“If you see something, say something.”
Dept. of Homeland Security
Can the physical presences of words say something about what’s missing in our vision?
On September 12, 2015, I began a slightly unorthodox Colorado hike—down the length of Federal Boulevard, a busy four-lane thoroughfare on the west side of metro Denver.
Federal runs (almost) perfectly straight for about 21 miles, from the outer suburbs of Adams County in the north, to its southern end at the Littleton Golf and Tennis Club. In between, it’s almost all strip malls (with a few strip clubs). At its midpoint, it comes within a mile of downtown Denver, crossing the city’s famous “main street,” Colfax Avenue. But unlike Colfax, which passes through downtown, past the U.S. Mint, past the Denver City and County Civic Center, and past the Colorado state capitol building, Federal remains on the periphery.
Not many people would call this a scenic hike.
And as this sign on Mile 8 reminded me, “NO ONE WALKS”:
So how and why am I walking?
One reason is, I think: I’m trying to take the shapes of words seriously.
In 2014 I wrote a piece called “BLVD” for the Denver Poetry Map, a project created by digital artist and poet Aaron Angello: http://www.denverpoetrymap.net/.
The website is a Google map of Denver, with poems and short stories pinned to the map at the locations in the city where the pieces were written, or inspired, or intended to be read. A user (you) can walk the city with a smartphone, pulling up a story designed for that spot. Or you can surf the city from home, populating your memories (or projections) of places in Denver with the map’s poetry. Aaron writes, “This map asks the reader to explore the city through poetry, to understand the spaces within it differently because of the poems.”
I pinned my poem to 1200 Federal Boulevard, the address of the Richard T. Castro Human Services Building. Named for a Colorado state representative and civil rights activist, it’s a huge, echoing, hospital-like building (when I was in the Pentagon in 2005, it also reminded me of a hospital), where anyone applying for government assistance (food stamps, childcare subsidies, etc.) is likely to spend a few hours waiting, swiveling in a doctor’s-scrubs-colored plastic seat, with a numbered ticket in their hand.
The germ of “BLVD” came during my own long day at the Castro Building, applying for Medicaid. As I sat waiting for my number to be called, I thought about how I and everyone around me was hoping for something—money, insurance, assurance, an answer—from a larger, stronger, impersonal body—a body of governments nested within governments which seemed to be of us, and apart from us. There was an estranged intimacy in the shuffling of feet on that public linoleum. And in that sound I imagined I heard also the shush of traffic out on Federal Blvd.
Swiveling a few degrees back and forth in a chair bolted to the floor, I grew fidgety and impatient. I felt like I belonged out there in the pulse of traffic (instead of in the regulated whir of stagnation inside). This wasn’t a new feeling for me. I have always been restless. I’m furious when I think I’m losing time. I hate waiting in line, in traffic.
This was somehow worse, because the physical waiting was combined with a sense that I was already behind in my creative work, in my career trajectory, in the economy of that trajectory. I wanted to just say fuck it, crumple up my little number, and walk out. But I had to stay there; I had to wait for an answer to my petition. I wasn’t in a position to leave.
When I threw my vision out onto the boulevard’s public bustle, and imagined I joined it, and looked back at myself from that moving society of freedom and responsibility, my body, and my life, appeared to be at a standstill.
the city believes in you and the county
which is coextensive with it does not
and there’s a feeling
of parallax in the kisser
which is in this case
The first two lines are intentionally awkwardly larger; I was trying to get the poem to look like how my system felt as I wrote it, how I feel whenever I think of my position as one in the many: trapped in an echoing body. At the same time too big for it.
I discovered an imperfect metaphor in the fact that Denver is one “consolidated” city and county. I thought of an absurd scenario (inspired, probably, by latent Catholic trauma): what happens when one person of this one-government-in-two-persons is on your side, but the other is against you?
All sorts of things I was thinking and feeling around the time I was writing the poem began to find their perforated expression in the abbreviation “BLVD,” which because of its absences has multiple meanings—it not only stands for ‘boulevard,’ but could also be ‘beloved’ and ‘believed.’
I wondered how seriously I could take myself if I started to orient myself to the street as a beloved, as a public body of mismatched gaps and presences that were supposed to be mine but never could be. Would the blvd be a suitable lover for my blurry, out-of-scale body? Would I let it down? Would it love me and leave me? Would it take two of me (or more) to call out to it? Would I hate myself in the morning?
And what did I mean by “myself” anyway? I was imagining: something more like an overdose than an oversoul. More Williams than Whitman. A poem of the city scribbled across scattered prescription pads.
