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Canto the First: Heroes

Published onApr 17, 2023
Canto the First: Heroes
South of the North, yet north of the South, lies the City of a Hundred Hills, peering out from the shadows of the past into the promise of the future. I have seen her in the morning, when the first flush of day had half-roused her; she lay gray and still on the crimson soil of Georgia; then the blue smoke began to curl from her chimneys, the tinkle of bell and scream of whistle broke the silence, the rattle and roar of busy life slowly gathered and swelled, until the seething whirl of the city seemed a strange thing in a sleepy land.
— WEB Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk1

“Atlanta was born with energy in her body”.
— Ralph McGill, Atlanta Constitution 1959.2

…Au soleil, sous la pluie, à midi ou à minuit
Il y a tout ce que vous voulez aux Champs-Elysées…
— Joe Dassin, Les Champs-Élysées3

I want a great hero, not an uncommon want,
Someone I can stroll around Atlanta’s
BeltLine with; or, better still, I need a savant
To bike, run, walk, skip, scooter and, because,
Inspired by a flâneur friend named Charles Baudelaire,
I want to wander through King’s Beloved
Communities, with no objective except care-
Less fun, sprinkled with sometimes unloved

History, urban planning, natural vistas or,
Bien sûr! some frothy beer at times to quench
My thirsty mind. Even Lord Byron needed more,
-- Wine in his case -- for his jaunt, to help wrench
Out a poem. For his hero, Byron chose Don Juan,
Who died in the arms of his lover from
A leech or two, sucking his alcohol-filled blood
‘Till death did him part. But enough of glum

Recollections of Byron’s tales, and on to that
Ring around ATL, the Big Peach, A-Nation,
The Big A, A-Town, Dogwood City, or, from what
I can tell, a place where many variations
Of Peachtree can be used to name streets, vistas,
And byways, crescents, highways, nooks, paths, or
Dead-ends. I think it’s a way to confuse tourists
Who fear they may have missed signs or thorough-

Fares along their path; or a reminder to us all
That leaches killed Lord Byron, but Peaches
Don’t do anything, except request we call
Up recipes for peachy margaritas,
Or cobblers (if you prefer less drunken fruit).
There are lots of folks who’ve wandered the world
In search of stories, poems, or songs to suit
Some higher purpose, or just for fun. They’ve swirled

Around in the high seas, like poor Odysseus did
As he trudged home from Troy for ten long years,
Worried that Penelope, his lovely wife, might forbid
Him to reclaim his rightful place. Many fierce
Machinations of suiters fill that tale, scores
Of men who desired his spouse and home
In Ithaca. Since I need a hero for
This twenty-two-mile Atlanta BeltLine roam

You might fairly ask: ‘Why not him?’ But I don’t see
Our guide a King, as the great Ulysses
Was, but more a bard who, Braves hat in hand, can weave
Stories, sometimes true, like Homer did in Greece.
I want a modest bard, who likes travel’rs, straggl’rs,
Wand’rs, lovers, dreamers, joggers, walkers,
Beggars, finders, keepers, starlets, sleepers, posters
Of Facebook photos and Instagramers,

Tik Tok video types, Link’dIners, and those whose dogs
(Instead of Athena), serve as guides. But there
Are other great heroes who went on well-known slogs
Over hill and dale, mountaintop and fair-
Ly obscure places, like Hell, Purgatorio and
Paradiso, like our good friend Dante
The Pilgrim, who in a spiritual crisis spent
Time with Virgil, exploring scenes of want,

And hope, and despair, before finally ascending
The heavenly mountaintop of Paradise
Where, at last, he found his one true love attending
Him for who knows how long -- a sacrifice
Rewarded with eternal bliss. Unlike Dante, who
Had his Virgil, I’ll rely on those I’ll meet
Along the way, and pamphlets too, glossy tributes to
The builders who refused the word defeat.

