fig tree on christian st philly

The fig tree at Hutchinson and Christian, South Philadelphia. Photo by Daisy Fried.

Thinking about Philadelphia this past week—a city I lived in for 14 years—in the wake of the incident at Starbucks where two black men waiting on a friend were arrested for basically not ordering a drink—or more to the point, because they were two black men in a Starbucks in a tony, white Philly neighborhood.

“Philly is the City of Brotherly Love…unless you’re a brother,” a friend once said to me.

The incident took place around the same time a Facebook friend shared Ross Gay’s poem, “To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian,” a poem set in Philadelphia, and which originally appeared in the American Poetry Review, a journal that has been published in Philadelphia since before the country’s bicentennial year.

And I kept coming back to Gay’s poem since I heard the news of Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson’s arrest.

The poem is set in South Philly, which has had its own share of racial incidents over the years, but describes a different mood in the city, a city, as Gay writes, “like most/ which has murdered its own/ people,” where “strangers maybe/ never again,” are picking figs and feeding figs to each other, sharing food, and rubbing sweaty forearms with sweaty shoulders in a mass of humanity.

This is such a contrast with the experience of the two young entrepreneurs waiting for a business meeting to begin in the overpriced confines of a Starbucks. Gay’s poem offers an aspirational image of a society we should all want to live in: one of cooperation, respect, and understanding rather than hate, fear, and intimidation.

The incident in the Starbucks is not an isolated one; it could be anywhere in the everyday life of black men and women in America these days and that must change.

I keep saying we’re living on the cusp of a great societal transformation, one that will find us—all people—able to share more moments like those in Gay’s poem. I believe the real change is coming and we—or at least our children—will look back on these times as a second American revolution, as revolutionary as what took place in Philadelphia in 1776.

After the arrest, Donte Robinson told the AP “he appreciates the public support the men received but anger and boycotting Starbucks are not the solution. ‘We need a different type of action…not words,’ he said. ‘It’s time to pay attention and understand what’s really going on. We do want a seat at the table.’”

Ross Gay is the author of five books of poetry, including most recently, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, which won the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Award and the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry. He teaches at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, and the low-residency MFA in poetry program at Drew University.

Here is Ross Gay’s “To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian”

Tumbling through the
city in my
mind without once
looking up
the racket in
the lugwork probably
rehearsing some
stupid thing I
said or did
some crime or
other the city they
say is a lonely
place until yes
the sound of sweeping
and a woman
yes with a
broom beneath
which you are now
too the canopy
of a fig its
arms pulling the
September sun to it
and she
has a hose too
and so works hard
rinsing and scrubbing
the walk
lest some poor sod
slip on the silk
of a fig
and break his hip
and not probably
reach over to gobble up
the perpetrator
the light catches
the veins in her hands
when I ask about
the tree they
flutter in the air and
she says take
as much as
you can
help me

so I load my
pockets and mouth
and she points
to the step-ladder against
the wall to
mean more but
I was without a
sack so my meager
plunder would have to
suffice and an old woman
whom gravity
was pulling into
the earth loosed one
from a low slung
branch and its eye
wept like hers
which she dabbed
with a kerchief as she
cleaved the fig with
what remained of her
teeth and soon there were
eight or nine
people gathered beneath
the tree looking into
it like a constellation pointing
do you see it
and I am tall and so
good for these things
and a bald man even
told me so
when I grabbed three
or four for
him reaching into the
giddy throngs of
wasps sugar
stoned which he only
pointed to smiling and
rubbing his stomach
I mean he was really rubbing his stomach
it was hot his
head shone while he
offered recipes to the
group using words which
I couldn’t understand and besides
I was a little
tipsy on the dance
of the velvety heart rolling
in my mouth
pulling me down and
down into the
oldest countries of my
body where I ate my first fig
from the hand of a man who escaped his country
by swimming through the night
and maybe
never said more than
five words to me
at once but gave me
figs and a man on his way
to work hops twice
to reach at last his
fig which he smiles at and calls
baby, c’mere baby,
he says and blows a kiss
to the tree which everyone knows
cannot grow this far north
being Mediterranean
and favoring the rocky, sun-baked soils
of Jordan and Sicily
but no one told the fig tree
or the immigrants
there is a way
the fig tree grows
in groves it wants,
it seems, to hold us,
yes I am anthropomorphizing
goddammit I have twice
in the last thirty seconds
rubbed my sweaty
forearm into someone else’s
sweaty shoulder
gleeful eating out of each other’s hands
on Christian St.
in Philadelphia a city like most
which has murdered its own
people
this is true
we are feeding each other
from a tree
at the corner of Christian and 9th
strangers maybe
never again.