And if Federal was going to be my beloved, then really, more Walgreens than Williams.
So I started walking.
Because I wished to slip deliberately?
I’m walking the boulevard north to south, one mile at a time, on weekends, and I’ve just finished mile 19.
I will finish the 21-mile journey next Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015.
For each mile I walk, I’m bringing along a friend, to walk with me, to think through things with me, to notice things I miss. But especially to talk with, over the sound of cars. Our mouths opening and filling the gaps in that sound.
My friend Mavi joined me for the first mile of the walk. I asked her to meet me on a Saturday at 5 pm in a strip mall parking lot way out in the Denver suburb of Westminster. Wanting to justify to her this shady deal I’d brought her in on, to explain myself and my odd project, I read to her from the Online Etymology Dictionary:
1640s, as a theological term (in reference to “covenants” between God and man), from French fédéral, an adjective formed from Latin foedus (genitive foederis) “covenant, league, treaty, alliance,” from Proto-Indo-European *bhoid-es-, from root *bheidh- “to trust” (which also is the source of Latin fides “faith;” see faith).
Secular meaning “pertaining to a covenant or treaty” (1650s) led to political sense of “formed by agreement among independent states” (1707), from use of the word in federal union “union based on a treaty” (popularized during formation of U.S.A. 1776-1787) and like phrases. Also from this period in U.S. history comes the sense “favoring the central government” (1788) and the especial use of the word (as opposed to confederate) to mean a state in which the federal authority is independent of the component parts within its legitimate sphere of action.
In the name of the boulevard I’d decided to walk, then, I was hearing an echo of that deranged appeal I had wanted to make in the Castro Building, and had tried to embody in “BLVD”—an appeal sent out from within “component parts” to the imperfect unions they create—body, state, deity.
If I walked the beloved, the boulevard, thinking I truly belonged to its strip malls, overpasses, empty lots, cheap restaurants and chain restaurants, feeling I was important to their structure, knowing they might not see me in the same way, but assuming, hoping they did see me in some way…
If the intrigue in that word federal is one of the forces drawing me along on this walk, then I want to know more about how the street came to be named that, to be called by that lineal and looping figure. But I’m only 2 miles from the end of the boulevard, and I still haven’t found a satisfactory answer.
From Phil Goldstein’s book “Denver Streets: Names, Numbers, Locations and Logic” I learned that Federal got its name in 1912, when it was renamed from the purely alphabetical “Boulevard F.” But why Federal? Why not Fantasy, or Forsaken Boulevard?
I spent a few hours at the Denver Public Library, looking through the card catalog for old newspaper articles mentioning the street, hoping to find a better answer. In a publication called “Denver Municipal Facts” from 1912, I found a short blurb that claimed to give a “reason for the change”:
This says something, but what does it say? Was is it helping me see?
I guess I’ll have to keep walking.
“In the spaces brutally lit by an alien reason, proper names carve out pockets of hidden and familiar meanings. They ‘make sense’; in other words, they are the impetus of movements, like vocations and calls that turn or divert an itinerary by giving it a meaning (or a direction) (sens) that was previously unforeseen. These names create a nowhere in places; they change them into passages.”
-Michel de Certeau, trans. Stephen Rendall
Q & A: Jennifer Denrow with Joe Lennon
Could you talk a little bit about your relationship to place?
It sounds trite to say that place matters, that where exactly on earth our body is and our thoughts are at any given moment matter. But it’s a fashionable talking point of the current dominant narrative that in the internet era, place is becoming irrelevant—we can work from anywhere, we can communicate with anyone anywhere at any time, our culture is global (for culture, read economy: a butterfly on Amazon.com flaps its wings, and there’s a mudslide in Shenzhen…) All that talk is true, but it can make us forget that places are (for now) still different, that one mile, one block even, of Federal Blvd is different from the next, in subtle ways which I think can be felt and appreciated if we want to. And I think we want to—because we are throwing up a little bit inside our souls at the sameness of surfaces being thrown up by the global cult-economy. On the first Federal walk I did, my friend Mavi reminded me that many people believe that natural features have their own distinct spirits which can be appeased or disturbed—I think the example she mentioned was of a tribal village somewhere in Asia where the people started getting sick once the “sacred” hill where their water came from was built on. What does it mean to look for sacredness in a landscape as apparently compromised by urban sprawl as Federal Blvd? It might mean feeling less hopeless about my own compromised ability to fight this global erasure of place.
I’m interested in the epigraph at the beginning. Could you provide some context for this and how it relates to your project?
