Saturday, a standing-room-only crowd at Chilhowee Park’s Jacob Building cheered Madeline Rogero’s speech about what constitutes a “great city.” If not necessarily immortal, it did offer a couple of nice turns of phrase, like “a great city is a complex and dynamic enterprise, a puzzle of people and places....”
Perhaps breaking new ground for a new Knoxville mayor, she evoked the work of James Agee and Cormac McCarthy, mentioning their descriptions of “Fort Sanders of the teens, and the Happy Holler of the ’50s,” as well as Nikki Giovanni, whose poetry evokes “the summers of her youth.”
Agee’s Pulitzer-winning novel, A Death in the Family, is set in 1915-16 Fort Sanders; in his novels The Orchard Keeper and Suttree, McCarthy refers to the vicinity of North Central’s Happy Holler district, albeit briefly and obliquely; the Giovanni reference could describe a few of the once-controversial black poet’s works, especially her nostalgic autobiographical free-verse poem, “Knoxville, Tennessee.”
Then she actually quoted R.B. Morris: “Then there is a city / Lifted up...in varied sequence to unfold.” It’s from his song, “There is a City,” on his 2010 album, Spies, Lies, and Burning Eyes. The venerable singer-songwriter-poet, who by now knows Fort Sanders more so than Agee ever did, is better known in nightclubs than in city hall, but has some prior experience with municipal government. About a decade ago, he spearheaded the establishment of James Agee Park, the pocket refuge on Laurel Avenue at James Agee Street.