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the deep dive

The Deep Dive is vox poetica‘s newest feature, in which poets take a closer look at the world around them by exploring a theme, an image, or a historic or current event and writing about it at length. To inquire about submitting to the Deep Dive series, email with the subject line DEEP DIVE.

Mark Fogarty believes, like Shelley, that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. He is a poet, musician, and journalist from Rutherford, NJ. He is the managing editor of The Rutherford Red Wheelbarrow and emcees the monthly poetry/music reading at GainVille Café, also in Rutherford. He has read his poetry extensively in New York and New Jersey and has had poetry in more than 20 publications. He is the author of six books of poetry from White Chickens Press: Myshkin’s Blues, Peninsula, Phantom Engineer, Sun Nets, Continuum: The Jaco Poems and The Tall Women’s Dance. He has also published broadsheets of two individual poems: “Wedding Song” and “A Prayer for Jordan.”

Four Martyrs and a Hero
By Mark Fogarty

For years, I would find myself jotting down four names, the names of the girls killed in the Birmingham church bombing of 1963. Carole Robertson. Denise McNair. Addie Mae Collins. Cynthia Wesley. I didn’t want to forget their names. I was to learn that other people did this, too.

After many years of reflection on the horrifying events of Sept. 15, 1963 (two teenaged boys, Johnny Robinson and Virgil Ware, were also killed later that day, by Birmingham police), I decided that it was unfair that these four girls were always discussed as a class or a group (the “four little girls,” “the four young girls”), rather than individuals. I thought I might write a poem to try to particularize one of them, to try to suggest what a loss we suffered in this bestial attack.

As a white, Northern male I didn’t have much in common with these four teenaged and preteen Southern black girls. I was about the same age as they were, two years younger than the youngest of them, Denise McNair. I wonder now why I didn’t choose Denise. (The other three girls, rather eerily, were born within two weeks of each other in 1949.) But I chose Addie Mae Collins, I think because of her Irish surname, some faint glimmer of commonality we shared. I have often in recent years wondered if it was Addie who chose me.

My study of Addie revealed to me a portrait in ordinary divinity, in James Agee’s phrase. She enjoyed ordinary things, like playing softball. But in addition to the divine that all of us have in us, Addie had a divine sensibility. She was kind. She was killed in an act of kindness, straightening a sash for Denise McNair. She was artistic. She carried around a sketch book in which she frequently drew. Someone said of her that “she could capture the truth of a face” in a portrait. That stuck with me. I can’t think of higher praise for an artist. I began to feel I had been cheated in not getting to know her. I began to feel America had been cheated. I began to think of her as my American sister.

I wanted to give Addie something back, something profound like helping another girl with her sash with her last breath. But I could only think of something metaphoric, and so I began to write “A Sash for Addie Mae Collins.” It took a lot of time and a lot of feeling to write the poem, but I was a poet, and that’s what I had to bring to this struggle. I shed many tears, some on the paper I was writing on.

When it was done, I wanted to share the poem with her family. I hesitated for a long time, feeling that what I’d done had been presumptuous. Finally, I found the phone number of Addie’s niece, Sonya Jordan. Far from cutting me short, Sonya asked me to read her the poem over the phone. I did, and after a while I knew Sonya was crying.

It was a big thing for me to go to Birmingham and meet some of the Collins family. The first thing that surprised me was Birmingham. My preconception was that the evils perpetrated there must have happened in an ugly place. I was wrong. Birmingham was beautiful, a hilled city with warm autumn temperatures and vivid color-changing trees. I’d asked Sonya to come with me to Addie’s grave. I stopped to buy flowers and asked the variety of some that caught my eye. “Freedom Red,” I was told. Freedom Red roses is what we brought to a quiet, hillside cemetery above the Birmingham airport. Sonya and I read the poem out loud by her marker, which gave Addie’s name and dates and also gave her the title of Civil Rights Martyr and the inscription “She died so freedom might live.”

Later, I met two of Addie’s sisters, including the sister who had been in the basement that morning and survived, though grievously wounded. They wanted to read the poem out loud in the restaurant where we had gone, and I got major goosebumps when Sarah Collins Rudolph read out the same heartbroken words she said when she came to, buried and blinded in one eye: ”Addie! Addie! Addie!”

