Street poetry: Selma at the Crossroads

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Town of Selma, North Carolina Sesquicentennial 1867-2017

 

On May 1, I had the honor of reading a poem I wrote for Selma, North Carolina’s sesquicentennial. Museum volunteers held a brief Founders Day ceremony with a few costumed citizens and refreshments in a pocket park on Anderson Street. There at the podium, with modern trains and traffic in the background, I read this:

Selma at the Crossroads

Weekday morning, Selma stirs

With railcars rumbling from the feed mill.

Gates descend; Amtrak slows into Union Station.

Commuters wait as each train

Rolls out past farmers turning the gray soil.

 

We are Selma at the crossroads

Measuring the past in wars;

From land parcels sold at Civil War’s end

To the blast of munitions at Catch Me Eye

That smashed 900 window panes three miles away.

 

Every fall we march a pageant of what we hold dear

Down Raiford Street, waving at the pretty girls

In their sparkling crowns

Praying our own children grow up and stay here

To raise families, to own homes, to run businesses.

 

We are Selma at the crossroads, between those

Hungry for knowledge and those for food;

Between the hard choice to pay bills or buy medicine.

It takes courage to smash apathy like a glass jar

Of “Selmalaise” from the shelf of the market store.

 

To do more than just pass each other

On Pollock, Anderson or Webb.

To mentor young leaders, to revive our faith,

To reach down to the tangled roots

And aerate the soil with reconciliation.

 

To pull the weeds of despair and doubt,

Prune the dead branches of pessimism

And let new growth have room to flourish.

Don’t just hum that lingering Sunday hymn

Join the choir. Take part in outreach.

 

We are Selma at the crossroads,

Between what was and what we will become,

Between labors ended and labors begun.

Between buildings vacant and those awakening

To red awnings, fresh paint, new lumber, nail gun to shingle.

 

Stand at the cornerstone laid 150 years ago

See the Selma that rises beyond

Linear tracks and street grids

With a vibrancy that moves in panorama

And soars spread-winged like an eagle above.

 

See Selma as if you had to leave her tomorrow

And carry her in your heart.

What would you take?

Would you come back?

We are Selma at the crossroads.

 

Cindy Brookshire

Town of Selma Sesquicentennial

Founders Day, May 1, 2017

 

If you want to see a short video, it’s posted on Facebook here (look in the video section or scroll to May 1, 2017).

As a backstory, I’d been working on the poem several weeks. The only person I showed it to, besides my husband, Curtis, was my pastor, Rev. Jim Melnyk of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Smithfield. Priests are like doctors, they have this cowboy code where they are compelled to tell you stuff straight up. I knew if it fell flat, he’d let me know. And he’s a poet, along with his brother. Father Jim came through. He gave me some good editing points, especially this:

My brother (who is better than I am at this – much better) always tells me I have too many words… I need less to say more. 

Less is more.

I edited the poem, mowing away the overgrown prose, and leaving room for the reader or listener to call up their own images of Selma, not mine. Here’s the earlier version, for comparison. Have a wonderful May, remember “less is more” and take your poetry to the streets!

Selma at the Crossroads (an earlier draft)

The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. Psalm 118:22

Weekday morning, Selma stirs

With the rumble of rocking railcars

Leaving the feed mill. Gates descend;

Amtrak blasts and slows into Union Station,

Disembarking travelers. Each train’s freight

Of soybeans or passengers rolls past

Farmers turning the gray soil of North Carolina,

Rotating collards, sweet potatoes, tobacco.

Commuters, compliant at the crossings,

Tap iPhones, sip coffee, bite into a sausage biscuit.

 

We are Selma at a crossroads

Measuring the past in wars; when land parcels

Sold at Civil War’s end and roads were

Packed by wagon dirt and mule-pressed mud.

Seventy-five years ago, a blast of World War II

Munitions leveled the Talton Hotel at Catch Me Eye

And smashed 900 window panes

Of the Selma Cotton Mill three miles away.

We fought to preserve this small town,

So our children would grow up and stay

To raise families, to buy homes, to run businesses.

 

We are Selma at a crossroads

Between those hungry for knowledge

And those for food; between pride in our property

And those so beaten down by low wages,

Long work shifts and doctor bills

They can’t see up from the bottom rung.

 

It takes courage to smash apathy like a glass jar

Of “Selmalaise” from the shelf of the IGA.

To do more than just pass each other

On Raiford, Anderson or Webb.

To mentor young leaders, to revive our faith,

To reach down to the tangled roots

And aerate the soil with racial reconciliation

Pull the weeds of despair and doubt,

Prune the dead branches of pessimism

And let new growth have room to flourish.

Don’t just hum that lingering Sunday hymn

Join the choir. Don’t just wave back

At the pretty girl in her sparkling crown

At the Railroad Days parade.

Make sure every teenager in Selma

Has an opportunity for scholarship.

 

We are Selma at a crossroads

Between what was and what we will become

Between labors ended and labors begun

Between buildings vacant and those

Awakening to red awnings, fresh paint

New lumber, nail gun to shingle.

 

A strong town can’t happen

Without people who care

And understand what others around the state

Know: Place matters more than ever.

Come back to the cornerstone laid 150 years ago

See the Selma that rises beyond

Linear roads and railroad tracks

The vibrancy that moves like a Facebook 360

And soars like a drone above.

 

See Selma as if you had to leave her

Tomorrow and carry her in your heart.

What would you take?

The music from The Rudy?

An ice cold milkshake from Creech Drug?

I would take this: Sunrise service

At Greenwood and the way my heart beats

Under my hand when I rise

To say the Pledge of Allegiance

At a town council meeting.

The laughter coming from the barbershop

While swapping stories

Relay races at the Boys & Girls Club

Welcoming the stranger to town at the visitor center.

We are Selma at the crossroads.

 

Cindy Brookshire

Town of Selma’s Founders Day

May 1, 2017

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Street poetry: Selma at the Crossroads

Add yours

  1. What a brilliant, touching, evocative poem, Cindy! There is so much to recommend it. I love that you included an earlier draft–it shows how writing is done. Thank you!

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