“If you see something, say something” is a slogan developed by the US Department of Homeland Security. I’ve seen it a lot on posters and signs on subways and in airports. The intended message is one of heightened alertness towards suspicious people and packages—an unattended shopping bag that might be a bomb, a shifty stranger who might be a terrorist. The DHS is asking us to report these suspicious objects to the authorities. But I really love the vagueness of the repeated word “something,” which in one reading turns the phrase into a hilarious absurdity—okay, I’m supposed to say “something” whenever I see “something”—so does it even matter what I’m seeing or saying? Where does the seeing and the saying stop? But in another, more subversive, reading, it reminds me that if I see things happening in the world that don’t make sense, that disgust me, that worry me, I should say something about them. In that sense, I see the slogan as a formal, rhythmic, public poem, and a public call to passionate attention, to poetry. In the terms of this project: If I see the word BLVD, I should say it. But how do you say a suspicious sharp-cornered blur, a multi-word non-word? Maybe only by walking it. And/or…leaving it unattended? In all the unfamiliar places?
Here’s a website discussing the efficacy of the DHS slogan, but you don’t even have to follow the link, you can just enjoy the syntax of the URL:
You talk about taking the “shapes of words seriously.” Could you say a bit more about the physicality of language and how we interact with it in a bodily way?
This is a tough question. I feel like I sort of answer it with my answer to the previous question, but after writing that answer, and thinking about this question, I feel the sudden urge to go out to Federal right now and say some things directly into some things—I mean, like, I’ll go up to a street sign, put my lips right on it, and say the words written on it (for example, “Yield”). I’ll feel the sign vibrate with its own message. Is that what I mean by taking the shapes of words seriously? What would happen if we had to consciously, seriously absorb the vibrations of the nonsense our “culture” broadcasts nonstop through the air around us? I think we’d puke.
The word “echo” appears a few times in this piece. Could you talk about how this word applies to what you are doing in this project?
I’ll answer this with some reshaped words by John Wesley Powell, who explored and mapped the canyons of (and above) the Colorado River in 1869. This is his description of a natural feature at the confluence of the Green and Yampa rivers, in the far northwest corner of what was soon to be the state of Colorado:
Great hollow domes are seen in the eastern side of the rock, against
which the Green sweeps; willows
border the river; clumps of box-elder are seen; and a few cottonwoods
stand at the lower end. Standing
opposite the rock, our words are repeated
with startling clearness, but in a soft, mellow
tone, that transforms them
into magical music.
Scarcely can one believe it is the echo of his own voice. In some places
two or three echoes come back; in other places
they repeat themselves, passing back
and forth across the river between this rock
and the eastern wall. To hear
these repeated echoes well, we must shout.
Some of the party aver that ten or twelve repetitions can be heard.
To me, they seem rapidly to diminish
and merge by multiplicity, like
telegraph poles on an outstretched plain.
I have observed the same phenomenon once
before in the cliffs near Long’s Peak, and am pleased
to meet with it again.
What are you trying to make seen?
I’m going to be a brat and answer this with another poem. One aspect of the project I didn’t touch on in this essay is the association I see between these walks I’m doing with friends on Federal Blvd, and a more famous walk made around the year 740 by the Chinese poet/painter/musician/government censor Wang Wei. Wang invited his close friend Pei Di to stroll with him around his retirement property in the hills near the imperial capital. They paused at 20 scenic overlooks (I imagine today there’d be road signs with cameras on them). At every pit stop, Wang composed a quatrain of 5-character lines, and Pei offered a quatrain in response. These poems are a playful, profound collaboration and conversation between two brilliant friends, but unfortunately, while Wang’s quatrains are translated all over the place, Pei’s responses are usually dismissed as the work of an inferior, and ignored. The extreme example of this is Eliot Weinberger’s 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, which offers multiple translations of Wang’s half of the most famous poem in the sequence, with Pei’s mysterious and beautiful response left out of the book completely. Here’s my translation (the work of a true inferior) of first Wang’s and then Pei’s halves of that same poem. I offer one word in English for each character of the original Chinese. It’s almost impossible to create a grammatically “correct” translation of these poems in English without imposing a subject that isn’t there (such as “I”, “you” or “we”, words which do not appear at all in the original poems).
empty mountain not seeing people
but hearing people speaking sounds
returning bright entering deep woods
overlapping reflecting indigo moss above
sun slanted seeing trembling mountain
soon becoming lonely going traveler
not knowing deep woods business
but there are stag footprints
Joe Lennon has lived in Georgia, Texas, Missouri, Czech Republic, China, and Colorado. He has a PhD from the University of Denver, and an iPhone 6.