A New Poem for Chicago

As most people know, I love to speak, to read poetry, to engage audiences. It’s another aspect of my love of words and stories. Last weekend I drove to San Luis Obispo, a four-hour drive through intense rain. My beautiful wife Trini came with me. We ended up at an Embassy Suites for a gang prevention/intervention conference with around 300 teachers, administrators, counselors, youth workers, probation officers, law enforcement personnel, and others. Three people from Homeboy Industries, including my old friends Fabian Debora and Raul Diaz, also made presentations. The dialogue with this group was rich and powerful. The two weeks from March 4 to March 17 I was in Chicago speaking at schools, including the Rudy Lozano Academy of the Instituto del Progreso Latino in the Pilsen barrio and Telpochcalli grammar school in Little Village. I also did training with the Omni Youth Services in Buffalo Grove, IL, and an interview on the “Eight-Forty-Eight” show of WBEZ-FM radio. In addition, I did an hour-long interview for CAN-TV (public access TV) with my son Ramiro as producer and interviewer (I must say it was one of the best interviews I’ve ever had, and I’ve had hundreds). This should air in April and we also hope to get this on youtube.com and other internet outlets. I also had lunch and dinners with many friends and community activists, and even spent a day-and-a-half near the Iowa border with one of my grandkids, Anastasia, who’s been living there lately with her mother’s family. It was one of my better trips. The main reason I ended up in Chicago this time, however, was to read at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum for the Poetry Foundation, part of their “Poetry Off the Shelf” series. I was also commissioned to do a poem as an alternative label to museum objects (photos, DVD, etc.). I decided to do a poem celebrating Chicago as a destination and a home. I’m aware there are many famous Chicago poems, including by Carl Sandburg. I don’t claim I can ever top or equal these, but still I wanted to add my poetic voice, to contribute to this city that has meant so much to me in my life and for my writing. I can’t say for sure how many people showed up to the reading, but it felt like between 300 and 500 people. It was a solid and engaged group. I read mostly new poems, and in the end I unveiled my new poem. The Jane Addams Hull-House Museum also has placed this poem under glass, which I understand will be there for about a year. I thank Lisa Yun Lee, director of Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, and the rest of the staff (as well as my friends at the Poetry Foundation) for offering me this opportunity. Here is my new poem for Chicago:
A Hungry Song in the Shadows When I think about Chicago’s first settlers, migrants, jobseekers, who sought haven or the hope of one, I think about a place fierce with wails, noises in all decibels, tongues from all reaches, and how this is not just a city, but a dream state of brick and chain-link fences, where poetry clatters along with the El train on iron rails, where temples hold every belief and street corners every color, a city that nourishes all palates, holds all thoughts, and still contains the seed of this vital idea: In accord with nature, all is possible. This is a city that steam built. That muscle and sweat solidified into a church of organized labor. Where a swampy onion field in a few generations could become home to the brightest and most jagged skyline, where fossil fuels are holy water and smokestacks and silos remain as soot-stained monuments to industry—from horse-drawn plows, to the foulest stockyards, the roar of combustion engines, the rattle of metal-tipped tools, and smoke-curling big rigs streaming along cluttered expressways and upturned streets. I came to this city on my knees, laden with heartaches, bitter in the shadows, seeking a thousand voices that spoke in one voice, where steel no longer reigned, but where open mics and poetry slams kept the steel in our verses, lamenting a life of work, in a time of no work, and where the inventive and inspiring could finally burst through the cement viaducts and snowy terrains. Now we are artists or we die. From the fractured neighborhoods where bootblacks and news hawking boys once held sway, to this daunting gentrified metropolis of ghosts, toxic waste, and countless poor ripped from their housing projects, three-flat graystones, or trash-lined bungalows, yet nothing can truly uproot the uprooted. The energy for what Chicago can become is buried inside people, in callings, passions, and technologies, but only if this manufactured garden aligns with real nature, no longer limited, finite, fixed on scarcity, but abundant, cooperative, regenerative, like a song across the lakeshore, blooming with lights, music, dance, banners, and words into a cornucopia of potentials, possibilities, even the impossible. It’s an imagination for the intrinsic beauty and bounty in all things. Chicago. Clean. Just. Free. It’s the city we’ve wept and bled to see.

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