A Poem for the People

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When he was approached with the request to write a poem about his hometown, Isiah Harper responded that he was an essayist, not a poet.

No matter, as the Northside High School English and drama teacher put into eloquent prose a unified narrative to describe Columbus. The final piece in the city-wide mural project envisioned and paid for by the Together 2017 initiative, Harper’s poem “My River Valley” was unveiled this morning, now on grand display in five pieces hung from the fourth floor of the city’s parking garage across Broadway from the RiverCenter.

            “I went all over town—from slave cemeteries to the Riverwalk—to see exactly what makes this such a special place,” Harper told the crowd of several dozen local arts, business and civic leaders gathered under an intense morning sun in the parking lot between Broadway and Front Avenue. “From there, we went to the bars and listened to people’s stories of childhoods filled with fireflies and adventures in Flat Rock Park. This all provided a wonderful tapestry for me to start. And from there, it was time to write.”

A Hardaway High School graduate, Harper’s first draft of the poem stood at 243 lines before it whittled down to its current 72 lines. (Read the full text below.) Commissioned by Together 2017, “My River Valley: A Love Letter to Our City” served as the inspiration for local artists Butch Anthony, Sally Bradley, Najee Dorsey and Garry Pound to each create murals, already displayed at respective points in Uptown, Liberty District, Bibb City and Phenix City.

            Started by departed Ledger-Enquirer publisher Rodney Mahone (who was promoted in April by the paper’s owner McClatchy Company to run its considerable media holdings based out of Charlotte, North Carolina) as a legacy project in the Kendrick High School alum’s hometown, Together Columbus spanned 2016-2017 with its community partners investing $344,000 in various projects. Besides the murals, the campaign’s most visible result is the aesthetically and functionally pleasing upgrades to the Frank Martin Pedestrian Bridge (formerly 14th Street bridge) over the Chattahoochee River.

“It’s a multi-year collaborative effort to highlight our community’s best assets,” project manager Marquette McKnight, president of Media, Marketing … And More!, says of Together Columbus.

McKnight added that the 2017 campaign’s final piece, Fitness Together—an outdoor, family-friendly and handicap-accessible fitness center in Rotary Park off the Riverwalk—will open with a dedicated ceremony slated for September.

My River Valley / A Love Letter to Our City

I came home
to my momma’s hug
and my daddy’s BBQ.
The old Charbroil
released dancing smoke
that mingled with the scent of
sweet magnolias in the air.
As the pigskins flew,
I was reminded,
life is seen in Technicolor.

My lonely heart
escaped its southern blues
in your steeples.
A girl who keeps
her savings in the hem of her skirt,
reminds me that one idea can lead to greatness.

Nobodies who grew into somebodies
consolidated to become the foundation
of our city’s fortune.
Collegiate aspirations
born in a hosiery mill,
inspire generations of entrepreneurial spirits.

The church bells ring.
I step outside
to the smell of long-leaf Southern pines.
and I am amazed at you,
my river valley.

Our land was built on bridges.
Hands both captive and free
striving for togetherness
across the bubbling whitewater
of the Chattahoochee.

Children, who long for escape,
still find arrowheads in the midst
of their idle hours.
Parents casually read the news
only looking up to
notice their kids playing
among the fireflies, like they once did.

The distant sounds of Fort Benning,
the grounds where we train
Infantrymen and Rangers,
become echoes of safety.
And though we are but at the foot
of the Appalachians,
we are the playground of Olympians. 

You always know
how to comfort me
my fountain city.
I wander through
parks of flat rock
with Coke and peanuts in hand.

I scramble to find my way
to a pharmacy that covers my hotdog
in chili and oyster crackers.
And I am ready for adventure.

You greet me as I am
without pretense;
and you teach me that
through love we are given much
and through love we are servants still.

You rise like the Phenix
out of the shadows of our past:
from the mill houses and war
to soar like the eagle
on a joyous new day.

Your buildings release
symphonic sighs that please the ear
and artistic brushstrokes that please the eye.
They have found new life
for a new time
and they join with us
in the dance.

The sound of the train
lulls me to sleep.
What seemed imaginary
becomes real life theatre springing
from our collective minds
to meet at our river’s center.

My love for you,
our pageant queen,
is as pure as white wings
against a mallard sky.
It calls me to love.
It invites me to fly.

– Isiah M. Harper 

 

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