The Little Review (littlereview) wrote,
The Little Review

Poem for Sunday

Urban Renewal
By Major Jackson


The backyard garden wall is mossy green
and flakes a craggy mound of chips. Nearby
my grandfather kneels between a row of beans
and stabs his shears into earth. I squint an eye,--
a comma grows at his feet. The stucco's
an atlas, meshed-wire continents with leaders
who augured hate, hence ruins, which further sow
discontent. We are weeding, marking borders,
a million taproots stacked in shock. Forty years
from a three-story, he has watched the neighborhood,--
postwar marble steps, a scrubbed frontier
of Pontiacs lining the curb, fade to a hood.
Pasture of wind-driven litter swirls among greasy
bags of takeouts. Panicles of nightblasts
cap the air, a corner lot of broken TVs empties
and spills from a suitcase of hurt. Life amassed,
meaningless as a trampled box of Cornflakes.
When a beggar cupped for change outside
a check-cashing place then snatched his wallet,
he cleaned a .22 revolver & launched this plot. Tidal
layers of cement harden men born gentle as the root
crops tended south, the city its own bitter shrine.
We crouch by watering cans. He pulls a paradise of kale
and shakes root-dirt that snaps like a shadow lost in time.
Tomato vines coil by a plot of herbs. Far from the maddening
caravan of fistfights, jacked-rides, drunkards,
my pen takes aim from the thumbnail of his yard.


From Poet's Choice in The Washington Post Book World by Robert Pinsky, who compares tending a garden and holding a pen like in this poem, calling them two symbols of civilization. "Cultivation and writing, skills developed by previous generations, imply hope that in the future someone will be present to consume the produce or to read the writing. In his book Hoops, Major Jackson emphasizes a garden's hopeful and civilizing qualities by depicting two generations at work on a patch of earth. The grandfather resists the decay of his neighborhood and responds to a crime by planting a garden. The grandson vows to continue the work with a pen...digging and writing break the surface to sustain life, and they foster the growth of something new out of the old richness. In 'we crouch by watering cans' and in the cleaned revolver, there is a prudent courage, unsentimentally stubborn and protective."

We had a really lovely afternoon, after older son worked in my mother's Hebrew school class as an aide (they were doing their model seder, he ate well) and younger son had his first spring soccer game, which unfortunately his team lost, leading to a bit of grumpiness. We went to Gunston Hall Plantation, where they had an American Revolutionary War skirmish reenactment going on (it continues tomorrow, for anyone within driving distance of Mason Neck, Virginia). 225 years ago in the spring of 1781, a British fleet with two 24-gun ships, two 18-gun ships and six transports sailed up the Potomac River looking to raid plantations and storehouses. Near Alexandria on April 1st, the British raided in two ships, one of which was named the Surprise. *g* They intended to plunder Mount Vernon, Gunston Hall and Henry Lee II's estate at Leesylvania, but instead their schooner was captured and men taken prisoner.

I don't know much about George Mason beyond his role in drafting the Virginia Declaration of Rights and his objections to the Constitution as originally ratified, which led to the passing of the Bill of Rights to amend the Constitution. (I don't even know how the university that bears his name came to be named after him, since it's not a very old university). So the estate tour was fascinating...he was a phenomenally successful businessman, with interests in tobacco, shipping and various land ventures. He was involved in Virginia politics for much of his life and in American Colonial politics from the 1760s, and his estate is nearly as stunning as Mount Vernon...a longer walk to the Potomac River, but formal gardens and woods behind the mansion that make up for the more distant access. (It's always bizarre seeing the slave quarters of the fathers of our civil liberties.) Mason and George Washington could have visited each other regularly, they lived a few miles along the river from one another...I wonder if they did. Reenactment photos today, mansion and grounds photos later...

The skirmish begins as British naval officers land and come up the hill from the river.

The colonial militia fires to defend their territory.

A Scottish regiment approaches from the woods. (There was never a real Scottish regiment raiding American plantations that I know of!)

And after the battle, a soldier smokes his pipe by the army tents. (Again, note that there were not actual army tents set up at Gunston Hall to fight off British raids; this is a bit of a historical stretch for entertainment purposes.)

We stopped at the mall at Tyson's Corner on the way home because they have an L.L. Bean store and we wanted to look at some camping-related stuff, and I ended up getting one of their awesome shoulder bags that I have coveted for awhile, as I can fit all my stuff inside without hurting my back. For dinner we got pizza for the kids and watched George Mason University's basketball team regrettably end its long and lovely run to the Final Four. I suppose that is the price we pay for having watched George Mason's Revolutionary allies defeat the British raiding party earlier. *G* And then Duke spoiler LSU lost! So now I am rooting for UCLA to win but I really just don't care very much. My new favorite thing, by the way: Sabra's Supremely Spicy Hummus. And on that note, I had better go to sleep because we want to get to the cherry blossoms in the morning before several million other people arrive, and we lose an hour overnight!

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