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Canto the Sixth: Pilgrimages

Published onApr 17, 2023
Canto the Sixth: Pilgrimages

But I am apt to grow too metaphysical:
    ‘The time is out of joint,’—and so am I;
I quite forget this poem’s merely quizzical,
    And deviate into matters rather dry.
I ne’er decide what I shall say, and this I call
    Much too poetical: men should know why
They write, and for what end; but, note or text,
I never know the word which will come next.

So on I ramble, now and then narrating,
    Now pondering:—it is time we should narrate.
Lord Byron Don Juan, Canto 9

[The BeltLine is] not just transformational, but inspirational
Rob Brawner1

The Southwest BeltLine Trail, unfinished and undone,
Except in places, is ripe with dreams
Of adventure to come. George woke up with the sun
Blazing in his eyeballs, rather red from reams
Of sake from the night before -- the fault of someone
Who calls herself, or was it him or them? He seemed
Not to recall. Together they’d gone on a jaunt,
And she (or he?) brought George to a restaurant

Or was it a bar? No matter, it was great fun,
And now he’d have to figure out where he was, or
Is, and where he’d been the night before. Some
Time after visiting the “Sweeter Breath” sculpture,
George was in a Midtown joint which, alas, had run
Out of his favorite drink (gin). Someone at the bar
Told him that some sake would be the way to go,
And that hot or cold, a drink of it was so

Delicious as to create castles in the sky --
And underground as well. This seemed a good
Idea, better than his usual choice (dry
Martinis), but he wasn’t sure if he should
Drink it hot or cold. ‘The only way to find out is to try’
He thought, and smiled. He was in a great mood.
This led him to have one of each -- bottle
That is. Now, hung over, he’d have to throttle

Himself, by way of penance, since BeltLine forays
Require fortitude, and some semblance of sobriety.
For penance, there exist various ways
To go, some painful, and some requiring the society
Of confessors, or exorcists. Sometimes it pays
To know someone of the cloth who can help with piety
When required; but George is new to Atlanta,
And so, with no simple way to recant, a

Solution came mind, well-suited to the BeltLine:
A pilgrimage. Geoffrey Chaucer wrote one
Of those six hundred years ago, and more, a fine
Work of poetry that’s remarkably fun
To read out loud. His poem used ten beats per line,
And rhymed in couplets, which allowed him to run
On, and on, merrily, for 17,000
Lines, or so. He described a band

Of pilgrims traveling by foot from London to
Visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket
At Canterbury Cathedral. The pilgrim who
Told the best tale would win a meal, at
The Tabard Inn. George loved this idea, and drew
Up plans for a Chik-fil-A coupon, but met
Some resistance from the patrons there. ‘If chicken
Can only be won with poetry’, they said, ‘then

We’d rather eat somewhere else!’ Oh well. George believed
That Chaucer would have won his contest,
Although we’re not sure if he would have been relieved
To know that the prize was American fast
Food -- seven hundred years later. Plus, he’d grieve
All the friends he left behind in the past,
And feel exiled. He’d probably also surmise
That he’d have to trek a long way for his prize!

With all these complex matters in mind, George thought
That t’would be fun to read Chaucer’s stories
Before leaving for his Westside ride. He brought
Them down from a shelf, which was risky, for his knees
Were weak from last night’s drink. Maybe he should not
Embark on his pilgrimage? But to appease
His own sense of pride, he knew that he could
Not take a day off to laze around in bed. He would

Try reading about pilgrims in Chaucer’s great book,
To give him inspiration. Here’s what he found2:
Whan that aprill with his shoures soote 
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote, 
And bathed every veyne in swich licour 
Of which vertu engendred is the flour; 
(‘I too am bathed in liquor, and my tummy is sore,’
Thought George. ‘Maybe I’ll feel better if I

Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth 
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth 
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne 
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne, 
And smale foweles maken melodye, 
That slepen al the nyght with open ye 
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages); 
(“I too slept with my eyes open,

‘Priketh’ in, my case, by copious sakes!”)
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages, 
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes, 
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes; 
And specially from every shires ende 
Of engelond to caunterbury they wende, 
The hooly blisful martir for to seke, 
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke. 