(On another note: poet Daisy Fried identified the fig tree in question, reporting that it “is actually at Hutchinson and Christian, but that would not roll off the tongue nearly as well.” She also says that the scene is “very authentic. Summertimes people do stop randomly, and harvest figs to take with them. The owners are always happy because it means less dropped and rotting fruit.”)

Here is a wonderful reading of the poem by Ross Gay on #OWNSHOW from Oprah Online: Fig on Oprah.

“To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian” © 2013 by Ross Gay. Originally published in the May-June 2013 issue of American Poetry Review, Volume 42, No, 3. Reprinted from Split This Rock’s The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database. 

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c) 2012 Alastair Cook

Sheree Mack c) 2012 Alastair Cook

Every month it seems there is another flashpoint of tensions between police and black communities in cities around the United States.

From Ferguson to Baltimore, our country seems ready to tear at the seams from a volatile combination of racial prejudice, police militarism, and the systemic poverty and disenfranchisement black people feel in America today.

It is impossible to ignore this critical issue of our day – we ignore it at our peril – even in a forum such as this.

In that light, I asked poet Sheree Mack if I could feature one of her poems for this final week of National Poetry Month.  I was thinking we’d choose one from her remarkable new book, Laventille, which I’ve just started reading.

But Sheree asked if I’d rather have a new poem, one where she is trying “to get my head around the issue of race in America now with #BlackLivesMatter and how things haven’t changed much since lynching was another arm of the ‘law’.”

When she sent me, “Called Witness,” I jumped at the chance to share it, with its unflinching mixture of found texts (from a source cited below) and its paraphrase of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” in line 8.

Sheree Mack was born in 1971 in Bradford, England, to a Trinidadian father and a “Geordie” mother of Ghanaian and Bajan ancestry. She worked as a teacher for several years before studying for a PhD on black British women poets.

Sheree now dedicates her life to “fostering creativity in everyone’s life” working with communities of women and young writers, and currently lives in Tynemouth.  She is the author of two collections, Family Album (Flambard Press, 2011) and Laventille (Smokestack Books, 2015).

I met Sheree Mack through the group “52,” which I participated in last year. Members of “52” wrote poems each week to prompts supplied by the group’s founder, Jo Bell, and commented upon each other’s work in a closed group on Facebook. (See my blog post on the subject here.)

Sheree’s poetry rose to the surface in my mind for its clarity, craft, and complexity of vision. Mack’s poems “lament, rage and mourn,” as the publisher says about her latest book. “But they also offer a song of healing, a celebration of survival, a glimmer of the flames that burn in the hearts of a people still living in slavery’s dark shadow. “

Her perceptive comments on a number of poems (mine and others) flagged her as one of those people you want to spend time with, even if the only opportunity is through the auspices of a virtual poetry workshop.

It was only later that I realized she was also the subject of my friend Alastair Cook’s stunning collodion portrait of a striking woman with captivating eyes, that I’d seen as part of his McArthur’s Store exhibition. There is something haunting about this portrait, as is the case of much of Alastair’s work in the medium.

The image is timeless or time-bound or both simultaneously. It could just as easily be a photograph of someone from Trinidad and Tobago at the time of the 1970 student uprisings in Laventille (the subject of her book) or an image from an even earlier era.

In short, the photo is a bit like Sheree Mack’s poetry: a bit timeless, a bit time-bound, but always unflinching and intriguing.

 

Here is Sheree Mack’s poem, “Called Witness”:

 

The exhibition opened in a small New York gallery.

The crowds came, self-righteous and proud.

 

Assembled and displayed were sixty photographs,

collected from family albums, attic trunks, flea markets.

 

Small, black-and-white postcards,

not more than a few inches long and wide,

 

depicting African-American men in Jim Crow

South; black bodies swinging from poplar trees.

 

Long lines stood for hours on the wintry

sidewalk, waiting for their view.

 

Once inside, bodies overwhelmed the intimate space.

Images laid flat on display tables or assembled

 

in tight groupings tacked to light-coloured walls.

Tattered, faded and worn, neither retouched nor restored.

 

Nor framed, matted, or captioned. Instead offered

as artefacts, not fine art objects. None for sale.

 

Visitor huddled close, hunched over tables,

faces pushed up against the walls, they felt

 

the warmth and proximity of others, jostling

and angling their bodies for a better look.

 

Through generations, onlookers enticed to the scene

by the spectacle of mutilated, dangling bodies.

 

c) 2015 Sheree Mack

Used by permission of the author.

_________________

Text cited: Lynching Photographs by Dora Apel and Shawn Michelle Smith,

University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California, 2007