'Other People's Postcards' -- new poem

New poem for a snow day. For decades, my mother and father saved postcards and kept them in scrapbooks. I recycled some of the sincere writing to make a kind of collage of messages from people on the move. These date from 1930s to 1960s. There's a hint of haiku in the simplicity and observations. Time is scrambled in the sequence.

Other People’s Postcards

Vic met me at the train. Having a swell time. 
Seeing you people traveling the globe, I decided to try it!
If you don’t write soon, I won’t write anymore.
I’m at Salisbury Beach. Water is grand. You should be here. 
The food really stinks in Berlin. Don’t worry about me. 
I’m having the trip of my life. Creation is full of wonders.
Well, some fun in the army. Will be a man when I get out. 
We have one more day before going to Yugoslavia.
Montreal is nice, but I will be glad to be back home.
Every piece of ginger you sent was enjoyed.
Lorraine remarried 30 days ago, Junior living with me. 
This trip is as close to paradise as I will ever get.
I’m fenced in with heat, rain, and Democrats in Providence.
This is the kid brother dropping a line to say I’m O.K.
Rio is huge, modern, and clean, and the beaches gorgeous.
Tell Dick we saw the Navy’s Blue Angels stunt pilots.
Sent you a card to put in your scrapbook. I’m alive. 
I just hate to go back to cold New England. 
I was in Venice last year, too. Next stop is Trieste.
Arrived in Carolina Friday. Wish you were here.

---Paul Marion, 2018

'Letter to Charlie' (June 2004)

Cross-posting this from the RichardHowe.com blog several weeks ago. Dick Howe, Jr., encouraged me to mine my files for writing that can be posted on the blog as a way to look back on recent history. Over the years, Charles Nikitopoulos and I have exchanged hundreds of email messages about all kinds of things. Charlie is a retired professor of psychology who taught at UMass Lowell for many years. He guided me through the master’s program in community social psychology as an “older” student, for which I will always be grateful. The two of us have had a thousand discussions about community life in the city. Sometimes I send him letters by email about what I’ve been doing and thinking. Here’s one letter from June 2004, which I realized after writing it sounded a little like Charles Sampas’s legendary daily columns in the SUN newspaper, “Sampascoopies.” I’ve always enjoyed walking around the city to see what is going on. Here’s one bulletin from the Time Machine.—PM

Letter to Charlie, June 2004

Dear Charlie:

Just back from one of my routine hikes around the city. Quick route is downtown and back, about three miles. I’m always surprised at how few people in a city of 100,000-plus are on the street when I walk around early in the day.

Small scenes sting my nostalgia nerves and lead to feelings of goofy affection for humble community life, like the uniformed delivery man returning to his Drake’s Cakes truck after dropping off fresh treats at Ray Robinson’s luncheonette at the corner of Central and Jackson streets, where a few early birds stare at their coffees. Luncheonette is one of those Lowell yokel words, wouldn’t you say? And, speaking of coffee, the business-suited young woman entering the Pollard Exchange Building with her extra large cup of Dunkin Donuts java.

The up-early teenagers heading for Kirk Street and Lowell High School, counting in their brains the school days remaining in June. The sun-brightened dimpled surfaces (accomplished with pneumatic hammers) of Carlos Dorrien’s massive granite art monument to human builders set on old foundations mid-Pawtucket Canal just upstream of the Lower Locks canal plaza. And the sun-washed gray stone of the old Post Office, former School Department office, that Nick Sarris did such a fine job of reclaiming for future generations. The scaffold-less towers of the 19th-century train station on Central Street that gave its name to Towers Corner, a long stone’s throw from Danas’s vintage corner market, meal counter, and confectionery, same one featured in the 1980s movie School Ties, which made room for a few Lowellians as extras—the fight scene was staged in the alley aside the market. And next to the market is a distinctive small building, a miniature of the famous Flatiron Building, a wedge-shaped structure across the street from the restaurant supply store.

The unusually quiet Revolving Museum whose young people made bold creative statements about what’s important to them in tall windows on Merrimack Street. Manager Manya Callahan has a display of Father’s Day gift books at the Barnes & Noble. An offer for Dave Matthews tickets taped to the door of the Old Court pub, the name of which pays tribute to a favorite spot in co-owner Finbarr Sheehan’s old-country home, Sheehan being a host, barkeep, writer, and UMass Lowell graduate who may have a pile of short stories or even a novel in the back room. Banging hammers in the left-hand storefront of the rehabbed Moeller’s Building on Middle Street with its spacious lofts and street-level curio shop judiciously packed with Cambodian paintings, slightly aboriginal ceramic heads, a pair of seats from a Brooklyn ballpark, and more vintage treasures.