George was impressed by these lines, and convinced that they
Contained great wisdom, and maybe some kind
Of antidote for his hangover. Pilgrims pray
When they need something done, could George find
Inspiration some other way? He tried to weigh
His options, but his head was too gray. At this rate he’d wind
Up in a BeltLine ditch, rather than with the blissful martyr
That the pilgrims were after!’ He’d barter

That only a pilgrimage could do him good, so on
Unsteady feet he stood, and cast his fortune
To the BeltLine wind. To clear his head he’d run
For a little while, pick up a bike near Washington
Park, and ride to Westside Reservoir. He hung
Out there sometimes, which was always great fun.
Maybe he’d join the BeltLine trail in the South, at
Andrew Light’s “Monumental” sculpture3. Why care that

He felt a bit sick? He had to soldier on, and fend
For himself even if effects of his night
Time follies came back to haunt him. His friend
For that day was Chaucer, who offered just the right
Tale for inspiration, one that was penned
By a Miller who described himself as mighty
Drunk. ‘That’s good, thought George, ‘since some people call
Poetry a form of inebriation!’: ‘Listen… all,

To what I have to say. But first I’m bound
To say I’m drunk, I know it by my sound.
And if the words get muddled in my tale
Just put it down to too much Southwark ale.
I will relate a legend and a life
Of an old carpenter and of his wife,
And how a student came and set his cap ….’
That’s how the Miller’s Tale starts, and before his nap

George would read it all the way through; but for now,
Adventure beckoned. So he jogged to a bike
Which he mounted, gingerly, trying not to show just how
Woozy he still was from last night’s long hike
In Atlanta’s boozy Midtown underworld. He’d sow
Fresh oats today and try to keep a steady keel, like
A tiny ship tossed about in a great gale. The West
Side was unpaved at first, so he did his best

To hold on and tried to enjoy the scenery.
At Atlanta Avenue the pathway,
Which to that point is a wooded trail, receded
And stopped dead. Some stairs were there, which saved the day,
And he descended them to the street below. He
Was gaining strength, the ratio of blood to sake
Improving in favor of increased sobriety.
‘Next time I’m out’, he vowed, ‘I’ll practice piety

Rather than excess!’ Sometimes, however, the best
Tale-tellers are those who’ve had too much wine,
Or beer (or sake), thought George. He would test
This idea by reading Chaucer’s many fine
Lines that discuss the effects of drink. He attests
With conviction to alcohol’s ill effects,
Yet suggests all the while that we have much to learn
From being drunk. Pilgrims who boast that they’ve been

Drinking too much, for instance, tend to sound wittier,
Even if drink makes them look shittier:
‘Wine is a lecherous thing and drunkenness
A squalor of contention and distress.
O drunkard, how disfigured is thy face,
How foul thy breath, how filthy thy embrace!
And through thy drunken nose a stertorous snort
Like ‘samson-samson’ – something of the sort.

Yet Samson never was a man to swig.
You totter, lurch and fall like a stuck pig,
Your manhood’s lost, your tongue is in a burr.
Drunkenness is the very sepulchre
Of human judgement and articulation.
He that is subject to the domination
Of drink can keep no secrets, be it said.’
Perhaps that’s it! Thought George, his brain not dead

To great insights. His sake may have loosened up
His tongue, and pen, which might make his BeltLine
Tales a bit more Chaucerian. He could only hope
It might have this effect. In the meantime,
He’d continue his journey and try to scope
Out new things to see and say and rhyme.
He biked to Chosewood Park, which has great graffiti,
As well as some of Alice and Eddie’s

Installations, near Peoplestown. Along the way
George caught a glimpse of lab-coated scientists
Depicted on a factory wall. This display
Of some smiling savants was hard to miss,
Since it was painted beside “Carbice”. George learned one day,
From experts he’d met along the way, that this
Business makes “thermal interface carbon nano
Tube materials4” to blast off into

Space. Canterbury Tales pilgrims would have been
Surprised, no doubt, if in place of tales by
Misled knights, or drunken Millers, they had seen
Futuristic electronics speeding by.
The link, of course, is that ideas that we glean
From science, and insights from murals on the side
Of the road, are both part of the experience
Of the Emerald Necklace. It’s a place to embrace

