teaches at UW—Whitewater and has been Madison's Poet Laureate since 2000. The poems below were written for Madison's sesquicentennial celebreation.
A Tinker’s Prayer for Madison’s 150th Birthday
Something sacred is always being paved over
Something ancient is always returning to teach us
if we can learn
One hundred and fifty years are
thin as an eyelash—less than a blink.
Will a fistful of stone buildings, an idea or two
of who we meant to be
survive another 150 years?
1.5 billion years ago the red granite
of our place on this planet was forming.
Our isthmus land mass lay dreaming
under an ancient tropical sea 500 million years ago.
Five times it rose above the water and was submerged again
Golden sandstone tells the story of that time.
12, 000 years ago we had emerged from under the brow of glacier melt.
Mastodons, mammoths and humans walked our grounds.
Effigy mounds of bears turtles birds tell us that 1500 years ago
people crafted creatures of earth, water and sky to leave their mark
on the elements from
which we are made.
So red granite, ancient seas, gold sandstone and sculpted earth
are the foundations of our city
In the early days of our legislature
the pigs in the basement and the wolves at the door were actual,
not political hyperbole
Real bears waltzed in and out of town limits
And you could take literal potshots on the Capitol grounds
at quail and prairie chickens
Some wanted neither village nor city;
charters meant fencing in the pigs and the cows
higher taxes too.
When you grow, what gets fenced in and what gets fenced out?
Our capital idea: two temples on two hills
The Dome of Government facing the Hall of Learning
at opposite ends of a street called State
When I arrived in Madison in 1972, more than half my lifetime ago
—more than a fifth of Madison’s time in this bottle ago—
everyone had hunkered down to bunker mentality
weary of ‘60s teargas and broken glass.
Town and Gown were stiffs in a standoff.
My cab-driver, delivering me to my first apartment
next to James Madison Park, said:
“ Since you’re from the D.C area. you’ll feel right at home
with the Capitol dome for your night light”
My first winter I watched Lake Mendota armor up
all steam and smash and swashbuckle brick of ice
as I studied Old English poetry
—I didn’t know about the ice industry
that had flourished for decades on that lake.
In spring, a student of renaissance, I found my way to the Arboretum
to greet each blossoming lilac, apple and magnolia by name
And to learn about the making unmaking and remaking of the prairie
dependent on fire and industrious ants working their underground hills
Now I own a house built on marshland
Sometimes the rain wants it back again
I’ve lived here long enough to see the elms
and the department stores taken down
while condos, cultural centers and sports arenas have gone up.
I didn’t know that until the Civil War
there were real eagles at Eagle Heights.
Someone is always bragging about putting Madison on the map
But in these times many of us are comforted by the idea
That the terrorists don’t take our coordinates seriously
We’re a little stodgy, often middle-brow.
While he was alive, we wronged Frank Lloyd Wright.
And we’re told by those in the know
that our fashion statement to the world
is a triangular cheese chapeau.
But the Farmer’s Market on the Square dazzles eye and appetite
Gives us gourds and rampions, heirloom apples and rare mushrooms
sungold swirl of music, cider and friendly gossip
teaches petition savvy and a taste for squeaky eraser bits of briny curd
While fires have claimed dance-spaces and bars that we loved,
we’ve sustained our feminist bookstore, sistered cities in war-zones,
founded radical radio stations, organic produce markets and world-class restaurants.
Alternative families have flourished even unto the next generation
as we have debated in smoke-filled and smoke-free rooms all the dooms
that flesh is heir to
The poet Marge Piercy tells us
No task is ever completed
Only abandoned or pressed into use.
Tinkering can be a form of prayer.
The trees inside us grow
as we cut down old sentries on the Square.
We’ll remember how the sky held their branches
and let them go
We’re number one party school
famed for Halloween and Mifflin’s Block revelry.
But we set great store by our right to send a message
about what war is not good for
The fragile webwork that holds us together
is woven and undone each day. .
Like Penelope we weave, like Odysseus we wander
trying to find and create homeground
So here we are arriving again 150 years young.
What will remain of who we meant to be another century from now?
Who will calibrate our hopes and decipher our codes 1500 years hence?
What have we fenced in and what have we fenced out?
Who are the wolves at the door?
Who is reconfiguring the dimensions of our dreams?
* * *
Nine Stanzas for Madison’s 150th Birthday
In honor of Sharon Kilfoy’s “Fabrications”
made from material objects worn by Madisonians
we are all in the mix.
She has hitched our remnants
to a hopeful star.
She has impaneled us nine times over
not as a jury in judgment, but in celebration
of what has been weave-worn, sleeve-torn,
now reborn into art.
We handed over our hand-me-downs,
our sweaters, sweatshirts, scarves and skirts
She catalogued, collaged and kaleidescoped
boas, belts, brocades, bibs, bonnets, buttons
bric a brac and bell-bottomed slacks
Then invited us to quilting bees
where seamy connections were wrought
among soldiers, dreamers, anti-war activists,
dancers, dressmakers, and political schemers,
Mothers who knitted caps for their daughters’ chemo
And sons who transgressed the bounds of seriousness to
give us The Onion and ask, Whad’ya know?
while our t-shirts told us:
Touch the Earth, Save Seeds, Free the Donuts, Take Back the Night
Here’s a neck-tie that swirls like a happy snake
bearing the image of Willy da Shake
Yes, we read the classics here
We know that the quality of mercy is not strained
And we know the answer to Hamlet’s question: To be or not to be?
Though we have slogged through many a winter of our discontent
in search of summers made glorious by street festivals and beer gardens,
painters in the park and trapeze artists swinging from trees
lit by arcing magic
We have backed the Packers and the Badgers
and brandished our weed whackers as we
befouled our lakes and cleaned them again and again.
We have founded rape crisis centers, sites of respite,
and made theaters out of garages
We’ve been wordsmiths, Olympic skaters,
polka dancers, bakers, & brat-makers.
We’ve cherished grand ideas and grandchildren.
Look how those dresses fly on a diagonal
doing the hoochie koochie with garter belts
and graduation tassels!
See how that embroidered slipper noses in
eager as a puppy
See how she has quilted us in, gathered
lace, feathers, fans, jackets, gloves,
and how many lost loves--
Doll clothes and gum wrappers caught
flying out of this life and into that larger place
that makes us a community
See where the moths have eaten through
to tell us time’s tolling its bell
for the best of us and the rest of us
who are whole and holy, broken and blessed
on this isthmus that we call home.