Overture: Watermelon City

This summer, we present a special series on poems as maps. Read the introduction to the series.

Philadelphia is burning and water-
melon is all that can cool it,
so there they are, spiked
atop a row of metal poles,
rolling on and off pickup trucks,
the fruit that grows longest,
the fruit with a curly tail, the cool fruit
larger than a large baby, wide
as the widest green behind, wide
vermilion smile at the sizzling metropole.
Did I see this yesterday? Did I dream
this last night? The city is burning,
is burning for real.

When I first moved here I lived two streets over
from Osage, where it happened, twelve streets down.
I asked my neighbors, who described
the smell of smoke and flesh,
the city on fire for real.
How far could you see the flames?
How long could you smell the smoke?
Osage is narrow, narrow
like a movie set: urban eastern seaboard,
the tidy of people who work very hard for very little.

Life lived on the porch,
the amphitheater street.
I live here, 4937 Hazel Avenue, West Philly.
Hello, Adam and Ukee,
the boys on that block
who guarded my car, and me.
They called him Ukee because
as a baby he looked
like a eucalyptus leaf.
Hello, holy rollers
who plug in their amps,
blow out the power in the building,
preach to the street from the stoop.
Hello, crack-head next-door neighbor
who raps on my door after midnight
needing money for baby formula,
she says, and the woman
who runs in the street
with her titties out, wailing.
Hello, street. Hello, ladies
who sweep their front porches each morning.
In downtown Philadelphia
there are many lovely restaurants,
reasonably priced.
Chocolate, lemon ice,
and hand-filled cannolis
in South Philly.
Around the corner
at the New Africa Lounge
in West Philadelphia
we sweat buckets
to hi-life and zouk,
we burn.

Editors’ Note

“Overture: Watermelon City,” ©2001 Elizabeth Alexander, is from Antebellum Dream Book, Graywolf Press, St. Paul, Minnesota, and first appeared in Crab Orchard Review. It is reproduced with the permission of the Author through the Author’s Agent.

About the Series: Poems as Maps

Our series on poems as maps features work by Elizabeth Alexander, Bao Phi, Joanne Diaz, Nikky Finney, Sean Hill, Andrea Jenkins, Douglas Kearney, J. Drew Lanham, Claudia Rankine, Barbara Jane Reyes, Sun Yung Shin, Evie Shockley, and Ocean Vuong.

Elizabeth Alexander, “Overture: Watermelon City,” Places Journal, August 2017. Accessed 29 Sep 2023. <>

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