Back at the South Common, a couple of diligent souls pacing around the oval track at the base of the park, the field in the center worn to dirt from goal cage to goal cage. Wouldn’t new grass or a composite material turf like the beautiful Cushing Field at UMass Lowell be a bonus in this active park? Paving machines ran all night on Thorndike Street, applying a thick coat of asphalt on one of the gateway routes into the city, the scraping and leveling going on for two weeks. Outside the Bishop Markham public housing, whose mid-rise buildings are the color of Cheerios cereal, a woman walking her small dog says to her pet, “Be polite, stay on your side, that’s right,” as she passes a man in an Astros baseball cap outside the courthouse.

All for now. More later. — PM

'What's Past Is Prologue' (Shakespeare)

Here’s another entry about politics from my 1992 personal journal. I had been volunteering in Paul Tsongas’s presidential campaign for about a year when he suspended his campaign for the Democratic nomination on March 19 for lack of capacity to keep battling Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas. Paul had won eight primaries and caucuses in the process, including New Hampshire. (Former California governor Jerry Brown hung on through the later primary elections, eventually winning six against Clinton.) But Clinton surged in Super Tuesday states and had prevailed in the money primary and among the media analysts. However, for the general election there was another candidate in the running: billionaire businessman Ross Perot of Texas, who campaigned as an independent. Opinion polls in early summer showed him ahead when pitted against Clinton and Pres. George H. W. Bush. He would win nearly 20 percent of the vote (but no electoral college votes) in the November election. Clinton in the end gained only 43 percent of the popular vote and 370 electoral votes to G. H W. Bush’s 37.5 percent of the popular vote and 168 electoral votes. Wondering about Perot, I wrote the following in June, 1992. Looking at the entry now, Perot seems to be a forecast of Trump, 24 years later. — PM

Why Ross Perot Has Taken Root. Pick a Reason. (6/9/1992)

  1. Reasonable people don’t want a president who arrives damaged in a campaign marked by sex, lies, and videotaped attack ads.
  2. The Reagan-Bush administrations stretched to the snapping point people’s willingness to accept bad judgement by their leaders.
  3. Most people don’t understand the Savings & Loan scandal beyond feeling they were robbed.
  4. Political leaders did not guide the nation to any intellectual and emotional resolution when the Cold War with Russia was declared ended. There has been no public expression of victory, no grief for the suffering since the late 1940s, no recognition of the anxiety from living on the brink of nuclear annihilation for decades, and no call to action resulting from this enormous result. The all-encompassing threat of the USSR seemed to melt away.
  5. People are looking for a third way, any way other than the one offered by two tired, overweight, atrophied creatures called the Republican and Democratic parties.
  6. Public argument on all issues, as structured by the electronic media, is presented in two extremes, leaving a large portion of the public angry, confused, or turned off.
  7. Most people simply want a job that provides enough money for them to live a happy but not extravagant life.
  8. Cynics in each of the main parties have manipulated voters’ worst fears and most selfish appetites to win their approval and gain power. Simple answers to complicated questions are often popular.
  9. The 50 percent of voters who opt out of national elections may run to the polls to vent their frustration and anger.
  10. A faction of extreme anti-government political thinkers and religious radicals have wielded disproportionate influence over public policy for the past 12 years.
  11. The election of a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency (George H. W. Bush) to the presidency was the last straw in shady power politics for some voters. Picture how Americans would respond if the head of the KGB spy agency became the top political figure in Russia.
  12. Millions of Americans are out of hope and don’t believe their government as now organized can help them fulfill their dreams. Pre-revolutionary conditions exist in the USA due to an extreme imbalance in income distribution.

—Paul Marion, 1992

'Patterns of a Prayer Town'

Patterns of a Prayer Town


Our Lady of the Bathtub shines white.

A flagpole becomes a stack of gold eggs.

The small dogwood vanishes—in its place a floating rosary.

There’s a chain-link gate festooned with gaudy bulbs,

shrubs lassoed blue, dormers lined in radiant jelly beans—

every other house turns into a birthday cake.

City folk do it for you and me, for their kids and kids of passing strangers.