I learned that the Collins family had suffered terribly from the bombing. The rest of the family had been upstairs when the bomb went off, inflicting lasting psychological in addition to physical wounds. The family went through a rigorous course of reconciliation, that included forgiving Addie’s killers as their faith bid them to do. As I sat with the sisters, I got a feeling not only of their pain but their enormous strength. The Klan had intended to get revenge that day for the courageous actions of the children of Birmingham, who had marched out of that same church to be arrested in the thousands and to effect the desegregation of downtown Birmingham. But the Klan had picked the wrong family. The Collins family, bound together by faith and loss and love, were incredibly strong, and the Klan had not destroyed them but rather splintered itself against them.

I believe the Collins family of Birmingham to be one of the great families of America. They are strong, handsome, spiritual people, hurt but not crushed by the things they have had to endure, retaining an appreciation of the joyous. They are the best people. To hate them would take a monstrous perversity, a perversity which has not entirely died out but shows again its monstrous head now.

It seemed to me that Sarah, Mrs. Rudolph, had been spared to be a witness to the long (four-decade), slow process of justice to bring Addie’s killers to the bar of justice. And indeed, she attended the trials of the surviving killers who finally were convicted and sent to prison. Forgiving did not mean forgetting. She has had a very painful course to traverse, often forgotten or relegated to a footnote when the bombing stories were repeated. I began to feel I should write something about “the fifth girl” to commemorate her trials and witness. It was obvious to me that she saw more with one eye than most everyone else saw with two. And so I wrote the poem “The Fifth Girl,” so her story would not be forgotten. I wrote it in rhyme with the idea that perhaps it could be suitable for schoolchildren.

I have been gratified in recent years to see that Mrs. Rudolph’s role is finally being acknowledged. She has come into her own power and now has become a potent civil rights activist in a country that unfortunately still needs one. The story of what happened in that basement has become clearer. Four martyrs were born—and one hero.

Last year, I suffered a series of medical setbacks that started me thinking about legacy. It became clear to me that racial harmony and equality would not be achieved in my lifetime. And when I looked around to see who there was who might see the realization of the dream I thought of the Collins family of Birmingham. I thought of Sonya’s granddaughter, Addie’s great grandniece. Sonya has described her granddaughter as “an old soul,” which might come in handy in this regard.

Her name is Jordan, like the river of baptism and the mighty waters of “justice that rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” I have never met her, but I wrote the poem “A Prayer for Jordan” to bless her on her way. Does the spirit of Addie Mae Collins live on in her? I knew it did when I saw a Facebook photo of her proudly holding up a school award. It was for “Kindness and Compassion.” It does come around again. May she live to see us much farther along in the moral arc of the universe that Dr. King used to refer to, the one that, though it might be long, bends toward JUSTICE.

A Sash for Addie Mae Collins
By Mark Fogarty

  1. The Preacher: You were the most beautiful child

You were the most beautiful child ever shaped on this continent,
Confident and kind, an artist-to-be,
A peacemaker patching up quarreling friends,
The most like a prayer on the church’s Youth Day
With your friends and your sister in the time before choir
In the basement of deep time, the room you were pushed to,
You and your friends, and your sister lost an eye:
Your sister who survived said that at the flash
You were fixing a sash for a younger girl,
You reached over to straighten a wayward sash.
Your eyes, God’s eyes, were the last thing she saw.

When your sister came to, alive in the shatter,
Sarah called out, in terror and in fear—
“Addie! Addie! Addie!” because she couldn’t see
And sang “Jesus Loves Me” in the ambulance
Because he held her hand against the pain—
But I can still see you, Addie Mae,
Where you’ve moved to the cataracts of deep time,
Almost hidden, almost covered by
The sash of lost memory, deep inside
The slow slip of time:
Living in the time it takes to move a mind,
Or pass the wandering drought of forty years
It took to walk the murderers to the bar—

In deep time where you live Justice can be kind
And deep time shapes a soul to forgive
But mine cannot forgive just yet,
It will come around, but not just yet,
You’ll get to see it, there in deep time,
You’ll live to shape it in love and tenderness.
You’ll lead the choir to the statue of scales,
The statue of Justice for the singers to see
It has one eye open and one eye blind.
And in the lucid patch of deeper age,
In the weaving of the smooth upon the rough,
Your dress will be resewn in equal length
And the devilstain dropped on this country’s hem
Will lift like wild voices from your innocent gown.

