The City as a Mirror: Blythe Davenport’s Second Oldest (PS Books, 2013) and Phylinda Moore’s Herculaneum’s Fortune (Anaphora, 2014)
By Courtney Bambrick
While the cities and civilizations vary in Blythe Davenport’s Second Oldest: A Poetic History of Philadelphia and Phylinda Moore’s Herculaneum’s Fortune, themes of invention, destruction, and history in general serve both poets well. Both Davenport and Moore live in Philadelphia and both earned their MFAs in poetry at Rosemont College [Full disclosure: both poets were classmates of mine there]. Though the cities in question are often overshadowed by more famous neighbors: New York in the case of Philadelphia and Pompeii in the case of Herculaneum, these poets approach their cities with the zeal of curators or well-educated tour guides: these cities — and their distinct lessons and treasures — can be discovered, recovered, uncovered.
Chronologically, Phylinda Moore’s Herculaneum’s Fortune straddles the ancient and contemporary — excavating the ruins of Herculaneum and finding therein a connection to contemporary life. The poem “Interrupted” describes a painting technique used in Herculaneum and the layers it requires as well as the layers that must be stripped away by later excavators (36). “Egyptian Archeology” presents the fascination we have with finding and preserving ancient Egyptian civilization: “we cannot let them go/we cannot let go” (50). Both poems (and others in the collection) consider the relationship between human creation and preservation to the natural processes of decay or destruction.
Other poems in Moore’s collection layer a human resignation to nature’s force. In the poem, “On Dark Water,” the speaker reacts to the devastation of a hurricane:
…I stopped, laid down on the debris and let it carry me along.
Rested my back against the door (broken window, cracked frame)
looked up at the sky–night, day it was both (20).
This resignation underlies several poems here in subtle ways. In “Welcome Flowers,” she writes, “I cannot hold the everything world in my arms” (24). What are human arms in the face of the “everything world” that constantly threatens fragmentation? Many of the poems question the human response not only to nature but to tragedy. The lessons and vocabularies of architecture and archaeology are turned inward toward the individual. In “Architecturally, Structurally,” Moore presents a palimpsest of selves: “there is nothing left for me here/after moving through so many erasures” (43). “Time and All Its Nothing,” presents time as absence: “the space between your fingers (70).” The poem “The Frailty We Fear” suggests that “exposure,/experience” is a threat greater than age, but that experience propels us through history:
in the end you’re flossing teeth
you’ve done it a thousand times
all lives and died all deaths (74).
The presence of history and its role in everyday life is a driving theme through Blythe Davenport’s Second Oldest, as well. Davenport focuses on Philadelphia history and mythology. She asks questions about what actually happened and what people say happened. She also seems to ask whether such a distinction is necessary. In her poem, “Man with a Load of Mischief,” she refers to an iconic colonial era tavern sign:
There was something here before this
dancing sign, the swirl of night
life and liberty tourism:
Delaware tribes once gathered
whortleberries from a copse they called Cooconocon.
There is always something before,
though not always
something after… (3).
The sign itself changes over the years, depicting a cultural change from raucous to elegant, but the bigger change — from the “something here before this” to the possibility of nothing to follow — gives this poem a sense of doom. Also echoing themes found in Moore’s Herculaneum, “First African Baptist Church Dig” examines the actual layers that must be removed to view history. It starts with the inevitability of loss: “Everything is planted, eventually” (6), and concerns a dig:
Obscene and wily,
history grinned and tossed
little bits of bone and china,
a leather shoe or two,
and a fistful of coins
then squirmed out of our hands.
History here actively resists and mocks the efforts of the people who study it. But this collection reaches toward understanding, despite the slippery nature of history. Davenport assembles a varied collage of Philadelphia relics and events: the 1944 Girls’ High graduation, the 1959 death of Mario Lanza, the unused 18th-Century gibbet meant to ward off pirates, and yes, of course, the cracking of the Liberty Bell.
The poems are split into three sections: “Second Oldest,” “Museum of Hoaxes,” and “Space within These Lines Not Dedicated.” Many of the poems in Second Oldest are based on photographs and Davenport is able to include some with the section breaks. We also get a sampling of some “Warped Franklin” — familiar sayings that have been stretched away from their original meanings: “The used key is always missing,” “Diligence is the Mother of Disillusionment,” and “Love your neighbor, but don’t pull down your pants.” This irreverence serves Davenport well as she wrestles with some of Philadelphia’s most established and entrenched myths and legends while weaving together some lesser-known stories and ideas.
In their considerations of Herculaneum and Philadelphia, Phylinda Moore and Blythe Davenport remind us of the layers of creation and destruction that we walk upon day after day. Our cities are built by human strength and ingenuity, but over time, the cities begin to build us: we are shaped by the lore and detritus of our cities.