Benefit Street

They remade its history,
giving each building its nameplate,
its small homage to being.
Up on the hill, or skirting a ledge of the hill,
it surveys river, downtown, the world’s
largest domed building: that’s civic-mindedness,
that’s good government. Preservation
and Providence share more than first letters:
they share in what Benefit Street has in abundance.
In the twilights I watched design students
cut up shapes on bare tables.
They might have been patterns for clothing,
but in essence they were pure shape.
Churches and flags have that in common.
The purity of their shape,
even when riffled by the wind
or struck by lightning—the essence of the shape
remains, and can be lifted out of the confusion
by those whose business it is to preserve,
recall origins. John Brown’s massive house
declares his prosperity even now,
so long after his trading,
and cars barely squeeze
through, compelled
from opposite directions.
Preservation helps them
help themselves. Thirty years ago
houses in Benefit Street sold for a song,
but with heritage they’re out of reach
of the average homebuyer.
They say this gives Providence strength.
They say the flag and the church and the street
are all part of the design,
that Rhode Island’s School of Design
is one of a kind.