In deep time those promises will come rushing down
In deep time those hopes will be enough.
The promise of America is your kindness and grace.
Oh, you were the most beautiful child.

  1. The Choir Director: We didn’t know what we had

We didn’t know what we had in you.
You could catch the truth of a face
When you drew it in your book.
You found the deepest part, the brightness underneath.
It would have been clear if we’d seen your art.

You could have sketched, if you’d had time
The dogs of Birmingham leashed on toes,
The sagging faces clapped together by nails,
The children jammed in Birmingham jails
The firemen jeering and aiming the hoses,
And you could have sketched the hoses
When the firemen put them down,
The children freed from the lion’s den,
Holding hands while leaders counted the rows.
You could have penciled out the sin
If you had time to draw.

It’s Sunday now and we try to sing, our throats are raw.
We’d gather all around you now
To watch you sketch for us
The face of America in its truest pose.
By your hand you’d make it seem
A kind-hearted girl helping another,
In her Sunday dress, in the minutes before choir.
Open the sash so we see the soul.

This country, too, would wear her Sunday best,
Beautiful and shy, sitting for a portrait
That would erase apartness,
Show the death of difference.
It would be so clear.
We missed it then, and it won’t return.
We didn’t know what we had in you, a sacred being,
A gift from God. We see it now:
We were frightened of your beauty,
We feared your infinite promise.

  1. The Preacher: They buried you under a plaque

They buried you under a plaque of wood,
No dates or words, the single name “ADDIE.”
It vanished as you did, for no good reason.
When they rolled back the earth
From that Greenwood grave you were gone,
Moving over earth and time,
Gone to deep time on the sketch of a trace.

I’d shed a tear for your unmarked grave
I’d shed a tear for your vanished grace,
But you are not lost to my history,
You are not gone from my memory
There is no plot that can hold you,
No marble scar would honor you,
You drift across our consciousness
Kept alive, in living force,
Sign of the life returning in the spring,
The stuff of the cross,
And the Joshua tree,
The houses that spring from the habitat earth,
And the coffins that hold a people when they die.
My memory holds the wind like a branch, and the letters I carve
Unfold for it to carry around the world.
There are trees alive now that lived
When the sun turned dark at Gethsemane.
They buried you under a plaque of wood.
No one can build you a monument of stone. The tools
Won’t cut, the stone wouldn’t work. All sermons now
Must be written on flying leaves.

  1. Congregant: Addie Mae Collins, I fix you in my mind

Addie Mae Collins, I fix you in my mind.
My country kept no promises to you,
And what happened happened while I watched:
The burning firemen weaving blind,
The rabid dogs in a rabid sun,
The cackling robes and their biting brew.
It spilled and soiled your Sunday dress.

Though I have no power to reclaim,
I’m called to make this tardy witness.
Addie five years older than I,
Addie with your Irish name,
You haunt me with your indelible kindness.
You buoy this continent with your grace,
You bear a remedy for its blindness.
Each Sunday collects a tithing of your greatness.
I will forget your name when I’ve lost my own.
I say your name with love and grief:
Addie! These drops may cure the world’s original sin.
Addie, this was a holy place, a country like a prayer.
Addie! into that innocence, baptize me again.
I cast my lot with you, American sister.

  1. The Preacher: I could shed a tear

I could shed a tear for your unmarked grave,
The sorrow of your sisters, the sorrow of your niece.
I could cry with them for your unvarnished life.
Your ministry was brevity, beauty,
Unending promise and the whole of understanding—
Why we are here, through fourteen years or many:
To tend to each other, to bend toward
The breadth of another common soul.
Sort through this patrimony of broken glass
Claim if you can her graceful face as your own.

Today is Sunday. It’s time to be reconfirmed
In the passionate faith of her dignity.
I fix on the front of her Sunday dress,
This sash, embroidered with the coins that show her untold wealth.
Addie Mae Collins, you had the richest soul
This country ever anointed, you were the bearer
And the teller of no common divinity.
I dream of a country that cherishes you.

