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Poem: "Urban Shamans" - The Wordsmith's Forge
The Writing & Other Projects of Elizabeth Barrette
ysabetwordsmith
ysabetwordsmith
Poem: "Urban Shamans"

This poem came out of the January 4, 2011 Poetry Fishbowl.  It was inspired by a prompt from aldersprig.  It was sponsored out of general funds based on a recent poll.


Urban Shamans


These are not the shamans of old.
They're hip.  They're with it.
It's their job to keep the urban jungle green and gray
and growing.

In New York,
the urban shaman wears hightop sneakers
and blue jeans frayed at the knees.
His backpack rattles with cans of spray paint.
At night, he slips into the garage and tags each city bus
to keep them safe on the busy streets.
He paints the buildings with signs of protection
and no one is the wiser.

In Chicago,
the urban shaman wraps himself
in a blanket of hot pink and lime green.
He blows marijuana smoke against a car mirror
and chats up the old hungry gods of the south.
He tells them where to find the human sacrifices we make,
not in temples now,
but in back alleys and boardrooms and battlefields.

In New Orleans,
the urban shaman cornrows her hair
and fastens the ends with red plastic beads.
She chalks her veves on narrow streets
paved with cobblestones, bricks, concrete.
She traces them on tombstones.
Sometimes, she goes to the police --
in her city, dead men do tell tales.

In San Francisco,
the urban shaman wears a loud Hawaiian shirt
and his clogs ring loud against the sidewalk.
He paints his wide round face
with tattoos that fluoresce in ultraviolet light.
He spins glowsticks and fire poi to mesmerize his audience.
When he surfs, the ocean whispers to him
and sometimes the fish grant his wishes.

Though the times have changed, the role has not:
these shamans, like their forebears,
still dance their way down the fine line
that divides this world from the next.

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18 comments or Leave a comment
Comments
pocketnaomi From: pocketnaomi Date: January 8th, 2011 03:10 am (UTC) (Link)
I knew that particular New York shaman. He went to my high school, his graffiti tag was Sane, and he died in a fall from a homemade scaffold, trying to paint the inside of the seawall that kept the East River from flooding its banks.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: January 8th, 2011 04:00 am (UTC) (Link)

O_O

Wow. I knew I was getting specific images for them, but it didn't occur to me that I might have been picking up images from this reality. Thank you very much for sharing.
pocketnaomi From: pocketnaomi Date: January 8th, 2011 09:29 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: O_O

Sane was very much a part of this reality; he was well known in New York and I was privileged to know him personally a very little, when we were both in school. One weekend we came to school Monday morning to find that he had covered the entire city-block-sized courtyard wall of the school with an enormous, beautiful, multicolor dragon. Of course the school, with vastly more bureaucracy than common sense, saw it as defacement and painted over it within two days while delivering stern warnings to the entire student body (they knew Sane was one of us, but not which one, and we sure weren't telling). I wish I'd thought to get a photo of it while it was still there, but it was transient; by Thursday the wall was blank again. Only our memories remained, but those are vivid to this day.

I lost track of him after high school, and only knew he was still there by the occasional spraypainted artwork signed with the familiar tag. I only heard concrete news of him when he died, which made the newspapers. For a long time after that, especially in the bad neighborhoods of the outer boroughs where there was little money for cleanup or renovation, I'd still see occasional pieces of his work. Not anymore. The tag is legendary among New York graffiti artists, and therefore there are still people who scribe it places -- not really, I don't think, trying to claim to be him; more making sure he's remembered. But it's just the tag, not attached to the kind of amazing art that he signed with that name, so I know that Sane himself wasn't there. New York is poorer without him.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: January 9th, 2011 02:16 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: O_O

Fascinating.

Some people stick around after death, and are capable of making their presence known. Maybe he just wanted to remind folks that he's still keeping an eye on the city, and thought that nabbing a verse in the poem would be a good way to do that.
pocketnaomi From: pocketnaomi Date: January 9th, 2011 02:27 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: O_O

Could be. If he is still around at all, I certainly expect he's still keeping tabs on New York City; he always did.
aldersprig From: aldersprig Date: January 8th, 2011 03:29 am (UTC) (Link)
I still love this one, and am glad it was chosen by the poll!
siege From: siege Date: January 8th, 2011 03:32 am (UTC) (Link)
I'm glad of it as well. I'd count myself in those ranks, if I were dedicated to a city.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: January 8th, 2011 03:36 am (UTC) (Link)

Thoughts

One of the things I find interesting about modern life is that there are now urban, rural, and wilderness shamans. The basic purpose is the same, but the approaches and the settings are much more diverse.
pocketnaomi From: pocketnaomi Date: January 9th, 2011 02:31 am (UTC) (Link)
The great urban mayors, I've noticed, seldom do well at other political jobs if they advance to them. Most don't try. They're not just good politicians or good administrators, they're wired to their city, so that they can tell from downtown when a subway has gone off the tracks up north before anybody tells them. I think they're among their city's shamans, and they are usually too tied to the city they worship to fare well in a broader role. But I've lived in several cities which were lucky enough to have them, and know to cherish them while they govern the place they truly belong to.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: January 8th, 2011 03:59 am (UTC) (Link)

Yes...

This was the runaway favorite.
aldersprig From: aldersprig Date: January 8th, 2011 03:18 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Yes...

It's an indicator of how sleepy I still am that my first response is *dance dance* !I win! :-D
pingback_bot From: pingback_bot Date: January 8th, 2011 03:51 am (UTC) (Link)

Urban? Rural? Wilderness? A people?

User siege referenced to your post from Urban? Rural? Wilderness? A people? saying: [...] posted a poem titled "Urban Shamans [...]
eseme From: eseme Date: January 8th, 2011 08:00 pm (UTC) (Link)
Add me to the ranks of happy people that this was published.

I voted for it, certainly!

It's great, and very inspiring for someone who plays RPGs in urban settings. Those are great images.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: January 8th, 2011 10:51 pm (UTC) (Link)

Thank you!

Yes, I can see how this would be inspiring for urban fantasy campaigns.
kelkyag From: kelkyag Date: January 29th, 2011 05:14 am (UTC) (Link)
This sketchfest image by Lorna reminded me of this poem. :)
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: January 29th, 2011 05:58 am (UTC) (Link)

Yes...

I agree! Thanks everso for sharing that link.
haunted_blood From: haunted_blood Date: February 3rd, 2011 03:04 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Yes...

Feel free to use the sketch with the poem how you wish! I am contemplating doing the full painting, but no time line on it.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: February 3rd, 2011 07:10 am (UTC) (Link)

Thank you!

I appreciate that. If I had a printer that would do it justice, I'd try printing the poem side-by-side with the picture. Alas, I have only a B/W laser printer maximized for text, not art.
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