By Thomas A.E. Hesketh
The BCC Voice found a purple cow, silent, lying on her back, one block north of the BCC campus, just off the southwest corner of Berkeley’s Addison and Shattuck Streets. She was not someone’s hallucination, but a tangible object. She waxed poetic even in her stoic silence. No cowbells had been reported, yet there was a ring to her presence; let the poet’s voice rise mutely:
The Purple Cow
I never saw a purple cow,
I never hope to meet one,
But I can tell you anyhow,
I’d rather see than be one.
The poem “Purple Cow” first reflected the light of day in 1895 in The Big Apple (New York City). She is not alone, but heads a figurative herd of over 120 other poems installed on Addison Street in 2003, to form the Berkeley Poetry Walk. Former U. S. Poet Laureate and long time University of California, Berkeley Professor Robert Haas curated the poems as part of a City of Berkeley Civic Arts Program Project. The poems were later published in “The Addison Street Anthology: Berkeley’s Poetry Walk,” edited by Robert Haas and Jessica Fisher, published in 2004 by Berkeley’s Heydey Books. According to Haas, in his introduction, “. . . the anthology is a collection of poems, translations of poems, and song lyrics that reflect something of the social and literary history of Berkeley.”
Haas also explains the inclusion of poems from William Shakespeare and Ben Johnson, among other canonic poets, through their relation to plays produced by the Berkeley Repertory Theatre (Berkeley Rep), located on Addison Street. The introduction further notes that song lyrics heard among the poems have some connection with the City of Berkeley. Gelett Burgess, the poet behind “Purple Cow,” was at one time an instructor at UC Berkeley. Lee X., an experienced worker at Half Price Books, explained to The Voice that copies of the “Poetry Walk Anthology” sell out quickly whenever they appear at the used book store.
Each sidewalk poem was fabricated from cast iron and baked enamel, with raised lettering, encased in a concrete frame, and placed along either side of Addison Street between Milvia and Shattuck Streets, one block from the BCC campus and adjacent to Half Price Books. Scores of poems in bas relief, line the sidewalk waiting for their moment in the sun, waiting to speak to the visitor or passing BCC student, waiting patiently as part of the community.
Haas’ anthology provides a brief introduction to each poem and its author in addition to the text of the poems. Among the better known poets with Berkeley connections, in addition to Robert Haas himself, are Jack London, Robinson Jeffers, Kenneth Rexroth and Muriel Rukeyser. The list is not complete without also saluting Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Seamus Heaney, June Jordan, Alice Walker and Robert Pinsky.
The Poetry Walk displays translations of poems from a world of cultural traditions: California native Ohlone and Yana tribes, ancient Greek, classical Japanese, immigrant and classical Chinese and works by visiting scholars from Germany, Poland, Russia, Spain, Latin America and elsewhere.
The poetry tiles permanently decorating the sidewalk now function as urban characters, sharing space with attractive trees, theatre billboards, and inviting promotions ofor nearby theatres and musical attractions at Freight & Salvage. The Berkeley Rep vies for attention with the sidewalk poems of the Theatre District.
Adding to the urban setting, a tour of Addison Street on any given day will produce evidence of the prosaic side of city life, with garbage cans awaiting pickup and parked bicycles sharing space with the surface of the poems. The working area of the sidewalk itself includes not only the poems, but other ignored, functional aspects of a city life: street lights, fire hydrants, freight elevator openings, electrical access covers and iron skirts around tree planters, all laying claim to ground level space, often obscuring the display of the Poetry Walk. The poems represent both a verbal and visual respite from urban life.
Many people walk on this block of Addison Street without noticing the Poetry Walk, especially if they are paying attention to their cellphones. The BCC Voice asked three adult men on the Addison sidewalk, each wearing a name tag indicating they were attending a workshop, whether they had noticed the poems on the sidewalk. Joey D’Angelo, 43, affirmed he had noticed the poetry, but had not yet had an opportunity to look at it closely. John Hood, 53, a local Berkeley resident, had never noticed the sidewalk poems before they were brought to his attention by The BCC Voice, and Jacob M., 26, had noticed the poetry tiles, despite being a visitor from Sacramento, but had not taken time to see them all.
The project’s award winning architectural firm, John Northmore Roberts of Berkeley, has posted a portfolio of images online, depicting Milvia Street teeming with people at the installation ceremony, local businesses reflecting the Theatre District’s cultural magnetism and representative views of the installed poems.
If you are a study-blue, exam-weary BCC student, you may wish to set the books and computer aside for a moment and take a break from homework. Take a walk and a glance; take a chance on finding a line in a poem or a color, a rainbow perhaps, on the Poetry Walk.
For quick access to the path of poems, from Berkeley City College, cross Center Street and head east towards the hills for half a block until you discover a hidden walkway on your left called the Arts Passage, which runs under the parking garage and cuts through the block like a tunnel between Center Street and Addison Street. Cross Addison to find your treasure trove of poems lining the street.
More than study blue? Seeing purple? Find your own rainbow.