Read Ed Madden’s poem ‘Body Politic’ honoring Columbia’s strength in unity, diversity

Ed Madden
Ed Madden tdominick@thestate.com

This city is made of many bodies with power to make a difference as a mass, Columbia’s poet laureate, Ed Madden, wrote in a poem complementing Mayor Steve Benjamin’s State of the City address Tuesday night. Madden’s poem touched on elements of unity, politics, protest and hard work.

As Columbia’s inaugural poet laureate, appointed in 2015, Madden frequently gives readings at special events and works to promote poetry and literary arts in the city. Each of the past three years, he has written a poem in honor of the city to go along with the mayor’s annual speech.

“Body Politic”

By Dr. Ed Madden, Columbia Poet Laureate

Written for Mayor Steve Benjamin’s State of the City address, Jan. 31, 2017.

Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

- I Corinthians 12:15

When thousands of women with pink hats

and placards fill the streets, think

about how a city handles

bodies, guides them down sidewalks

and streets, between walls of stone

and state, about the way a mass

of bodies is a way of saying

something, as when a march exceeds

its brief circuit of the city

and ends up on the interstate,

as if to say these bodies matter,

precarious, here and now. A city

is a body, the old philosophers

say, a leader the head, the soldiers

his hands. A church, they say, or palace

is like a brain, a place to pause,

reflect. Or it’s the heart, stained

glass and cold walls, glimmer

of something larger. But that’s too easy

a figure of order and power. A city

is many bodies, moving, touching,

talking, gathered together, a place

where differences matter and meet,

a song written to the beat of many feet.


In the neighborhood assessment, the teacher

asks us to think about how bodies

move, how and where they go.

How many banks or payday lenders

within a mile of your house, she says,

how many grocery stores, libraries, schools?

These are moral questions. How far

is health care from where you are,

if you had no car? Are there

sidewalks where you live? She turns

her hands up as she asks—as if

they could be filled. What can people do?

What do they have access to?


Sometimes, the prophet says, your body

is your only weapon, he says,

you put your body in the street

to say what needs be said. Sometimes,

he says, you tuck your body in

so the wheels don’t turn. You hold

your hand up, empty. You lift

your hand above your eyes, as if

to shade the sun, as if you’re looking

into the distance, when you’re just

looking to the future, for what’s

not yet here. Hold your hand out

to someone—we do it all the time—

consider how we greet each other

in handshake or bro hug, fist bump

or bussed cheek, what we do

when we meet, the grammar of hands

and bodies, of who we are and what

we think of one another. A mass

of bodies is saying something—

whether it’s a market shutting

down Main, a dinner on a bridge,

a great crowd of witnesses watching

a flag come down, or maybe a room

of people sitting together, listening

to a man who asks them to imagine

themselves part of one body,

one city, one place,

sharing each other’s fate.


Our city lifts its hand to shade its eyes.

Our city wants to see into the distance.

Our city does not turn its back.

Our city does not hog the table.

Our city knows everyone is disabled in some way.

Our city offers a hand, opens a door.

Our city likes to talk.

Our city would rather build a bridge than build a wall.

Our city wants to hear your story.

Our city leans to listen.

Our city knows its soul is filled by art.

Our city sets a light out when it’s dark.

Our city is not a clenched fist.

Our city does not turn its back.

Our city never says I alone can fix it.

Our city knows we only get there together.

Our city wipes its brow, gets to work.