But what do the Martians think,

gazing at us through super-powered telescopes?

What do they make of this season

when it looks like a carnival has spread like flu through the neighborhoods?


—Paul Marion (c) 2006, from “What Is the City?”


Wrote the first draft of this poem in 1976, and worked on it on-and-off for a long time. I had in mind the extensive outdoor lighting displays in the town of Dracut and city of Lowell, especially, as the composition evolved, the dense array of Christmas decorations in the Pawtucketville neighborhood, between Mammoth Road and University Avenue (formerly Textile Ave/Moody St). I lived for a time on the top floor of a sea-green three-decker on Sixth Ave. (Artist Patrick Healey memorialized the building for a recent Portsmouth, N.H., exhibition with paintings of the homes of writers he knows.) The image of the Martians came in a late revision and seemed to be just what the poem needed to knock it a little off kilter.

'Paris Glass'

Paris Glass


Near Sainte-Chapelle, a seated old woman with short black hair shows us two fluffy rabbits, white-and-brown, on leashes at her spot of sidewalk mid-bridge where she has a pile of greens, two cups of pellets, and water in a shiny silver bowl. 


On a black iron church fence on Blvd. St.-Germain a poet-painter offers a line of monotypes, colored abstractions, stylized landmarks accented with words by Apollinaire, Neruda, Rimbaud, Rilke, lyric slivers of emotion and insight, his pop-up gallery in the boundless market.


Making our way down the guidebook trail past the Voltaire statue, house of George Sand, and then the toy store linked to Le Petit Prince and Babar the Elephant, the hand-written notice: "Ferme' Lundi," dark interior, select playthings on the inside window ledge, plastic city figures like fire fighters and soccer stars.


Palace de Justice surrounding virtuoso stained-glass, and the gendarmerie forces all about the wide and high courthouse steps close to St. Louis chapel with its high windows as bright as diced fruit at mid-morning.


See-through boats as long as trains filled with white cloth-covered tables for four going north on the Seine, greenish brown, sliding past the bookstalls where casual tenders hawk vintage film magazines, fugitive pop culture posters, tiers of paperbacks in French and Euro languages, the stalls like big lidded tea tins mounted on cement walls above the river, the shelves, racks, and spinners dense with Marlon Brando, Picasso, Led Zeppelin, Camus, Baudelaire, and Monet prints, portraits of Princess Di, limited-edition Simone de Beauvoirs, cat postcards, Napoleon pennants, and stained cookbooks.


Icy green-glass bottles of Coca-Cola delivered two and four at a time by waiters to smoking models, lunch loafers, and graybeards in jeans and leather waist-jackets, sitting side-by-side touching shoulders like a man in Omaha, Nebraska, would never do, all the citizens tucked into their Cafe Palette tables filled with plates of sumptuous roasted whole legs of chicken on rice beds, the couscous special, yolked ham-and-cheese croque-madames, baby spinach with a mustard-honey dollop, and sparkling water, not still, this fizzy afternoon on the Left Bank.


Nine hundred years, Notre Dame de Paris, in a land where eight of ten churches are tributes to Mary Mother of Catholic-God's Son; the hard gargoyle, hands a-ears, won't hear St. Denis's severed head scream to warn about the devil's movement on Mary's shoulder; a fair sample of the world lined up outside, Swedish and Chinese guests doing the selfie thing at Point Zero, brass disk from which radiate concentric cultural waves.


La Tour Eiffel, tan as a desert rat and peeling on the sun side from a bad and outsourced paint job, the surface muted in daylight, matching neighborhood architecture, sand, earth, stone, olive, gray, a blend of neutrals almost like a trick in the City of Light, as subtle as the Sahel peddlers with dozens of small twinkling towers spread on sheets which get hauled up by four corners and slung over shoulders in two seconds when the police pull up, the vendors all of sudden just St. Nicks in Nikes, "Nothing to see here, move along, nobody selling, displays only, no problem, everybody wants a tower, everyone needs a light."


Figs and mushrooms and strawberries displayed like museum pieces that can be touched. Brilliant oranges from South Africa piled up for squeezing, orange oil perfuming the intersection. Baguette sandwiches in hashtag stacks. The cheeses sit by their names, waiting to be called on and not saying a word to the salamis.    


Hemingway's favorite writing place in Saint-Germain-des-Pres. There. No, over there. No, no, it's across the street for sure. He drank there all the time. 







