Sunday, December 14, 2014

After Sterling, take 5

I am still struggling with finding the right words and flow for my poem, After Sterling.  The poem is part conversation with the late African-American poet, Sterling Brown, and part commentary on the lost history of the community in which I live-- North Laurel, MD-- which is also where Sterling Brown's family farm was located.  Sterling Brown was part of the Harlem Renaissance, but, unlike Langston Hughes and others, is not remembered or studied in schools.  And, although the Rouse Corporation named a local road after him (Sterling Drive) when developing lands that might have included part of the Brown family's farm, and certainly were near the farm, I think I'm safe in saying that most residents of this area have never heard of him.  My interest in writing this poem began with my own discovery of his poetry, and especially his poem, After Winter, which was inspired by his boyhood memories of the farm.  My poem, also reflects my interest in local history, my love for this community, and my own frustrations with the planning process in Howard County which seems to care more about preserving the areas from which County leaders come and has basically given over this part of the county to development.

So, without further lead-in and ado...


Somewhere in these North Laurel woods
I imagine there are butter beans,
radishes and lettuce, eggplants and beets
appearing year after year
to remind us of you, Sterling Brown,
and the words that you found
in the fields and the streets
giving voice to the lives of ordinary folks.

The rural place you knew is gone.
Grass grows where plows once cut.
Office buildings rise 
from the fields where you ran.
Harmony Lane (or what remains)
no longer leads to the Freedman’s town,
its small frame houses
lost to rising values of land.
The old colored school,
demolished to make way
for luxury townhomes.
All Saints Church, gone,
nothing left on its former site,
not even the graves of those
who worshiped within its walls.
It’s all neighborhoods now
filled with folks of all collars,
all colors living side-by-side
(though the old divides of race and class
still exist for you to comment on).

History lives in this county to the north and the west.
Memories here were bulldozed and paved
in the name of progress and smart growth.
We are left with only names on roads—
Whiskey Bottom, All Saints,
Stephens, Earl Levy,
and the one developers named after you—
but, no one remembers; no one knows.
Poetry lives elsewhere too.
The kids learn Langston,
but they don’t know you,
don’t know a poet once walked these woods.
Did you carve your name into trees,
like those today who carve and tag
to be remembered? Isn’t that all
any of us want?  To be remembered?

Here in these woods, I ask:
Where is the poet
bringing baskets of words
in from the fields?
Who will sing the stories and names
of those from our past
and those here today?

Ah, Sterling, we are the poets.
We bring the words that carry our lives.
But, you knew that, didn’t you?
That the poet is more
than the name on the road
that leads to where the butter beans grew.

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