Beloved communities, and all the passion
And diversity that it creates. (If we can
Think back that far, we’ll remember that George began
His poem with this idea.) Further on, the Trans-
Formation Tunnel5 offered George, and passers-by, some
Where to find solace, a place to make plans
For healing, and to congregate. There we see words,
Painted on cement, that call out to us like birds:

“Atlanta we are thriving and creating lives full of value daily
Built on the shoulders of our queer ancestors and the HIV pioneers who paved the way
Our truth is actualized as a collective every time we walk, run, dance, sing, grow and praise to the rhythm of our own beat.
Welcome to the Transformation Tunnel, a safe space where all of HIV's gloomy past transforms into a beautiful bouquet of love and light, transcending fear and darkness.
With this space, we vow to congregate in the name of deeper love, to preserve in the name of legacy and to thrive in the name of making our marks on the world!”

Messages like these can be uplifting, and remind
Us all that artistic works that inquire
About what’s going on in the world. Art helps us find
New approaches to old problems, kindling fires
Of hope from branches of despair. So the BeltLine
Isn’t just a pathway, it’s also a place that inspires
Us to think differently, something that requires
New ways of seeing the world, instilling desires

In people to fight for change. Poetry can also re-
Vive us, or help us seek change, because often
It puts ideas together in ways that help us to see
What is great about the world, and what is rotten.
This is what Chaucer does with his great poetry:
He assembles pilgrims to tell stories -- of ill-gotten
Wealth, love lost, lovers forlorn, whatever it might take
To amuse us, and to recall what’s at stake:

“Early next morning at the spring of day
Up rose our Host and roused us like a cock,
Gathering us together in a flock,
And off we rode at slightly faster pace
Than walking to St Thomas’ watering-place;
And there our Host drew up, began to ease
His horse, and said, ‘Now, listen if you please,
My lords! Remember what you promised me….

Let’s see who shall be first to tell a tale.
And as I hope to drink good wine and ale
I’ll be your judge. The rebel who disobeys,
However much the journey costs, he pays.”
What a cool competition, a stimulus to forge
New pathways, and create great stories. George
Drove on, with the Canterbury Tales in his head, and came
To the Lucille Street Bridge (and tunnel). Its name

Is well-known, because this was where The Highball Artist6
Has created work about those who gorged them
Selves on speed as they conducted a train. This
Caused a tumult of color -- sheer mayhem! --
And an explosion of color on the opposite
Side. This reminded George of Cendrars and then
Of Sonia Delaunay who, with her painting, replied
To George’s poetic musings. They then relied

On the viewer to make the connections between
The words and the world, like we are doing here.
So we’ll connect Susan Kerseimer’s amazing scenes7
To George’s BeltLine thoughts -- and dreams. We’ll hear
About other links we look to those who’ve been
Working hard along this path, rewarded by cold beer:
Planting grasses, flowers, and thousands of trees
Fomenting honey-like feats from BeltLine’s busy bees.

George’s travels that day exhausted him, but brought
Out all these surprising connections. So
By the time he approached Mosley Park, he thought
About the BeltLine Arboretum8, which tries to grow
Native grasses and wildflowers to replace what
Has been destroyed by years of neglect. They’ve been mowed
Down, covered up, poisoned and replaced, harming
Biodiversity and pollination, and alarming

Those who know how to sustain life on planet earth.
George slowed down at Holderness Street and saw
A jug, -- or is it a pillar? It had the girth
Of an urn, which immediately recalls
Keats’s amazing Odes. George would give all his worth
For a single line as sweet as one that falls
From Keats’s pen with such perfection. Standing with his bike
George recalled that Grecian Urn9 that Keats described like

A “still unravish'd bride of quietness”,
       a “foster-child of silence and slow time”,
A “Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
      A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme”….
This is another great power of art, a prowess
That exceeds a life upon this earth. We climb
Higher on memory’s ladder by leaving
Traces, and we loom larger by weaving

Together the grasses of time into tapestries
For eternity. That nameless jug, placed
Upon this trail, will persist, a beacon in the trees:
“When old age shall this generation waste,
                Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
        "Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
              Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

From there, George traveled to the Corridor at Lena10,
And saw through the trees a sculpture of an
Upside-down house, an American Dream as seen
And sculpted, by Judith Hoffman.11 We too can
Dream, and sculpt castles in the sky; but George had been
On the road for many hours by then.
It was time for him to pause, and make his way
Back, his hangover fading, like the light of day.

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