One Good Turn

David Kirby

            I'm actually looking for another street when I turn intothe Via Tornabuoni, named for the Tornabuoni family                    and specifically its patriarch, Giovanni, banker and patronof the arts in Florence, where the street named after him            is located and in which I am now thinking of neither Giovanni            nor his family but of the word "Tornabuoni" itself, which means"good turn" of the type that Wellesley College professor                    Katharine Lee Bates took in 1893 when she and some otherteachers were summering in Colorado and decided to hire            a wagon and go all the way to the top of Pikes Peak, where            she found herself very tired, though "when I saw the view,"Bates says, "I felt great joy. All the wonder of America                    seemed displayed there." When Bates got backto her hotel room, she wrote the famous opening lines            to "America the Beautiful," which was published two weeks            later and sung to tunes people already knew, notably "AuldLang Syne." Another meaning of "good turn"                    is to do someone a favor. "I slept and dreamt that lifewas joy," says Tagore. "I awoke and saw that life            was service. I acted and behold, service was joy." What does            that mean, though? Service could meandishing up meals at the soup kitchen or escorting the blind across busy                    intersections, but what is not service as long as it bringsjoy to others? One of Naomi Ginsberg's letters to her son            reads, "Get married Allen don't take drugs love, your Mother."            Allen, thanks for not listening to your mom. You did the worlda favor by just being yourself and writing those                    great poems. "The best minds of my generation . . .loned it through the streets of Idaho seeking visionary            indian angels who were visionary indian angels . . . . Dreams!            adorations! illuminations! religions! the whole boatloadof sensitive bullshit! . . . Real holy laughter in the river!                    They saw it all." Wait, I'm lost again. Where'sthe street I'm looking for? Yet here is the church of Santa Maria Novella            and its Tornabuoni chapel with Ghirlandaio's grand cycle            of frescos depicting the life of Mary. In one frescoshe's marrying Joseph as the other suitors break their sticks and raise                    their hands in anger, and no wonder:how dishy she is! "She is of an attractive            and ideal height," said Lorenzo de Medici, "the tone            of her skin fresh but not glowing, her demeanor gravebut not proud, sweet, and pleasing, without frivolity or fear."                    Then Jesus is born. He's a baby. He doesn't know anything,yet he knows everything: that we die, that the world            is as beautiful as ever even when we're no longer in it.            Even now you see women as lovely as Mary in the streetsof Florence and babies as wise as Jesus—in any street,                    really, in any town. The Tornabuoni Chapel is open every day.Anybody can walk in and look at these works of heart-stopping beauty.            You don't even have to believe in God, just miracles.

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David Kirby teaches at Florida State University. His collection The House on Boulevard St.: New and Selected Poems was a finalist for both the National Book Award and Canada’s Griffin Poetry Prize. He is the author of Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll, which the Times Literary Supplement of London called “a hymn of praise to the emancipatory power of nonsense” and was named one of Booklist’s Top 10 Black History Non-Fiction Books of 2010. His latest books are a poetry collection, Help Me, Information, and a textbook modestly entitled The Knowledge: Where Poems Come From and How to Write Them.

"Kirby . . . reminds me of the way a poem can work: how its language can say one thing and mean another, and how we can be moved by the musicality of words, finding meaning in their sound."
—Natasha Trethewey, New York Times

"The world that Kirby takes into his imagination and the one that arises from it merge to become a creation like no other, something like the world we inhabit but funnier and more full of wonder and terror."
—Philip Levine, Ploughshares

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