Benjamin Banneker Helps to Build a City

By Jay Wright b. 1935 Jay Wright
In a morning coat,
hands locked behind your back,
you walk gravely along the lines in your head.
These others stand with you,
squinting the city into place,
yet cannot see what you see,
what you would see
—a vision of these paths,
laid out like a star,
or like a body,
the seed vibrating within itself,
breaking into the open,
dancing up to stop at the end of the universe.
I say your vision goes as far as this,
the egg of the world,
where everything remains, and moves,
holding what is most against it against itself,
moving, as though it knew its end, against death.
In that order,
the smallest life, the small event take shape.
Yes, even here at this point,
Amma's plan consumes you,
the prefigured man, Nommo, the son of God.
I call you into this time,
back to that spot
and read these prefigurations
into your mind,
and know it could not be strange to you
to stand in the dark and emptiness
of a city not your vision alone.
Now, I have searched the texts
and forms of cities that burned,
that decayed, or gave their children away,
have been picking at my skin,
watching my hand move,
feeling the weight and shuttle of my body,
listening with an ear as large as God's
to catch some familiar tone in my voice.
Now, I am here in your city,
trying to find that spot
where the vibration starts.
There must be some mistake.

Over the earth,
in an open space,
you and I step to the time
of another ceremony.
These people, changed,
but still ours,
shake another myth
from that egg.
Some will tell you
that beginnings are only
possible here,
that only the clamor of these drums
could bring our God to earth.
A city, like a life,
must be made in purity.

So they call you,
knowing you are intimate with stars,
to create this city, this body.
So they call you,
knowing you must purge the ground.

“Sir, suffer me to recall to your mind that time, in which the arms and tyranny of the British crown were exerted, with every powerful effort in order to reduce you to a state of servitude: look back, I entreat you, on the variety of dangers to which you were exposed; reflect on that time, in which every human aid appeared unavailable, and in which even hope and fortitude wore the aspect of inability to the conflict, and you cannot but be led to a serious and grateful sense of your miraculous and providential preservation; you cannot but acknowledge, that the present freedom and tranquility which you enjoy you have mercifully received, and that it is the peculiar blessing of Heaven.”

“Reflect on that time.”
The spirits move, even
in the events of men,
hidden in a language
that cannot hide it.
You were never lost
in the language of number alone;
you were never lost
to the seed vibrating alone,
holding all contradictions within it.
“Look back, I entreat you,”
over your own painful escapes.

The seed now vibrates into a city,
and a man now walks where you walked.
Wind and rain must assault him,
and a man must build against them.
We know now, too, that the house
must take the form of a man
—warmth at his head, movement at his feet,
his needs and his shrine at his hands.
Image of shelter image of man
pulled back into himself
into the seed before the movement,
into the silence before the sound
of movement, into stillness,
which may be self-regard,
or only stillness.

Recall number.
Recall your calculations,
your sight, at night,
into the secrets of stars.
But still you must exorcise this ground.

“Here was a time, in which your tender feelings for yourselves had engaged you thus to declare, you were then impressed with proper ideas of the great violation of liberty, and the free possession of those blessings, to which you were entitled by nature; but, Sir, how pitiable it is to reflect, that although you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of Mankind, and of his equal and impartial distribution of these rights and privileges, which he hath conferred upon them, that you should at the same time counteract his mercies, in detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren, under groaning captivity, and cruel oppression, that you should at the same time be found guilty of that most criminal act, which you professedly detested in others, with respect to yourselves.”

Can we say now
that it is the god
who chains us to this place?
Is it this god
who requires the movement,
the absence of movement,
the prefiguration of movement
only under his control?
If so,
what then is the reason
for these dancers,
these invocations,
the sight of these lesser gods
lining out the land?
How pitiable it is to reflect
upon that god, without grace,
without the sense of that small
beginning of movement,
where even the god
becomes another and not himself,
himself and not another.
So they must call you,
knowing you are intimate with stars;
so they must call you,
knowing different resolutions.
You sit in contemplation,
moving from line to line,
struggling for a city
free of that criminal act,
free of anything but the small,
imperceptible act, which itself becomes free.
Free. Free. How will the lines fall
into that configuration?
How will you clear this uneasiness,
posting your calculations and forecasts
into a world you yourself cannot enter?
Uneasy, at night,
you follow stars and lines to their limits,
sure of yourself, sure of the harmony
of everything, and yet you moan
for the lost harmony, the crack in the universe.
Your twin, I search it out,
and call you back;
your twin, I invoke
the descent of Nommo.

I say your vision goes as far as this.
And so you, Benjamin Banneker,
walk gravely along these lines,
the city a star, a body,
the seed vibrating within you,
and vibrating still,
beyond your power,
beyond mine.

Jay Wright, “Benjamin Banneker Helps to Build a City” from Transfigurations: Collected Poems (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000). Copyright © 2000 by Jay Wright. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

Source: Transfigurations: Collected Poems (2000)

Discover this poem’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Poet Jay Wright b. 1935

Subjects Stars, Planets, Heavens, History & Politics, Social Commentaries, Time & Brevity, Living, Nature

Holidays Kwanzaa, Independence Day

Poetic Terms Free Verse

 Jay  Wright

Biography

Frequently described as a “poet’s poet,” Jay Wright has quietly built an impressive career as one of America’s leading African-American voices. His work, praised for its evocative language, introspective tone, and mythological imagery, has won many honors, including the Lannan Literary Award for Poetry, Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowships, and Yale’s prestigious Bollingen Prize. Wright’s plays, essays, and poetry generally . . .

Continue reading this biography

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Stars, Planets, Heavens, History & Politics, Social Commentaries, Time & Brevity, Living, Nature

Poetic Terms Free Verse

Report a problem with this poem

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.