Stephen King Responds to a Critic

Thirty years ago, on May 26, 1987, I copied this comment by Stephen King from an article in a past issue of Playboy magazine (June 1983). I filed the handwritten note to myself in a folder with other writings, which I opened recently when I was sorting through old materials. 

Here's the comment:

". . . the criticism in the TIME piece was a bit different. It basically attacked me for relying on imagery drawn from the movies and television, contending that that was somehow demeaning to literature and perhaps even heralded its imminent demise. But the fact is, I'm writing about a generation of people who have grown up under the influence of the icons of American popular culture, from Hollywood to McDonalds, and it would be ridiculous to pretend that such people sit around contemplating Proust all day. The TIME critic should have addressed his complaint to Henry James, who observed 80 years ago that "a good ghost story must be connected at a hundred different points with the common objects of life."


Kerouac's Death Day in Lowell, a Brilliant October 21

I happened to be at the Kerouac Commemorative in Kerouac Park at Bridge and French streets yesterday, Jack's Death Day, where I stopped while guiding a group of 17 arts administration master's program students from Boston University around Lowell's historic and cultural district. The flawless blue sky played off the millions of red bricks in the downtown core in the most appealing way. The historic district never looks better than on such days when the sky is the color of blue cat's-eye glass marbles. We encountered other pilgrims including a couple of thirty-something thin bearded guys from Quebec who were excitedly pulling each other's arms, saying, Look at this, look at this. After a few minutes I was surprised to see a Marion cousin of mine from central Mass. walk into the sculpture plaza with her poet-husband who was in a college writing workshop with me 42 years ago. It was great to see Robin Marion and Bill O'Connell. They had a younger couple with them, no doubt seeing the polished granite portrait-in-language for the first time. Extending my tour group a courtesy, a half dozen scrappy guys who had been chatting on the stone benches in the middle of the sculpture plaza moved over to the park benches when we showed up so we could make our short visit and talk a little on our own. Everybody was cool. The BU students knew the Kerouac name, and several had read On the Road, but not more than that. I was not thinking that the day was Oct. 21 when we stopped by. Only the flurry of remembrances on Facebook reminded me how much the "wheel" had turned since the grim day in Florida, 1969. The Kerouac Commemorative will be 30 years old next year. The author's presence in the community is stronger than ever. A multi-day literary festival named for him drew hundreds of people earlier in the month, as occurs annually. The planners are already brainstorming for 2018, talking about a special poetry event as a feature.

I'm recently back from 12 days in France---Paris, where bookstores and Left Bank book-stall vendors carry French translations of Kerouac and where English versions are available at Shakespeare and Company, which honors JK and all the Beats with a front-of-the-store bookcase crammed with their titles---and then on the Seine River through Normandy, the jumping off point for so many of the French who emigrated to New France/Quebec in the 1600s, the ancestors of the French-Canadian Americans of New England, many of them from Brittany as well. I don't think I experienced "satori" with my wife in France, but we enjoyed the trip immensely. None of the people or places felt foreign at all, and it was homecoming for me since all my people begin in that place, the DNA showing Viking, Visigoth, and Roman traces---all the rampagers who swung through northwest coastal France, but no mark from the actual Franks of King Clovis days, fifth century. Kings. In Lowell, we tend not to call Kerouac the King of the Beats because we understand that he didn't favor that label.

Leaving the sculpture site, my group headed left to Kearney Square still dominated by the former newspaper main office high-rise building with the big SUN sign on the roof. One of the students asked, That's where he had his first writing job, isn't it?

'Picking Mushrooms in Gdansk'

I wrote this poem in 1983, but this is its first publication. At the time I sent it out to several magazines without success. With so much media talk about "fake news" in the days of the Trump White House, I was reminded of the poem and my attempt to get at the nub of what to believe in popularly reported accounts of life in the world. What's more, when my friend Kate Hanson Foster posted on Facebook about the white supremacist rally in Virginia on August 11 and 12 of this year, I was struck by the mundane detail she included about a local department store and its supply of tiki torches used for evening yard parties. We know, of course, that the "Unite the Right" fanatics with their racist and hate chants chose those mass-manufactured torches for their dark march in Charlottesville. It's a cliche, but some facts defy invention. The maker of tiki torches and the Walmart company afterward both condemned the hate-mongers. After Kate's post, I thought the poem may have found its moment 34 years later. Please excuse the note being longer than the poem. I felt that I owed readers the background.--- PM

Picking Mushrooms in Gdansk

"The Charlottesville Walmart ran out of tiki torches." -- KHF on Facebook, 8/17

Above the flares of border guards a balloon of stitched raincoats

Drifted over the ripped Curtain into Austria. In the basket was a Czech hero,

His racing bike broken down and packed. The same night two sentries

Scaled a high fence in East Berlin after waiting a year for the army to pair them.