Ryan Gravel, kindled by a trip to Paris,
And minds, and souls, and pocketbooks too, I guess,
‘Cause how else can railway lines be taken apart
For paths dreamed up in France, by a Georgia
Tech kid, who loves this town? Maybe a really fly
Hero would be Parisian, like the flâneur
Par excellence, Charles Baudelaire, the guy

Who created poems in prose (which is rather odd;
That’s like a swimmer who, rather than drift
In water, crawls upon the ground, but extends a nod
To waves!). Perhaps Don Quixote, adrift
With Sancho Panza? Or how ‘bout Geoffrey
Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales? Or James Baldwin’s tomes,
Like Another Country or, better still, Tell Me
How Long the Train’s Been Gone? The homes

In that novel are Harlem, and Greenwich Village,
And Baldwin references a train, now gone,
Like the ones from whose pathways the BeltLine pillaged.
Or how ‘bout Toni Morrison? In one
Work, Paradise, we learned about another haven,
Not a former railway path, but a new
Community, in which they build a great oven
Of brick and iron, symbols of renewal?

Paradise was meant to be just that, a hallowed
Space for a new world, away from hatred,
Exclusion, racism, and discrimination, which hollow
Out human beings, and then destroys sacred
Lives. But the BeltLine’s not meant to be far away
From Atlanta, in some hallowed place; it’s an
Avenue for strolls, a floor upon which to play,
And a stairway to heavenly Georgian

Moons at night. It’s like the Champs Elysée, but all
The way ‘round our city, not just one part;
It’s like Nevsky Prospekt, the road in beautiful
St Petersburg, designed to help impart
Poetic thoughts. For when we set out to traverse
Great cities, what better way than to stroll
Down grand boulevards, while reading rhyming verses
That honor its monuments? But the BeltLine’s goal

Is loftier still, given urban segregation.
It needs to mend and heal, and then create
The means to bring us ALL together. Its creation
Was for unity, so as to satiate
MLK’s dream, and ours, for beloved communities.
This is a great scheme, that’s slowly coming true,
Along with gardens and parks, and newly planted trees.
We still need that hero, though, a rogue, perhaps, who

Will be unafraid to venture forth, sometimes drunk,
Sometimes tired, but always ready to inspire
Great thoughts or, even if not great, at least not sunk
In the mire of the ordinary or the dire.
We need someone with us on Atlanta’s BeltLine
Who’ll help us look around and find sublime
Visions, works of art created from serpentine
Sticks, or from Tiny Doors4 placed out of time.

What greater rogue, and more poetic, than the mad,
The bad, the dangerous to know, the sin-
Loving hunk, the irresistible rogue? He had
Many names, as royalty tends to do, but then
We all know (and love) him as Lord Byron. He barreled
‘Round Europe, leaving broken hearts in his wake.
All this can be found in brilliant verse: Childe Harolde,
Of course, and our own favorite: Don Juan. I’ll take

His cue, borrow a few rhymes, and some other traces
(Modified, of course, because his were different days).
His poetry recalls more exotic places,
In Spain, England, France, Italy, and Greece,
Where his hero had crazy adventures that raised
Lots of eyebrows, not to mention petti-
Coats, (which is not our objective here!). We’re crazy
About exploring the BeltLine, and we

Shall see what we can find en route. I’ll bring my bike,
Sometimes, and skateboard too (although I’m really
Unsteady on it, so watch out). I’d also like
To rent a scooter, or that one-wheeléd wheely
Thing that, cop-in-tow, bears down on us in airports,
Or on smooth spaces where tourists enjoy
The scenery, while trying not to cause them to abort
Their lives. I’m packing letters, poems, and plays

Written by inspiring folks who have, like me, sought
To render into (rhyming) lines their quests
And treks and gallivants, and along the way brought
Meaning to work and play, and all the rest
That we call life. And as I scatter these rhymes
Upon this pathway, I honor those whose
Blood and sweat and tears (and reports) have, in hard times
Like these, given us reason to love, and choose,

Atlanta.


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