Poetry in Plain Sight

Physician Jen Martini and daughter Adeline add a new poem to the sidewalk in front of their home. Photo credit: Diana Newton.


By Diana Newton

Susan Spalt was out with her family and dog for a late morning stroll in Carrboro’s Barred Owl Creek neighborhood when they suddenly slowed and began looking carefully down. Was it a strange insect or unexpected flower? No, they were reading a poem written in colorful pastel chalk on the sidewalk in front of Jen Martini’s house. On this particular day it was “Under the Temple” by Mark Nepo, its verses unfolding forward across twenty sections of sidewalk.

Bringing Poetry to Residents on the Street and in the Clinic

Martini, who is an Assistant Professor at UNC’s School of Family Medicine, has been
“publishing” poems in chalk since 2020. Prompted by pandemic confinement, Martini encouraged her three daughters to get outside and create chalk drawings. She wondered, “What can I do out here that’s fun for me, too? So one day I wrote a poem, we enjoyed reading it together, and a couple neighbors walked by and said they loved it. We were out there pretty frequently and it just became this thing with a rhythm to it.”

The first inscribed poem was “Hope is the thing with feathers” by Emily Dickinson, which Martini had dedicated to her oldest daughter, Gwynnie when she was born, and is the source of her middle name, Hope. In fact, each of her children has her own birth poem.

But the sidewalk on Quail Roost Drive is not the only place where poetry infuses Martini’s life. Having been a literature major prior to becoming a physician, she brings a poetic sensibility to her clinical and teaching roles in Family Medicine as well. One of her tasks involves sending out an example POEM – Patient-Oriented Evidence That Matters – to stimulate residents to think about new data and research in a way that is patient-centered. Martini admits that while such evidence and outcomes are critical to their learning, “It always irked me. Yes, this is important, but it’s not a poem!” So she now includes an actual poem alongside the POEM in her weekly email.

Martini is now studying narrative medicine, an international discipline at the intersection of humanities, the arts, clinical practice, and health care justice, through Columbia University. She explained that, for example, a close reading of a poem can deepen self-awareness, improve human connections, clinical effectiveness, and creative capacities.

Her sidewalk poems do seem to be good “medicine” for the many dog walkers, kids walking home from school, and neighbors who slow down and tread lightly as they discover the latest verses. Of course, the lyrical stanzas are inherently ephemeral because of rainfall that regularly washes them away. But Martini doesn’t mind, noting, “We get to follow the cadence of nature that way.”

Poetry far afield

Neighbors who are more inclined to look up than down while out and about can discover poetry that is more permanently captured but in another unexpected location. A sprawling field at the edge of the Stone Knoll neighborhood in Chapel Hill is home to a huge stone spiral that features poetry plaques and animal footprints on four tall slabs. Informally known as “Hartleyhenge,” this meditative spiral space was created by John Hartley, an architect and builder who created several subdivisions in the Orange County area, each containing a communal space in nature.

Poems on tall stone slabs invite reflection at the Hartleyhenge spiral near Calvander in Chapel
Hill. Photo credit: Diana Newton.

Hartley had giant unused quarry stones hauled to the field near Calvander from Tennessee, then placed the largest ones at precisely the four compass points of North, South, East, West. Each smooth-surfaced pillar is over 12 feet tall and graced with a poem he selected relating to that direction and a season of the year. Works from poets as diverse as Rumi, Wendell Berry, Maya Angelou and Carl Sandberg are there for nature lovers and spiritual wanderers to enjoy.

Visitors can peruse the poems at Hartleyhenge at no cost, but only during daylight hours. There is parking along the edge of the field at 259 John’s Wood Road. Groups are not allowed without prior permission of the Stone Knoll HOA and alcohol is prohibited.

From the sidewalk to the stone slab and beyond, there is plenty of poetry in plain sight in our area. Since 2013, the North Carolina Poetry Society has an initiative called just that – Poetry in Plain Sight – that brings North Carolina poetry to the public by displaying poems in street- visible locations throughout arts districts, bookstores, and downtown areas.

Slow down for poetry in Carrboro this weekend

A Carrboro traffic sign invites people to the West End Poetry Festival October 19-21. Photo credit: Diana Newton.

Carrboro’s annual West End Poetry Festival will kick off on Thursday evening and run through Saturday this weekend. Susan Spalt, a member of the Carrboro Poets Council, notes that the Poetry Festival brings out a  community of poets – established and emerging, celebrated and struggling, young and old, from many backgrounds and cultures. This year it will include readings by six Poets Laureate on Saturday, 1:00 p.m., at the Century Center. The Community poem will debut and include contributions from children who wrote poetry while attending the Carrboro Farmers’ Market. Though the festival planning is intense, she added, “When the third weekend of October rolls around Carrboro slows down for poetry and becomes, itself, like a poem.”

Diana Newton is a coach, facilitator, filmmaker, writer, artist, yoga teacher and general Renaissance woman. Her documentary film, The Ties That Bind, is available for streaming on UNC-TV. She lives in Carrboro and is a UNC alum.

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