“An Ode to Chartres Street” By James Cummins

i. The Road’s Sisters
The scent of Bourbon and flesh
hot off the spit bleeds outward
no one is on their knees.

They invited the exiled Little Horseman here.
He died before he could arrive
tail between his legs
after his Eurocentric thrashing.

He died.
And this street survived
with a French name butchered
constantly by almost all on it.
Though the absinthe that still flows
affects all speech.

All know the block away from the ghoul
that roars only when truly terrifying
is the good one.
The strip of opulent epicurean gardens,
Most of which have rear doors
that serve up private and secret views on the spectacle.

There are thrones and crows there
but also peepholes.
Ways of seeming proper
while that deep gluttony further weakens
the medium well done.

Chartres is the buffer
between that tyrannical row
and the savage sea,
Retaining a name from the fatherland
The Little Horseman would not return to.
The child eroding history
bearing the name of its history’s
Greatest Monster
emblazoned upon many of its receipts.

Chartres the meridian
the lateral line from Canal to Frenchman
the parallels providing roads
To the dark spirit that snuffs across
the water and its slaver sails.

ii. Those who left their Fingerprints between the Ancient Stones
Culture is in many ways
birthed by evil words
that are rarely chicken scratched
onto paper.

But you can feel them.
Those expressions of angst turned to anger.
Of poverty turned to pain
unreasonable, unwieldy pain,
That pain denied in Charlestown
but sustained in lore.

That horror of frail children
and stolen wives
Of rape babies
and lynchings.
Of lynchers impaled
on a pirate’s sabre.
All building now ancient monuments to distant wealth.

iii. A Mirror of Distant Wealth
In Chartres itself, the namesake
of this corridor of phantoms,
A mere 70 miles from Champagne itself,
Sabres were also used to slit throats.
Wrists.
And the flimsy rims of glass bottles
barely holding in their blossoming corks.

It is not surprising that up north
where the peepholes penetrate the rod of Bourbon
a block from Chartres Street
there is a weekly champagne bottle chopping.
And specials on the bottles in the afternoon
to keep the early party going.
Like what once occurred in those distant places that launched the ships of origin and now lie as
empty as a wreck on the Gulf floor.

Rampart 400 died.
Jazz once died.
Nightly, Bourbon and Royal dance with the dead.
But always there is Chartres
reflecting the teeming dreams and nightmares of centuries of the well and ill intentioned.

There is something infinite about Chartres Street
from its back-door side alleys
home to the reading of palms and dripping absinthe fountains
and The Fence.

Which leads us to the question.
Does the Quarter itself sell something it stole
when the short man died and Louisiana was sold?
Is the Old World spirit a soul or a con
left to drown carelessly in the storm
because peepholes are valued higher than ramparts.

You war regardless of your knowledge
of the battles you stumble upon.
Is New Orleans a fog
with Chartres Street the dew?
Or do those cobblestones field real, fateful paces?
James Cummins is a Canadian poet living in Toronto. He is the author of several books on the subjects of history, music, and culture. In 2009 he was awarded the BookTelevision Award from the Canadian Authors Association for his work Ambrosia: About a Culture, a seminal history of electronic dance music culture. He is currently at work on Elixir: Our Oldest Bars and Why They Matter, a similarly in-depth history of the oldest taverns in North America. He wrote this poem while walking the streets of New Orleans as a part of his research for that work.

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