“City of Lights” by Julie Kane
Poet Laureate of Louisiana, 2011-2013
In 1976, when I was in my early twenties, I was the George Bennett Fellow in Writing at Phillips Exeter Academy. It was the year of the United States Bicentennial, and Exeter was planning to bury a time capsule to be unearthed two hundred years in the future. They asked me to write a poem to be included in the time capsule—and I found myself utterly paralyzed by writer’s block. Back then, I did not think I was capable of writing a poem on request—only when “inspired” by the mysterious Muse.
Since that time, and particularly during my tenure as Louisiana Poet Laureate (2011-2013), I have come to respect occasional poems and to enjoy the challenge of writing them. I can think of at least three that I was asked to write for civic occasions or institutions while I served as LPL: one for the 125th anniversary of the founding of Northwestern State University of Louisiana; one for the bicentennial of Louisiana statehood; and one (to be set to music for soprano and full orchestra) for the tricentennial of the founding of Natchitoches, Louisiana.
In the case of all three poems, I had to discover or uncover a personal connection between me and the subject matter in order to write. I will focus on the Natchitoches tricentennial poem here. How could I relate personally to the 300th anniversary of the founding of a city? Well, less than a decade after Hurricane Katrina nearly destroyed another beloved Louisiana city, New Orleans, I understood all too well that cities were vulnerable and that they could perish. That became my genuine emotional connection to the material.
It was also important to work details unique to Natchitoches into the poem. The movie Steel Magnolias, based on the play by Natchitoches native Robert Harling, was filmed in Natchitoches. The city’s main street is brick, to the annoyance of some drivers; back in the 1950s, local women preservationists lay down on the bricks to stop the bulldozers sent to tear them up for urban renewal—and prevailed. The historic downtown has “iron lace” balconies, like the French Quarter in New Orleans. The city is known for its Christmas light displays and for its fireworks, which take place every weekend from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Eve. And the oxymoronic “Cane River Lake” runs through Natchitoches: a long, narrow, river-shaped lake that was once a main artery of Red River, before it got cut off and left behind.
I had a literal audience for the performance of the work, “City of Lights,” which was set to music by composer Kenneth Olsen. There was a full house in Magale Recital Hall for the gala Tricentennial Concert by the Natchitoches/Northwestern Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Douglas Bakenhus. Soprano Donna Lee was the soloist. The performance received a standing ovation! One could not ask for a better reception for a poem.
My three civic occasional poems are not ones I would include in a collection of my poems. They were intended to fit their occasions.
However, a few of the poems I have written on request for weddings or funerals of friends do feel like decent additions to my body of work.
City of Lights
--for the Natchitoches Tricentennial (1714-2014)
Cities pass away: steel and glass and limestone
Mortal as the skeletons beneath our human skin.
Where’s Atlantis now? Troy? Or western ghost-towns?
Jungle swallows capitals once ruled by Mayan kings.
Who would have believed, during our own lifetimes,
Water would be swirling through the streets of jazz parades?
Thousands on their roofs, praying for a lifeline,
Hoping fellow citizens would hear their pleas for aid.
Cities steal our hearts, though they are not human:
Lacy iron balconies and bricks beneath our cars,
Lake shaped like a river, “steel magnolias” blooming,
Fireworks exploding over lights that shame the stars.
Though a hundred years is the most you can give us,
Lord, please let the cities that we love outlive us.