Erik Muller is one of OPA’s representatives on the Oregon Poetry Collection’s governing committee. Check out new OPC material at https://oregonpoets.org/resources/oregon-poetry-collection/
Here he writes about public poetry in Eugene.
One: Poems Inscribed on Steel
Plenty of poetry books right at home and more than I’ll ever get to at the Eugene Public Library. But still I want this morning to read Cecelia Hagen’s steel “chapbook” of twenty-six poems at the new EmX bus stops. I’m resolved to do that, the novelty of that!
Her poems are blocks apart—inscribed on the electrical boxes at each stop along the West EmX route. I pack umbrella, water, a notebook and pens, starting out at 9:30 on the morning of the last Saturday of September, 2017. I will walk the EmX route from Eugene Station to Commerce Station, along 6th to 11th, then return from there to Eugene Station along 11th and 7th. The weather looks unpredictable, but I start in sun.
At Charnelton between 6th and 7th, in fresh blue, a poem about what any bus rider would do: “the journey/ from there to here.” Yet, the poem in its whimsy asserts you can travel a thousand places not on maps or in dreams: “Your thoughts/ float through/ and beyond// the world/ you step into/ when you arrive.” What a generous and exciting possibility! I’m off!
The stainless steel boxes sit at one end of the stations. Very approachable at shoulder height and the-span-of-both-arms wide. A rider I later meet says she has learned how to read the poems after the double doors had her reading as if there were a book open before her. Now she reads across the seam where the doors met. That’s better, since the box makes a single page, not two.
At Monroe & 6th the poem in purple declares that a harmonica player “just by breathing in,/ breathing out” can make flowers open and birds return.
What do you think of the station poems? Nice, he says, I wonder if they’re from books? No, a friend of mine wrote them. Awesome!
Transformative or offering transfers, the poems depict a painter, a person moved by music, a wild man who “drank/ with the deer/ and foraged/ with the turkeys,” and another listener hearing “people/ in the distance// singing hymns// or maybe it was wind/ in the tall grass.” Such moving and being moved suit bus travel.
A few poems refer to their specific locations. At Sam Reynolds Station, with a portrait of its namesake, and his motto “I never met a stranger,” thistle seeds blow away and root to “raise/ each other up// every stranger a possible angel.”
Amazon Creek near Bertelsen Station is “slipping slow/ and luminous// through its necklace/ of discarded things,” where the “prettiness” of pigeons is mostly overlooked. Then at Oak Patch a painter paints the same mountain every day, differently, so I turn to catch a glimpse of Spencer Butte.
Did you see this? Yes, I take pictures of them.
EmX provides infrastructure (and structure) for a randomly developed commercial strip with rough sidewalks and the grit of discards. The bus route is easy to follow—marked by new plantings and swales and the lighter concrete lanes required by the heavy hybrid vehicles. The green and silver buses have the look of well-fed caterpillars as they pass frequently both ways.
One could walk this route as city planner, sociologist, shopper, hustler. Cecelia Hagen’s poetry adds to an already information-rich strip, adds a bit of beauty to beauty-starved miles. It’s Saturday game day, eight lanes of cars filling gas tanks at Freddie’s, a heavy man in a ballcap behind plate glass trying out a new mattress, Ye Olde Pancake House parking jammed full, a man shifting on sore feet, his sign reading NEED HELP, a spray painted message Get A Job My Ass.
The poems do not avoid these circumstances: a daughter’s tattoo helps her honor the memory of her dead parents, the child of a Viet Nam vet declares, “I am here/ to work through/ the legacy/ his silence left me.” I meet a jittery man with thick glasses watching the incoming bus.
The bus moves so fast. Do you like it? I do.
Two poems frame the set. At Garfield & 11th “Who walked/ in this spot// centuries ago?/ What did they/ dream about// as they made their way?” At the station across the street, “What will people/ in the future/ wonder about us?” And what one thing about us would we tell them?
I watch a daughter and granddaughter help the grandmother using a walker toward lunch at Applebee’s.
Twenty-six poems, clear and sharp, cut into steel. Tell them that.
Note: Cecelia Hagen, Eugene poet and editor, provided the poetry component of Art Thread, an artist collaborative creating tiles, pavers, benches, and most of the decorative railings for the West EmX stations. Cecelia Hagen has three poetry collections, the most recent from Airlie Press, Entering, 2011.
Two: Parking a Few Poems
Parking structures are some of the tallest “buildings” in downtown Eugene. The concrete looks drab and feels chilly, even on summer days. Jeff Petry, Eugene Parking Supervisor, decided to add color and interest: Step into Poetry provides nine poems for a five-level stairway just off 10th with a sign on Oak inviting me to step in. I had attended the inauguration of the project, whose main sponsor is the city, with help from Wordcrafters in soliciting and selecting poems and Glimmer Tech providing an Augmented Reality app that transforms the posted images and presents the voices of the poets. This is Step 2.0, succeeding an earlier set of postings, which brought then Poet Laureate Paulann Petersen to its inaugural.
I climb the steps and face a poem at each landing. The poems vary, yet are locally themed: trees, traffic, “Volkswagen vans & vegans,” gray sky and rain. For Jeff Petry the poems add a color spot and may spark a memory for those using the stairs, some twice every day. Indeed, what are poems for, here or on the page? One benefit for the “parking poets” is that their poems are read by many, by some many times.
Charles Castle writes a pre-elegy, what Japanese poets would call a death poem, imagining what in a riverside park of roses his being might touch: I will be with you as water or new rose. Susan Whitney takes a fresh look at a fallen maple once full of “windy bombast.” Now its orphaned seed lies on “a dark patch of earth/ for bunk and board.” Nicole Taylor’s “My feet take me” uses the native poetry device of using the four directions for four lines about her volunteering, delivering posters, attending plays with friends—a most social use of feet!
And perhaps Jeff is hoping for greater sociability as hundreds of citizens use their feet going up and down these augmented stairs.
Not as new, 1996, but not to be overlooked are the columnar tiles created by Betsy Wolfston at the Pearl Street Parking Garage. These columns of color are outside the structure, presenting plants and lines from William Blake. Many times, I stop to look, read, consider. The tiles, full of detail, present a range of native plants, from tiger lilies to giant fir trees. “Eternity is in love with the products of time”—as a poet, I think about Blake’s aphorism—is twined about by an ancient, fruiting grape vine. An eight-foot glowing sunflower accompanies “One thought fills eternity.” “To create a flower is the labor of ages” sparks questions about the labor and time involved in building a city, a community, a record of noble deeds. The 1% for art is a start.