The Girls of Memory (Classic Poem Series #7)

I’m trying something new, and I hope you’ll indulge me. I’m adding hypertext to this poem…but not because I think the poem can’t be understood or appreciated without it (I’m not Eliot, and this isn’t “The Waste Land”). It’s that some readers may not be familiar with the references in the poem, and I thought it would be interesting to add hyperlinks for those curious to check them out.

I wasn’t born in Birmingham (Enterprise, Alabama, claims that dubious honor), but I spent most of my formative years there. Birmingham was pivotal in the Civil Rights Movement, though I didn’t explore the atrocities committed in the city until I taught the subject. To aid in the discussion, I showed Spike Lee’s excellent documentary 4 Little Girls. The girls, who were killed on September 15, 1963, are the subject of the poem.

I wrote this poem during my graduate school years and haven’t read it in quite a long time. It underwent a few edits earlier today but mostly stayed as I found it,


The four girls killed during the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Clockwise from top left: Addie Mae Collins (aged 14), Cynthia Wesley (aged 14), Carole Robertson (aged 14) and Denise McNair (aged 11) (image credit)

The Girls of Memory

The girls of memory burn to shine
until black holiness fills the sky,
their backs and wings like swept ink.
They look down on the Magic City
that offers blessed assurance weekly
from the renovated crater of 16th Street.

They guard the city building by building,
drifting somewhere between 7th Avenue
and Sheol, their charred fingers reaching
iron balconies, their unwelcome touches
unlocking doors as perfume wafts from
their small mouths, dark dogwood blossoms
rearranging atmosphere into sorrow and renewal.

They talk with statues, whisper to rooms
where God is channeled, but Brother Bryan
remains a stone saint, the cantor at Beth-El
drops a note, and Dawson Baptist Church rises
with mortar shoulders, hungry for more crosses.

They pass doors marked with the old sigil, mercy,
while downtown people spill into the dusk
and chart paths home in Hondas and Infinities.

The girls of memory count cars and work
strange missions of the heart when night
is a wild, uncut ribbon uniting the dark city.
They, angels of need, still walk among us

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