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Tamsin Smith Headshot

Concrete Verse

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It begins like a joke that only a liberal arts professor would tell -- what do you get when you dress thirty poets in safety goggles and hardhats, and put them on a boat together?

I can think of a few "pun-filled" rejoinders, but the real punch line is not only that none of us drowned, but that we ended the ride stoked to get our verse on about a bunch of engineers. I certainly never expected to be overwhelmed by an all-access tour of a construction project, but I met my muse in a series of vast concrete slabs.

The site was the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge. This section between Oakland and Yerba Buena Island has been awaiting reconstruction and seismic upgrades since the devastating Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. I'd venture to guess that most local residents paid more attention to the politics and design controversies that surrounded plans to replace this critical corridor in the years that followed. But now, hidden in plain view, is the formation of what will be the world's largest self-anchored suspension span bridge. Rather than anchoring to the ground with a series of cables, this 2,000-foot span will employ a single cable to pin its eastern roadway, move through a majestic tower, and wrap around its western decks, thus securing the whole.

Could there be anything more inspiring that the concept of securing and upholding oneself?

Beyond that, the graceful lines, grandeur, and sheer magnitude of the undertaking is totally overwhelming. In a way, a miraculous invention is more immediate and dramatic when one can float below it or stand upon it, as we did. Human endeavors like moon landings, life-saving vaccine development, or coding the internet stun us with their lessons on the capacity of human will and creativity; yet, so few of us ever get close enough to touch and feel their power with the metaphorical intimacy of skin on skin.

When walking on the new skyway after our boat ride, I felt a surge of wonder at what is possible when we dream of making new realities. What gives an engineer faith that 500-ton pieces can be fitted within a centimeter of where they need to go, especially knowing that others across the globe are being depended on to build the materials, the moving equipment, and other essential tools necessary to make hitting the sweet spot happen? And yet, is there any other way? Ultimately, don't we have to believe in ourselves and lean upon others for life to truly click?

Is it the committed group of citizens or the lone leader that changes the world? I'm a believer in the collective myself, though it takes singular voices and visions to rock the crowd forward. So what does this say to the poets, a breed known for the solitary nature of their art? For me, there was rapture in sensing that we were sharing a similar astonishment, not alone in a field of daffodils, but together facing a human marvel.

Verse is flowing from this. We'll collect them into a book, perhaps an exhibit, and who knows what else. My brilliant friend and photographer Henry Dombey captured images to tell his story. It was a day to be remembered, a moment to be shared. Here is the poem it brought out of me -- for you.

Ode Abridged

By Tamsin Smith

"Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is"
- Percy Bysshe Shelley

Fog-veiled I could be a wind-strung harp
Laid down by a petulant god.
History rushing in shadow of myth
Past the hushing of mortals awed.

Hear in these songs a familiar reprise
Your melody buckle to mine.
My everest wish for heart that soars
At wing 'till the end of time.

No fault nor tremor can break the flight
Of a free form tethered in air.
Give a sign, cast a line
An oar, a shore, a dare.

Rock-socket soul and shear-link dream
Put thy will to the test.
Move through my islands, arise and become
Transported from east to west.

This wandering verse should hope traverse
If whim could whisper true
For all we can claim of an anchor in life,
Is a sea-sifted pas de deux.