Philadelphia Flowers

By Roberta Hill Whiteman b. 1947
I

In the cubbyhole entrance to Cornell and Son,   
a woman in a turquoise sweater
curls up to sleep. Her right arm seeks
a cold spot in the stone to release its worry   
and her legs stretch
against the middle hinge.

I want to ask her in for coffee,
to tell her go sleep in the extra bed upstairs,   
but I’m a guest,
unaccustomed to this place
where homeless people drift along the square   
bordering Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

From her portrait on the mantel,
Lucretia Mott asks when
will Americans see
how all forms of oppression blight
the possibilities of a people.
The passion for preserving Independence Square

should reach this nameless woman, settling   
in the heavy heat of August,
exposed to the glare of every passerby.
What makes property so private? A fence?
No trespassing signs? Militia ready to die for it   
and taxes? Lights in the middle storeys

of office buildings blaze all night above me.   
Newspapers don’t explain how wealth   
is bound to these broken people.
North of here, things get really rough.   
Longshoremen out of work bet on eddies   
in the Schuylkill River.

Factories collapse to weed
and ruptured dream. Years ago, Longhouse sachems   
rode canoes to Philadelphia,
entering these red brick halls.
They explained how
the law that kept them unified

required a way to share the wealth.   
Inside the hearths of these same halls,   
such knowledge was obscured,
and plans were laid to push all Indians ,
west. This city born of brotherly love   
still turns around this conflict.

Deeper in the dusk,
William Penn must weep
from his perch on top of City Hall.
Our leaders left this woman in the lurch.   
How can there be democracy
without the means to live?


II

Every fifteen minutes
a patrol car cruises by. I jolt awake   
at four a.m. to sirens screeching
and choppers lugging to the hospital heliport
someone who wants to breathe.
The sultry heat leads me
to the window. What matters? This small   
square of night sky and two trees
bound by a wide brick wall.
All around, skyscrapers

are telling their stories
under dwindling stars. The girders
remember where Mohawk ironworkers stayed   
that day they sat after work
on a balcony, drinking beer.

Below them, a film crew caught
some commercials. In another room above   
a mattress caught fire and someone flung it   
down into the frame. A woman in blue   
sashayed up the street

while a flaming mattress,
falling at the same speed as a flower,   
bloomed over her left shoulder.
Every fifteen minutes
a patrol car cruises by. The men inside

mean business. They understood the scene.   
A mattress burning in the street
and business deadlocked. Mohawks
drinking beer above it all.
They radioed insurrection,

drew their guns, then three-stepped
up the stairs. Film crews caught the scene,   
but it never played. The Mohawks
didn’t guess a swat team had moved in.   
When policemen blasted off their door,

the terrified men shoved a table
against the splintered frame.
They fought it out.
One whose name meant Deer got shot   
again and again. They let him lie

before they dragged him by his heels   
down four flights of stairs. At every step,   
he hurdled above his pain
until one final leap
gained him the stars.

The news reported one cop broke his leg.   
The film’s been banished to a vault. There are   
no plaques. But girders whisper at night
in Philadelphia. They know the boarding house,   
but will not say. They know as well what lasts
      and what falls down.


III

Passing Doric colonnades of banks
and walls of dark glass,
passing press-the-button-visitors-please
Liberty Townhouses, I turned
up Broad Street near the Hershey Hotel
and headed toward the doorman
outside the Bellevue. Palms and chandeliers inside.
A woman in mauve silk and pearls stepped into the street.

I was tracking my Mohawk grandmother   
through time. She left a trace
of her belief somewhere near Locust and Thirteenth.   
I didn’t see you, tall, dark, intense,

with three bouquets of flowers in your hand.
On Walnut and Broad, between the Union League   
and the Indian Campsite, you stopped me,   
shoving flowers toward my arm.

“At least, I’m not begging,” you cried.
The desperation in your voice
spiraled through my feet while I fumbled the few bucks   
you asked for. I wanted those flowers—

iris, ageratum, goldenrod and lilies—
because in desperation
you thought of beauty. I recognized
the truth and human love you acted on,

your despair echoing my own.
Forgive me. I should have bought more   
of those Philadelphia flowers, passed hand
to hand so quickly, I was stunned a block away.

You had to keep your pride, as I have done,   
selling these bouquets of poems
to anyone who’ll take them. After our exchange,   
grandmother’s tracks grew clearer.

I returned for days, but you were never there.   
If you see her — small, dark, intense,
with a bun of black hair and the gaze of an orphan,   
leave a petal in my path.
Then I’ll know I can go on.


IV

Some days you get angry enough   
to question. There’s a plan out east
with a multitude of charts and diagrams.

They planned to take the timber, the good soil.   
Even now, they demolish mountains.   
Next they’ll want the water and the air.

I tell you they’re planning to leave our reservations   
bare of life. They plan to dump their toxic   
wastes on our grandchildren. No one wants to say

how hard they’ve worked a hundred years.   
What of you, learning how this continent’s
getting angry? Do you consider what’s in store for you?

Roberta Hill Whiteman, “Philadelphia Flowers” from Philadelphia Flowers. Copyright © 1996 by Roberta Hill Whiteman. Used by permission of Holy Cow! Press, www.holycowpress.org.

Source: Philadelphia Flowers (Holy Cow! Press, 1996)

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Poet Roberta Hill Whiteman b. 1947

POET’S REGION U.S., Midwestern

Subjects Race & Ethnicity, Nature, Relationships, Class, Family & Ancestors, History & Politics, Cities & Urban Life, Social Commentaries, War & Conflict, Money & Economics

Poetic Terms Free Verse

Biography

Roberta Hill Whiteman, a poet of Wisconsin Oneida heritage, is the author of Star Quilt, a poetry collection which integrates her ancestral culture with European-based approaches to verse. Whiteman grew up in Wisconsin among the Oneida community and also in Green Bay; the family moved between the two locales several times. In previous centuries the Oneida were forced to make a series of moves that displaced them from their . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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