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Poetry Moment: 'Listening for Bridge Builders', by David Livewell

FILE - David Livewell headshot
David Livewell

This is poetry moment on WPSU – a weekly program featuring the work of contemporary Pennsylvania poets. Your host is poet and author Marjorie Maddox, a 2023 Monson Arts Fellow, author of 20 books, and professor of English and creative writing at the Lock Haven campus of Commonwealth University.

Welcome to Poetry Moment.

Almost 23 years ago, on July 1st, 2001, Philadelphians celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. Today’s poem, “Listening for Bridge Builders,” is poet David Livewell’s In Memoriam response. A haunting sonnet, it focuses not on architectural achievements but on the many workers who lost their lives.

David Livewell grew up in the Kensington section of North Philadelphia. He has taught poetry classes at La Salle University and, in 2012, won the T.S. Eliot Poetry Prize for his book, Shackamaxon from Truman State University Press. His poems have appeared in Poetry, Yale Review, The Hudson Review, The Hopkins Review, and other journals. His new book of poems will appear in 2024 from Able Muse Press.

Last fall, David Livewell discussed with me the backstory for today’s poem: “[One of my friends, a civil engineer who] “worked for the Delaware Valley Port Authority, . . . . found . . .hollow pockets in the bridge’s anchorage walls. [Older engineers explained] . . . why this was so common. The fallen workers’ bodies had left negative space within the thick concrete. It was impossible for other workers to rescue those who fell. My friend was stunned by the story, and I have been haunted by it ever since. I can never cross the bridge without thinking of those poor lost workers.”

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Here's “Listening for Bridge Builders: On the 75th Anniversary of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge” by David Livewell.

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They drowned in anchorage walls and came to rest
Below the cables where their footing slipped.
You can’t imagine how their bodies flipped
Into the sand-hog molds, how concrete pressed
Against their frantic limbs, how motions froze,
How prayers exhausted lungs of final breath.

But engineers can plumb the depths of death.
A hammer echoes back each worker’s pose,  
Surfacing sounds like those that haunt a drum,
Like cofferdams that raised the immigrants
Who worked the riverbed. Their recompense
For what they made is what they have become:

 Works in the stone your toll cannot exhume.
So listen as you cross:  this is their tomb.

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That was “Listening for Bridge Builders” by David Livewell. Thanks for listening. 

Listen for Poetry Moment with Marjorie Maddox Mondays during Morning Edition and All Things Considered on WPSU. You can more episodes at

Our theme music is by Eric Ian Farmer.

Marjorie Maddox is the host of WPSU's Poetry Moment for the 2023-24 season. She has been a professor of English and creative writing since 1990 at the Lock Haven campus of Commonwealth University.