The poetic pull of wet cement

In Perth, Western Australia, I'm hurrying past lawns dotted with parrot-beaked blossoms fallen from a flame tree. I'm catching the chorus of doves, tempted to capture the black-headed, white-ring-necked green parrot pecking the pavement. I'm hurrying to live every moment to the hilt.

Suddenly, a barricade: WET CEMENT.

What man can invent, a child can dent. Circumvent. Reinvent. We are all children before freshly poured concrete, and would-be artists before creativity gets taught out of us.

In my childhood, other children snatched sticks, scratched names - EMMA, JESSIE, JOE - or left deliberate hand prints. They annoyed the workers, infuriated the householder with that patch of slabs, and immortalized themselves.

I always arrived too late. And my parents warned: Graffiti scrawled on walls, etched on cliffs, carved in trees, constitute poor taste and poor ecology. Foolish names and foolish faces, etc.

Years later, my neighbors in Washington were preparing to pour concrete across their revamped cellar floor. In a flash of bravado unusual for me then, I offered to inscribe a poem. "In 50 years, everyone - including me - will have forgotten that I was ever a poet. But my opus will remain, immortalized under your house."

"OK," they said. "We'll phone you when it's ready."

Their plans called for subsequent tiling and carpeting the floor. Evidence of my egotism as well as my immortality would be concealed from public or private view. At least until some archaeologist stumbles across the ruins in the year 2100.

Still, I sharpened a stick with the care of a Babylonian scholar about to inscribe a cuneiform message on a clay tablet. It was harder to choose a poem that deserved to be unforgettable.

My neighbors poured their floor, but by the time they remembered to call me over, the quick-setting cement had thoroughly set.

Someday, their house will be torn down to make room for a skyscraper or highway; the wrecked bricks will be recycled, the smashed concrete carted to a landfill.

Toronto solved its problem of what to do with debris from demolished buildings: Scores of trucks huff to Lake Ontario and systematically dump their rubble, every day a few feet farther into the harbor, to create an ever-lengthening jetty.

The idea was to build another port, erect buildings out there. But wind-, water-, and bird-borne seeds took root among the rubble, grasses, and bushes. Even cottonwood trees sprang up. Haphazard verdure almost keeps up with the trucks to cover the clutter of chipped bricks and broken boulders of concrete.

Birds discovered new perches and nesting sites. Raccoons, rabbits, even foxes found refuge among the transmuted refuse. A wildlife sanctuary has created itself, keeps expanding into the lake. Grass-roots protest groups spiked further threats of development.

I would not mind my concrete poetry - shattered meters, wrecked rhymes - recycled into habitat for birds and beasts.

Today, on this flowering street in suburban Perth, I stand on the brink of a chance at permanence.

If the workers return to the mixer, or turn up their wheelbarrows, take a break, forget about this job, I might just.... My fingers poised on the barricade tap out 17 syllables:

On a poem, the paint

never dries: retouch, retouch....

Dare write in cement.

Vigilant over their tabulae rasa, they have circumscribed the perimeters with orange fencing. The whole sidewalk is off-limits. I'm forced to cross the street.

Here the grassy path passes a primary school. Recess: children in maroon sweaters, gray trousers, or plaid skirts race around. A few group themselves in a corner, bored. If they only knew that right now, just across the street.... I won't tattle.

Only 10 a.m. By the time school lets out, the sidewalk will have set. Children will be whisked directly home by bus or car, oblivious. Yet perhaps a few who live nearby might go home for lunch. May they ignore barricades, fences, signs, forget their parents' warnings, yield to this combination of inspiration and opportunity, lay the groundwork for brilliant careers in art and literature. So rarely can we leave our mark.

Too often. I'm just a guest in this town, must hurry on, live lightly, depart without a trace.

But next time....

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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