Broadcasts: Reading with Robin Coste Lewis

Blum & Poe Broadcasts presents free and public access to scholarship and writerly ponderings from our publications archives. 

In focus this week—excerpts from Sam Durant's The Meeting House / Build Therefore Your Own World (Los Angeles: Blum & Poe, 2017), on the artist's project contextualizing American canonical historical narratives alongside lesser-known histories of slavery and the treatment of African Americans, from the founding of the colonies to the present day.


From this project, Broadcasts features poetry by Los Angeles poet laureate Robin Coste Lewis.

Sam Durant, “Every spirit builds itself a house, and beyond its house a world…Build therefore your own world", 2017, © Sam Durant, photo: Joshua White/JWPictures.com

Inhabitants and Visitors

NOTE: In 1854, Thoreau published his now canonical Walden: Or, Life in the Woods. Well-regarded for its exploration of nineteenth-century subsistence living, Thoreau also included a chapter that explored the community of free Blacks living around Walden Pond long before he arrived. He titled this chapter “Former Inhabitants and Winter Visitors.” My poem below is an erasure of Thoreau’s chapter. Like Walden at the time of Thoreau’s experiment, for me this chapter contained a hidden call to the historical rediscovery of African American histories embroidering Concord, and hence, America. Therefore, in order to extend Thoreau’s experiment, I removed and rearranged several lines from Thoreau’s chapter in order to magnify, lyrically, the free black community that once lived there.

In honor of the opening of
The National Museum of African American History and Culture

and

Dedicated to Kevin Young,
with profound admiration,
on the occasion of being named Director of
the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture



My fireside,
           My darkline,
                       My border-dotted
                                  dwelling.

My own alone,
           My firm open,
                     My across the road,
                                My gentle permission.

My narrow present
           half-obliterated fringe
                      of now—
                                 golden, luxuriant. 

My still-shrill war
           dwelling on parole—
                         Inhumane bricks amid
                                  the oak copse there.

My discolored emphasis—black,
            blacker than any dusky orb,
                        before or since
                                     My orchard of location.

My-thology
           (Prominent. Astounding.)
                      My biography
                                 (robs and murders

the whole history
             enacted here).
                          Let Time intervene
                                      the most distinct and dubious tradition

Saluted—
         standing—
                      unoccupied
                                  election.


My labored lethargy, awake,
            My poetry skipping,
                          My bells rung in hot haste.
                                      Engines fire all together. Fresh sparks.


My ever and anon,
            My cooled ardor
                        thought concluded.
                                    Speaking trumpets,


Passage in the preface,
              The soul’s only survivor.
                     Heir of burning first moments.
                          My gaze, my always, remembered absolutely.

My mere presence,
            My dark heaven,
                       which could never be burned
                                   or mounted.

Sam Durant, “Every spirit builds itself a house, and beyond its house a world…Build therefore your own world", 2017 (detail), © Sam Durant, photo: Joshua White/JWPictures.com

The iron hook
            hangs history
                        (Once more
                                    on the left).

My earthen descendants,
           My sufferance,
                    My vain form.
                               Midsummer Man carrying a load—

My inquired concern,
          A potter’s wheel of him,
                      Clay and wheel scripture—
                                  An art ever-practiced. 

Last inhabitants
             of these woods
                        before me,
                                     Names with coil,

Civil speech carmine,
           curled up by use—
                      The last symbol a dim garden over-run
                                  with Roman beggar-ticks.

My dent in the earth,
             This site
                        These dwellings:
                                      buried cellar stones—

and strawberries,
              thimble-berries,
                        hazel-bush,
                                   chimney nook,

Sweet-scented black waves
            where the door was sometimes
                        the well
                                   Visible.

Fate, free-will, fore-
             knowledge absolute. Form
                          and dialect
                                     edifying as philosophy.

My vivacious
          lilac generation,
                      the door and lintel and sill
                                   are unfolding.

Plucked by the traveller,
           tended by children
                        in front-yard plots
                                    now standing.

Lone century
            universally thirsty
                        making the wilderness
                                   blossom like the rose:

Deliver me from a city
             built on the site of a more ancient city
                       whose materials are ruins,
                                     whose gardens cemeteries.

Sam Durant, “Every spirit builds itself a house, and beyond its house a world…Build therefore your own world", 2017 (detail), © Sam Durant, photo: Joshua White/JWPictures.com

My season
            wanderer
                  My house for a week
                             or a fortnight at a time

My great snow of 1717
    My long time buried
         without food
           My hole, which the chimney’s breath made in the drift.

My house,
              My meandering dotted line,
                          Same number of steps, same length,
                                      coming and going.

My own deep tracks,
           Heaven’s own blue,
                       My deepest appointment,
                                  My plainly erect neck.

Feathers, lids, winged brother
             of the peninsular relation,
                         My nearer approach.
                                     Impatient

Delicate twilight,
          New perch,
                      Peace smitten on one cheek—
                                    notwithstanding the odor of morale

(Church or State haul
            Load of manure
                      Large fires
                                 Clear when others failed).

My darkness, my lamp
           through the trees, like the nut its kernel.
                      Unsuspected faith,
                               God of Defaced and Leaning Monuments.

Enter ye
            O World behind us
                       Pledge no institution
                                   whichever way we turn

Blue-robed roof, Mother of pearl flocks,
           form and dissolve the fable, every
                       circular inch. Open its seams.
                                  Long to be remembered.

Expect the Visitor who never comes.
            Say, “Remain at eventide,
                       as long as it takes, long enough
                                  to milk a whole herd of cows.”

Lyceum II: Poetry Reading on September 24, 2016, commissioned and produced by The Trustees of Reservations as part of Art and The Landscape, photo: Above Summit
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