So I ask each person who laid down his hate,
I ask each person who laid down her fear,
I ask each person who lives in new time,
To lay down near your uncommon grave
A sash of flowers, spreading out,
Carpets of hibiscus, oleander, and rose,
Because I would not have your foot so much as touch the ground
When you rise in deep time
And lead towards the promise
The crestfallen dogs, ashamed of their spite,
The firemen redeemed in the ashes of heroes,
The powdermen rattling the chains of damnation,
The sister who shows
It takes one good eye to stare evil down,
And the nodding girls, awake again,
Carole and Cynthia, Denise with her gown.

It’s Sunday in Birmingham, time for choir,
And the rest of them crowd shyly around
To hear you girls sing when I give you the cue.
And the song would be salvation,
America, America,
The song would be America,
Salvation and deliverance.

Respectfully dedicated to the memory of ADDIE MAE COLLINS, DENISE McNAIR, CAROLE ROBERTSON, and CYNTHIA WESLEY, and to the memory of the lost boys also killed on the horrible day of Sept. 15, 1963: VIRGIL WARE and JOHNNY ROBINSON.

The Fifth Girl
By Mark Fogarty

(For SARAH COLLINS RUDOLPH, who survived the Birmingham church bombing that killed her sister and three other girls on Sept. 15, 1963)

Though she only has one eye
She sees more than you and I.
I wish we all could see
The things that Sarah sees.

There was her sister
And there were her friends
In the basement of the church
The explosion would rend.

Her sister was so patiently
Fixing another’s sash,
An act of human kindness
So much brighter than the flash.

Then the hands of angels
Lifted her from the dark
And though she suddenly was blind
She saw the heavenly sparks

That lighted all things holy,
And made life brilliant,
Saw Jesus walk among us
And how His grace is spent.

She saw the killers snicker
As they got off scot-free.
She saw the grievous hurt
That came to her family.

She saw what Christ would do,
And that was good enough for her.
She forgave the evil killers
Who had tried to murder her.

And in that act of mercy
A country was redeemed,
And freed to live the way
Its makers had foreseen.

And in that total freedom
We all began to heal.
And Sarah saw a life ahead,
A life no one could steal.

She saw a life of wisdom,
Though bitterly won.
A family and a church,
A husband and a son.

And the evil fog it lifted,
Though sometimes not in full.
And Sarah saw the hearts of men
Give up the terrible.

She saw a wandering in the sands
That took all of forty years.
The killers didn’t snicker at
New judgment from their peers.

And Sarah lived to see a thing
That she had helped to hasten.
She saw an African American
The leader of our nation.

I do believe in all she’s seen,
The faith, the hope, the good.
A better angel here to mourn
All lost, innocent blood.

And though she sees forgiveness
She does not see forget.
She will witness all the killers
Into their dark graves yet.

And looking far beyond that,
At what we all could be?
I wish we all could be so wise
To see what Sarah sees.

A Prayer for Jordan
By Mark Fogarty 

(for Jordan Carey, great grandniece of civil rights martyr
Addie Mae Collins)

You look out at me from your photos,
Smiling, wise, an ancient soul.
Your family has had to know too much,
To live on the jagged break between hate and love.
I think you may be a messenger
Who knows the way forward from ancient divides.
There is no mistaking the light that shines from you.
You are from God, and the unbreakable might of family.

Hate breaks and fails; love is made of granite and schist.

Your grandmother’s aunt died for our freedom,
A sacrifice nothing can make bearable.
But Addie’s death couldn’t hold her,
She was gone when they opened her grave.
She walks the world with a sketchbook
In one hand, a softball mitt in the other,
Holy in the ordinary horizons of infinity,
Showing every promise of happiness and liberty.

Addie walks beside you. Addie walks inside you.
I think you were born with her kind and great soul.

Addie’s death blotted out oceans of hatred,
But there is still work to be done.
I pray you make your life a template of the ordinary and
the divine,
Through the years of going toward a better place to be.
America is a promise, an oath, an agreement.

An oath is a sacred thing. It binds and won’t be unbound.
The founders dreamed big, but left a few of us out.
We will dream the rest of the dream for them.

My portion of America I leave to you.

Bless you, Jordan, and may you always stay
Near the heart river where they baptize and pray.
The Jordan is where love begins,
In waters that roll down like freedom, like justice.

Those waters roll down to us, Jordan,
Though they start from ever so far away.