If you call a poem written for a special occasion an “occasional poem,” what do you call a special place designed to display a poem or group of poems?
I know about the occasional poem thanks to Princeton University’s Paul Muldoon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who last Saturday helped kick off the grand opening party for the West Windsor Arts Council in the refurbished fire house on Alexander Road. His “occasional poem” was a tribute to both the role of the arts in the community and to the tradition of the Depression-era building now serving as a home to those arts. He titled it “A Spark.”
It seems a contradiction that a spark
against which this firehouse has so long
stood firm should now light the dark
from within a sculpture or a song
and should, in another of those same
paradoxes on which art thrives
now be fanned into a flame
that saves our lives.
I found myself in a poetic place, as I will label it for now, the very next day, when Scott and Hella McVay dedicated their mile-long poetry trail through the grounds of the D&R Greenway off Rosedale Road.
The McVays, longtime supporters of both the Greenway’s preservation efforts and of poetry (Scott was the founding executive director of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation that sponsors the biennial poetry festivals) combined their love of poetry and the natural world by creating a mile-long poetry trail wending through the hills and dales and wild asters and milkweed of the former Johnson estate. Forty-eight poems are emblazoned on markers scattered along the way, most located 10 or 15 feet into the uncut meadow.
You might get a few burrs on your britches as you come up close to read poems that are either classic (Shakespeare’s “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” sonnet and Walt Whitman, of course) or whimsical, but all in some way complementing the natural world around us. A snippet from Dr. Seuss brought a smile to my face:
“SO . . . Catch!” calls the Once-ler. He lets something fall. “It’s a Truffula Seed. It’s the last one of all! You’re in charge of the last of the Truffula Seeds. And Truffula Trees are what everyone needs. Plant a new Truffula. Treat it with care. Give it clean water. And feed it fresh air. Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack. Then the Lorax and all of his friends may come back.”
And the Joni Mitchell song we all know seemed even more poetic when the only background music was the wind whipping across a high spot in the 55-acre park:
Bows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air And feather canyons everywhere, I’ve looked at clouds that way
But now they only block the sun They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done,
But clouds got in my way
I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It’s clouds’ illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all.
One poem on the trail was — for us at U.S. 1 — especially pleasing. It was “Vacant Land,” by Mary DeLia, which first saw the light of print in the 2009 U.S. 1 Summer Fiction issue. Scott McVay had a poem in that same issue. At the writers’ reception he and Hella heard the poem read aloud and decided it had to join the Poetry Trail.
That is what the sign said.
I just stood there and I scratched my head.
I simply didn’t understand
Why they would call this vacant land.
The sign said that they needed to sell
(Even though they didn’t word it well).
I knew that they would clear the land
Pave it over to be used by man.
… Vacant Land …
I counted 10 species of butterflies,
One hundred species of wild birds,
A dozens different kinds of wildflowers,
Including one I haven’t seen in 20 years.
Some kind of raptor circled the sky,
Something in my heart understood his cry.
His home is full of fox and deer,
And hundreds of sounds that I love to hear.
That is what the sign said.
I just stood there and I shook my head.
I wished that they could understand
This is so much more than vacant land.
Composer and performer Paul Winter, who has become a friend of the McVays through their joint efforts to celebrate the songs of humpback whales, performed at the event. Muldoon was there to read a poem or two. As were poets Gerald Stern, Jim Haba, Penny Harter, Napur Lahiri, and Mary DeLia, and educator Wei-ling Wu.
Rich Goldman, board chair of the Greenway, noted that through the land trust’s efforts some 14,500 acres have now been preserved as open space, and that the setting for this sparkling event was preserved when one of the open space advocates saw a sign proclaiming it for sale, promising that 32 new homes could be developed there.
Now you can call it a poetic place, a poetry trail, whatever. But don’t ever call it vacant land.