent years, county officials, planners, and developers have moved to redevelop, upgrade, and standardize the corridor. Poetry offers a vibrant medium in which to express these changes and their impacts on residents, as well as perceptions of the US 1 corridor. In this presentation, I discuss and read several poems that express these changes and perceptions.

[Published in You Are Here: the Journal of Creative Geography, 2006]

The air a mix of diesel and spices
at the concrete and asphalt corners
of Routes 1 and 175.
Commodities flow in and out
of the road-bound harbor,
from container ships in Baltimore,
unloaded in hours by man and crane
(a job that once took days and hundreds),
to trucks laden with seafood and produce
for the restaurants of Washington and Baltimore.

This is the harbor in suburbia,
truck stop and warehouses,
wholesalers and cheap motels,
and the shipping channel moves down the interstate.

Here is where the spices are packed
that once were packed in Baltimore
when its harbor filled with ships
from Asia and the Caribbean,
Central American banana boats,
buy boats filled with oysters and crabs
and produce from the Eastern Shore.

Here is where the sons and grandsons
of longshoremen who worked the boats
spend their days in warehouses
driving forklifts in and out of trailers
for barely a living wage,
or spend their days behind iron bars
and the razor wire fences
of the penitentiary
(another extension of Baltimore).

Here is where the prostitutes
work the lot from truck to truck,
where drivers find a home-cooked meal
and a quick fuck.
Here are the suburban slums—
trailer parks and cheap motels
where families crowd a single room
rented by the week; and next door
lovers tryst on the half-day rate;
children play amid the diesel fumes,
suburban dreams a world away.

This is Jessup, where we find
the city’s rhythms in modern form;
the flow of goods in and out,
the city’s dirt, sights, and smells,
banished from the old harbor
now washed clean and sanitized,
a playground for suburbanites
who cannot stand the thought the Jessup.

[Published in Poetry Quarterly, Spring 2012]

The immigrant in his food truck,
parked at the edge of the lot,
sells reminders of home—
pupusas, tamales, tortillas—
to hungry laborers coming off shifts
or waiting for work in the morning light;
to men whose families wait back home
for the monthly remittance,
or the fee for the coyotes to bring them North.

His foods remind him
of the land he farmed
and the corn he grew,
like his ancestors,
long before the Spanish,
and before the flood
of cheap corn from America.

His farm is now a memory;
views of his fields replaced by
parking lots, construction sites,
and the faces of men like him,
looking for something to take them back home.

[Published in the Loch Raven Review, Fall 2012]

The tire swing hangs straight,
rope unbent by play,
time unmarked
by a daydreamer’s lazy pendulum;
grass grown into the bare patch
where feet once scraped
and pushed off for speed.

The children are gone,
to other trailer parks,
acres of double-wides in the sun
clean, suburbanized, orderly,
and out of the way;
to cramped apartments
stacked atop one another;
or to motels along Route 1
where they play among the tires
of parked cars and diesel trucks,
feet scraping across an asphalt lot.

Among the trees and the weeds,
all that remains:
an old washer,
toys that fell from a box—
forgotten and unnoticed—
empty concrete pads
where trailers stood,
cinder blocks holding up only air.

When the tree is cut down
to make way for a four bedroom home
and a manicured lawn
with its ornamental tree,
the tire will swing again,
for just a moment,
before plunging to ground.

[Published in Symmetry Pebbles, issue #4]

The prostitutes flow, county to county,
pushed by tides of indignation,
slowed by pools of indifference,
unseen, unnoticed, unknown by most,
but they are there,
at the bars near the track,
on the corners near the cheap motels,
in the parking lot behind the diner.

They flow, county to county,
in a jurisdictional eddy,
Anne Arundel, Howard, Prince George’s,
pushed by the police from one to the other,
one to the other, one to the other,
in a slow, continual cycle.

Do we care to know who they are?
Or, what they want in life?
They flow in a different channel,
dead ended,
caught like so much debris behind a strainer,
eddied, swirling, stopped,
watching as the Patuxent flows freely to the Bay.


Under the bridge, unnoticed men,
younger than their weathered faces would suggest,
eyes that have seen a thousand rivers rise
and flow away.
Their few possessions crammed
into the highest nook between bank and abutment,
they sleep, eat, live,
listening to the clank-clonk
of tires crossing steel joints,
listening to us all rushing over,
all of us flowing quickly away,
ignorant of who or what is under the bridge,
thinking only of things that must get done,
the myriad acts that fill our days,
all contributing to the rising tide.

Under the bridge,
men sit thinking,
if the river don’t rise, we’ll be okay,
if the river don’t rise…

[Published in Commonthought Magazine, Fall 2013]

Asphalt and concrete,
rutted, cracked, pot-holed, patched,
curbed and uncurbed,
planned and unplanned,
junkyards, repair shops,
used car dealers, new car dealers,
warehouses, truck stop, rail yard,
gritty bars that open at six when the night shift ends,
gas stations, liquor stores,
shopping centers, restaurants,
motels for travelers passing through,
motels for the suburban poor,
travelers’ cabins whose residents never leave,
trailer parks, apartments,
new homes, old homes,

You proclaim your presence
with a cacophony of signs,
disorderly and non-compliant.
You do not celebrate your diversity,
which arose from the dull practicality of life.

You are not sexy like I-95,
fast moving, designed for speed from city to city.
You are not beautiful like the Parkway,
stone bridges and tree-lined;
nor are you efficient like Route 29,
moving the outer suburban elites
to work and play without wasting time.

You are the step-sister—
once first, now least.
You are the old hag,
coughing and wheezing
through diesel fumed days,
from Elkridge to Laurel,
carrying the burdens.

You have no pretense to beauty;
no tree-lined verges;
no manicured medians.
You are rough-edged, ugly, and stained.
Your open spaces are empty lots
and forest tracts waiting to be bulldozed
and opened for business.

Now we are changing you,
like we changed ourselves.
We are making you orderly and neat,
sweeping away the dross,
like we swept it from elsewhere in the county.
The tide of suburban conformity
is rising over you,
parcel by parcel;

When the transformation is complete—
the removal of the old,
the decrepit,
the unwanted,
the nonconforming—
what will you be?
What will we be?


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