Oregon State Bar Bulletin — OCTOBER 2010

Law & Life

Writing Portlandia:
My 15 Minutes of Fame
By Ronald Talney

It was a Saturday in October 1985. I was taking a casual stroll through downtown Portland when I saw a crowd forming in front of the Portland Building, on the Fifth Avenue side. Curious, I joined it, standing off a ways when suddenly there came into view a truck with a long flatbed slowly driving up from the direction of the Willamette River. On the flatbed was an amazing sight, a huge statue of a woman kneeling with a trident in her hand, brilliant and shiny as a new penny. It was Portlandia, coming home at last.

I had read of the decision to have a work of public art commissioned to be installed on that part of the Portland Building that overlooked Fifth Avenue, a place designed especially for such a statue by the architect, Michael Graves. The artist, Raymond Kaskey of Maryland, had been awarded the commission after a lengthy juried process. It took him three years to complete the task. And this was the result.

It was an amazing spectacle to see hundreds of Portlanders spontaneously gathering to watch as a crane slowly lifted the giant woman, 36 feet tall, weighing in at 6 ½ tons, from the truck up and up to her final resting place on the building. But at last she was in place and there she was, kneeling over her subjects, trident in hand, the second largest beaten copper statue in the United States, second only to the Statue of Liberty. She was to become known as “Liberty’s sister.”

Portlanders immediately seemed to fall in love with this gigantic lady. Yes, there was controversy, some of which continues to this day. Some felt the Portland Building, for one reason or another, was not the best place for her. Some advocated that she should have been installed on the banks of the Willamette River, which runs through the heart of Portland. Others felt that she should have been placed up in Washington Park, overlooking the city. But Kaskey had created the dear girl for just where she was to be placed. The dimensions and perspective were designed for this particular view of her from passersby looking up, and would have appeared out of proportion anywhere else. And so there she has remained.

Just as the Statue of Liberty has its famous dedication poem by Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus,” it was decided by the powers that be that Portlandia too should have a dedication poem, and The Oregonian newspaper announced a competition to do just that. It was to be judged by Oregon’s then poet laureate, William Stafford, along with E. Kimbark Mac Call, a Portland historian, and J. Richard Nokes, an editor at The Oregonian.

My wife and I were engaged in preparations for a trip to Peru and were busy getting appropriate shots, selecting wardrobe, reading travel guides and doing our packing. I was also busy getting my law practice in order so that my partners could watch over the “barking dogs” while I was gone, which was to be several weeks. But I was intrigued with the notion of writing a poem for Portlandia. While I had written and published a number of poems over the years, including at that point, two books of poems, I had never attempted to write a “public” poem, that is to say, a poem commemorating a specific public event, a common practice for poets in bygone eras. My poems had always risen out of some moment of what I considered to be inspiration. I was not certain I could write an acceptable poem on demand.

But I thought about it and little by little efforts were made, bits and pieces jotted down, and slowly a rough version of a poem began to take shape. But it wasn’t coming together as I had hoped and I was about to give up on it, as our trip was drawing nearer and nearer. But then an intriguing connection formed in my subconscious mind. For several years, also without complete success, I had been toying with a poem about my mother and her love of gardening. I had an image of her bending to the earth to plant and care for her flowers, the tilled ground beneath her outstretched hand. But that poem had been relegated to the “bone heap,” that place where those frustrating and unfinished poems go to die, and I had all but forgotten about it. Or so I thought.

The moment my conscious mind made that connection between that image and Portlandia kneeling to her people and to her city, the poem in its nearly final form quickly followed. I remember typing it up, living with it for a couple of days, making a few minor revisions, and then, as the time to leave for Peru came nearer, mailing it off to The Oregonian. We boarded a plane and were gone, the poem and the competition out of my mind.

Several weeks later we returned, thrilled with the sights of Peru, Machu Picchu, Cuzco, Lima and the Amazon. Unfortunately, we were both also somewhat ill and travel weary as well. I knew I had to get back to my law practice as soon as possible and began at least trying to get into the office for half days for the first week after our return. One morning I arrived to find a telephone message asking me to phone an individual at The Oregonian. As I say, I had all but forgotten about the competition and Portlandia, so was somewhat mystified by the call, and assumed some client’s misfortune was about to make an unwanted appearance in the press. However, when I returned the call I found it was to the editor of the book page. She informed me that my entry had been the winner out of more than 900 others. I recall not responding with any great enthusiasm, which she commented on with some note of disappointment in her voice. I think she expected me to leap in the air and shout for joy. I quickly explained to her that I had just returned from South America and was still jet-lagged and ill. I tried to assure her I really was pleased. I’m not quite sure she believed me. In any event, we arranged for me to be interviewed and photographed and several days later Portlandia, the poem, and I hit the front pages of The Oregonian. It was my moment of recognition, however fleeting. My 15 minutes of fame.

The following summer the dedication plaque was unveiled, which included the poem, and I was invited to read the poem before the assembled crowd of dignitaries and townspeople, as well as TV cameras and microphones. Yet another 15 minutes of fame.

That was 25 years ago, and this year is the silver anniversary of Portlandia’s arrival. I am now retired, considerably grayer, and have added a few pounds. She, on the other hand, has retained her girlish figure and her copper skin has now taken on a deep and lovely patina. Over the years she has become perhaps the most recognizable representative of the city of Portland. There are still those who feel she should be placed somewhere where she can be more easily seen, and, yes, over the years the trees that were young then are now mature and tend to make seeing her more difficult. But nonetheless, she still kneels over her subjects and visitors, extending her hand to all who care to take the time to look up through the foliage and spend a moment of reflection. From time to time, when downtown, I will walk past the dedication plaque and note folks standing there reading my poem and looking up into her face. Perhaps long after I’m gone, those quiet moments of reflection in the heart of this bustling city will still be taking place.

Ronald Talney, a retired public interest lawyer who lives in Lake Oswego, is the author of five books of poems. He has also published a juvenile mystery novel, as well as numerous articles and essays.

© 2010 Ronald Talney

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