A metal worker cast each letter of a 17-line poem into bronze, maybe started with a shopping list: 37 As—38 if you count the author’s name. Another worker, skilled at welding alloys, calculated the weld strength, the solder and flux needed to melt the bronze to the painted steel of a bridge. A construction crew puzzled over the blueprints, fitted girders into a network of triangles and squares above rushing lanes of Minneapolis highway traffic, laid the fir planks, then sprayed the structure dusty blue and pale vanilla.
“Hey, honey—You’ll never guess what I did today at work. I built a poem.”
The poem starts at the bridge’s west edge. Understated three-inch letters, broad and stately, dot the girders like the marks on a ruler. The letters hang against a backdrop of sky about ten feet above the walkway. The weight and speed of cars on the 16-lane highway below sets the bridge into constant, subtle vibration, enveloped in a gentle buzz of rubber on asphalt. You must move to see the poem, and the world moves beneath you as the sky shifts above.
Half the poem later, the stairway appears, leading down to Loring Park. Either double back to follow the rest of the poem, which stretches above the walkway’s opposite edge, or go about your business, with the first half of the poem dangling between your ears, waiting for resolution.
If you don’t know what you’re doing, you might dash across the bridge and jump into the poem’s middle. The shock of poetry on a bridge might blur your vision so you scarcely read the words. You don’t even let yourself savor the whole poem or take it in. The panic and light splinters of the world might pepper your eyes if you are a 19-year-old Midwestern shell-shocked [End Page 93] girl. You take the bridge like a runway or a trespass, gulping air and letters, stopping beside a sentence that lodges itself in your head.
The cold, and wind pushing strands of long brown hair into my mouth, tangling and wrapping around my glasses. The need for a Kleenex and a bathroom, maybe over there in the Loring Park Café. Hate to hurry through a restaurant to pee like a thief when I know I won’t buy coffee. Late to meet someone. Burr of tires on pavement. One of the memories collected by all of your skin and organs, not just your eyes.
A poem on a bridge, and the only thing I remembered was either a koan or a threat:
And It is Good When You Get to no Further
The Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge, also called “The Friendship Bridge,” spans Lyndale Avenue, Hennepin Avenue, and Interstate 94. Siah Armajani, the artist, was born in Iran and has been creating large usable works since the 1930s. Fascinated and transfixed with bridges as public sculpture, he designed the bridge’s prototype in 1985, and the structure was completed in 1988.
Armajani said: Make the bridge’s pale yellow the same color as that which Thomas Jefferson used in his home at Monticello. The yellow half of the bridge is to the east, and the western half is blue, and the two colors overlap in a pair of harmonic waves that incorporate the three most common forms of the American bridge: the suspension bridge, a Golden Gate/Brooklyn peak with lines hanging down; the long horizontal trestle, boxes with Xs in the middle that make you think of railroad bridges; and the inverted arch, the swoop of a downward moon, a gentle hill. It might sound messy, but the bridge has a calm personality. The standard intervals and proportions support the hybrid form, like a person with insane ideas who still knows how to tie her shoes and schedule dental visits.
Armajani asked John Ashbery, a famous U.S. poet, to create a poem especially for the 379-foot span to link the Walker Art Center and Sculpture Garden to downtown Minneapolis.
The bridge was two or three years old when I stepped onto it. The poem wasn...