Monday, September 14, 2009

Mapping Courage a poetic evaluation of Murals

By Davy Preston Knittle

Mapping Courage is designed to be the commencement of a poetic evaluation of the work of Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program, a compositional homage to the place and to the role of the murals, and a motion towards the consideration of the question: how are the murals linked to the way in which Philadelphians live the history of their neighborhoods? This project is centered on a series of eleven interviews conducted during May and June 2009 with muralists, arts educators, arts administrators and community partners of the Mural Arts Program.

The four poems in the collection that have an intersection or a street address listed below the title are written from the perspective of a particular mural and from the space that it occupies. In the case of these poems, I paid a series of visits to each site to observe the role of the mural in its space and to reconcile both the history of the mural and the significance of its content with the way in which it takes part in the daily interactions and processes of its surrounding neighborhood.

Mapping Courage engages in an experiment in public voice that draws from both the peripatetic exercise in public character and the virulent respect for public space exhibited by Brenda Coultas in her collection, A Handmade Museum. Another principal source of inspiration was a number of collections of poems and oral history narratives put together by the Mural Arts Program’s former Special Projects Manager, Lindsey Rosenberg. Her project that resulted in the book My North Philly proved to be of particular assistance. The language of a “poetic evaluation” of the work of Mural Arts is hers as well. She was unprecedentedly helpful in imbuing this project with its particular focus, and in validating its methodology.

As Coultas experiments with creating the figure of the public poet, so too was the work of this project both, as muralist David Guinn reminded me, to “live with the murals in a casual way” and to simultaneously observe the casual usage of the space of and around each mural. To this end, I owe the fundamental background of this project to Jane Jacobs and to her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities in which the figure of the sidewalk calls into question the patterns of visibility and attentiveness of the public character. I kept Jacobs’ awareness of the space of the sidewalk and of the identity of the public character in mind when considering the area around the murals, (of the four murals that are explored in this collection, one borders a sidewalk, one a public park, and two border or sandwich parking lots) and the way in which the murals themselves can adopt the supervisory role of a public figure in their respective neighborhoods.

Muralist: Amy Hillier, PhD

What do you wear for fighting fires?
For collecting records for restitution?

Block by block: the viral spread
a composite house for history,
a map by oral letters: door to door.

Whose documents harbor the record
of Mother Bethel’s inception?

Whose 1899 story of the Seventh Ward was
whose safety in the color line, problem
seconds before the 20th century?

Who affixed a method delta, exit signs, safety
in number lines, to the personless,
acerbic edge of the present Seventh Ward,
to the song of the singular district?

Ask Queen Village’s no man’s not here in
the national soundstage of human by human
diagrams of sidewalk use

Whose documents of ownership sought
centennial release to the public domain?

Street deeds, where before,
they named the people homeward.

(Mural by David Guinn)


For Duke, the
hose turns on
to fill the
green bowl

There’s a boxer
in the dog run where
Eliot shreds hedges,
on aphid patrol,
and offers detritus grass

Duke and his brother,
are red collared,
eating grass blend animals
and morning glories.


David painted
a sparrow,
a sparrow.

His golden retriever
sized to the bird,
without threat
goes without touching

Shadows suggest
the weight of
the willow pulls behind,
their steps retrieve
their shadows.


David painted around a
window in the house

below which
Duke and Eliot
masticate their tails.

Midday sitters
turn off the faucet, and

David says that
a sparrow can stand
under this tree too,

to feel out his need for water,
his stamina for visitation.

(Mural by David McShane)

A hero is no masker of declaratives, he
Oxygen Man, lassoes the wonders of wave radio
emits frequent figures for disbursal, finds

field fossilists discovering a dinomine,
a forest of swimfrogs who
eye clowns, or clownfish, watch
for a listener public framed by radioglow.

Oxygen Man cedes a dance party on
the experimental network’s
Peanut Butter and the Cat’s Pajam a
jam when the juice box republic gets down.

Through the frequency floor he
floats codes between discoverables, an
invitation in his signature math an adage
of remember your two-step to the city.

Tangerine trees sparkle, parse our artist
whose speakers flow upstream, downgear your sneakers
to hold court, a six-count shag to the broadcast basic.

Look out between sevens and eights where
underwater conductors use traction tread
sounds to funk lines to walk it out,
Oxygen Man, bop for break beats, light the way

Hamster havoc traffics in brass noise, but his
iron hands command the palm of calm and
he radios the sea to send another cowboy

Sleep will check the cats who get done
when the done gets the attention of the
heroes are the raiders of the lost art of broadcast
when the wizards of wave radio wish you well.