This column explores the often subconscious connection between the places we are from, the spaces in which we write, and the places we write about.
There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry –
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human Soul –
I am writing from the basement of a library. The basement room has a relatively new suspended ceiling with florescent lights, and a projector mounted on said ceiling, but the basement still has its original windows, and the city seemingly constructed the new ceiling around a hand painted mural of an ocean to my right. There is a boat in the center, with a dozen oars and sails full of wind. The mural reads, in ye-olde type letters, a botched quote from a poem by Emily Dickinson: there is no frigate like a book, to take us lands away.
I am here for work, for a presentation given by another nonprofit, one that focuses on housing and healthcare for people experiencing homelessness. We work with vulnerable groups of people, and do our best to educate ourselves on social issues occurring in Colorado. Homelessness is #1, at an estimated 30,000 people.
“We like to recognize personhood first,” the presenter says, repeating the phrase “people experiencing homelessness”. A park ranger, who responds to safety calls within Denver’s public park system, is also present, and nods.
The nonprofit presenter talks about causes of homelessness, such as unaffordable housing, barely liveable wages, and childhood trauma. The last one is the one that really stays with me. She states that each traumatic event you experience, particularly in childhood and adolescence, increases your likelihood of experiencing homelessness as an adult. Just four events is the threshold. After four events, you are high risk. I count up the things that have happened to me that they classify as traumatic and I realize I am high risk.
Moments earlier we were trying to put personhood first with carefully worded phrases and sentences, and just now, we are being told that simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time can directly alter your entire life’s trajectory, through no fault of your own person. The point is unintentionally hammered home: placehood takes precedence.
One of the programs at my nine-to-five is a pre-apprenticeship for previously incarcerated individuals. We provide industry-related skills, in this case urban forestry skills, and partner with an organization that provides career readiness, supportive resources, and soft skill building. I occasionally go out into the field with the pre-apprentices, and when I’m driving to a work site with them, one of them starts pointing at places we pass by.
“I lived under that bridge for a while,” he says, “Ope, I used to camp on that street.”
We talk about how we got to where we are, in the general sense, and he tells me right out of the gate that his mother was murdered when he was a child.
Another pre-apprentice, age 20, chimes in that he started selling drugs as a kid because his aunt did, and he needed to make money for his family. Just a few days ago, he says, his father suffered another stroke and is now paralyzed. “He doesn’t have his papers, so we pay everything in cash. I have my papers, so I can work and I have housing.”
I am not trying to stand on a soapbox, nor am I trying to generalize crime or homelessness (which, unfortunately to some, are the same thing), but it is exhausting, the lengths we will go to, to categorize personhood and placehood, and conflate the two.
In the seminar, an older woman next to me raises her hand. “We have a problem with the homeless—” I wince at the use of placehood with no personhood attached, “and they have a right to use the parks, but we have a problem with the camping overnight.”
The park ranger nods, but I can’t get a read on how she feels about the comment. “We get a lot of calls to remove people from the parks at night. Sometimes they use low hanging branches as shelter, so people will call Denver Forestry to trim the trees.”
I think about the tree pruning that I just did out in the field with the pre-apprentices. We cut down a squirrel nest and I nearly cried. (“They’ll just find another tree,” one of the pre-apprentices said.)
“The city does street sweeps, to remove large encampments,” the park ranger continues. To remove and place where? Where do they expect them to go?
In an attempt to dissociate and deflect, I tell myself the classic do-nothing default: it could be worse.
I look again at the mural on the wall. There is no frigate like a book, to take us lands away. I google the word “frigate.” Based on the depiction, a giant boat at sea, I can infer what it means, but I am still surprised when I see the definition. A frigate is not just a boat, it is a warship. Its goal is not to simply transport people or things from one place to another, its goal is to fight and to invade.
“Frigate” is such a violent word for a vessel that can be filled any number of ways. Why would Dickinson write a poem seemingly about the benefits of reading, the equity in place it brings us, and use a word with such a violent connotation? I have to think it is because she assumes people put people first, that people want to conquer oppression with knowledge.
But this mural and its truncated quote and its overbearing ship makes it feel less about equity and more about using knowledge as a weapon, and I shrink into my seat in the library basement. I don’t understand if I’m supposed to be rooting for the warship in this case or not. Who is on it? Should that matter? Would that change how I felt about it? It is still a warship, regardless of who is at the helm. Someone’s child is going to die, and someone’s home is going to be destroyed. I don’t think this is what Dickinson had in mind.
The meeting concludes and I head back up, out of the basement, through the library, and out onto the street. I make it about eight feet before turning to my left and seeing a man sleeping on the sidewalk behind the library. I think about talking to him.
Then I think about the pre-apprentice who used to live beneath the trees we now prune. I think about the pre-apprentice who will spend the rest of his life paying his father’s medical bills in cash because their placehood isn’t well enough defined. I think about the Palestinian and Israeli children who will continue to pay the price on a rent so high that their great-grandparents paid for it with their personhood.
As I pass the man sleeping behind the library I think about how he and I were likely just one life event away from being in each other’s places. How we still could be. And I think about how neither of us were unlucky enough to be born in a time or place where we are being invaded, where frigates come to the shore and bombs are dropped and no bible or book of laws or botched line of poetry would have saved us.
Because it is never really about knowledge or humanity, it is about a sense of righteous belonging. It is about the extreme lengths we will go to for placehood, even sacrificing our own personhood to do so.
I want to bring the man inside the library and tell him that I understand and want to help, that things could be worse and things could get better, but I don’t even know if half of that is true and none of it means anything. And despite just sitting in the library basement for the past hour, armed with knowledge, I feel just as helpless as ever, and when I walk by, I hold my breath and pretend neither of us are here. And if nobody comes to claim the ground we’re standing on, then it is true, he and I never really existed at all.