Assault rifles and all, the men raised beers in a U.S. Zone bar.

CBS, AP, BBC, NPR, all the outlets produce reports like instant coffee,

The latest bit from Poland, where "labor leader Lech Walesa"

Told sniffing hounds of his surprise while driving with friends

To pick mushrooms in the forest when radio news announced

He had won the Nobel Peace Prize. If the irreducible act,

Immediately broadcast, registers like a tuned string, I take it for truth,

Weighed against news I've proofed in a mix of first-hand views and faith. 


New Poem: 'American Art'

In this week's New Yorker magazine Louis Menand writes about poetry: Why do people write and read it, and what difference does it make? There's a lot of this going around. If you have been in the literary game for about 40 years like me, you notice there's a lot of self-checking in the media by poets and commentators. At the same time there seems to be as much poetry as I've seen since the 1970s, by which I mean new poetry and public poetry events. People are forever asking themselves, some people I should say, What's poetry got to do with anything? And then they begin talking about the meaning of existence and foundations of culture, fitting in poets from Ancient Rome to Harlem in New York City. The article references Claudia Rankine's recent book Citizen: An American Lyric, in which she writes about race, society, and perception. The book has sold 200,000 copies.

Menand, whose writing I admire, finally comes down to this: "I started out as a poet, too, ... but I got the same painful pleasure out of writing prose---the pleasure of trying to put the right words in the right order. And I took away from my experience with poetry something else. I understood that the reason people write poems is the reason people write. They have something to say."

The following is a new poem, just a day or so old. With my wife and two friends this past Sunday I visited the Addison Gallery of American Art on the campus of Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. Afterwards, I had something to say about what we saw. 


American Art


We were up to the Addison Gallery in Andover, Mass.,

Enjoying some famous Homer seascapes in the collection,

The black-and-yellow log cabin canvas by alum Frank Stella,

And a small Louise Nevelson with halved stair spindles,

As well as the model ships in the crypt, the lot of them

Like doll houses for men, precise and climate-controlled

In their jumbo cases, craftworks by retired captains,

The mother ships built in East Boston or Newburyport,

Running the lanes from Liverpool to East America

Or down to Venezuela and back through the Antilles—

Before we stepped left into the library of blonde wood

Whose walls held photo-documents of the nation’s

Race war of the mid-twentieth century, pictures by Gordon Parks,

James Karales, Ernest C. Withers, Stephen Shames: a young

John Lewis getting in the way just as he urges we do;

Black men in suits with Allah placards; a pained Reverend King

Waiting to speak at the memorial for four girls murdered

At the bombed 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham;

One African American soldier on his way to Vietnam;

And an image of a white woman in a dress outside a diner

Who is scolding a bunch of white men busy tormenting

Human rights defenders sitting in the street, a drama

Photographer Danny Lyon saw only once in those years,

According to his Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement.

When the men taunting her said, “Why don’t you marry one?”

She sat on the ground with the volunteer freedom fighters.


---Paul Marion (c) 2017

'Lowell Poems and Places' Guided Tour

Join me for a free guided tour of special places in downtown Lowell that are linked to poems written by me and other writers including Lucy Larcom and Jack Kerouac on Saturday, July 8, 10 AM, at the Lowell National Historical Park Visitor Center, 246 Market St, in downtown Lowell. The 90-minute tour is part of the popular Lowell Walks series, now in its third year.

I will lead the group through the center of downtown, stopping at key locations to share behind-the-scenes stories of how certain poems came to be written and making the connection between poetry and "place." The tour steps off rain or shine, so be prepared for the weather. 

Remembering St. Lucia and Derek Walcott

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, my family was fortunate enough to enjoy vacations on the island of St. Lucia in the West Indies for several years in a row. We stayed at a resort called The Windjammer on Labrelotte Bay, between Castries and Gros Islet on the northwest coast. In the George Charles Airport in Castries a pair of portraits are displayed prominently, those of two St. Lucia natives who are Nobel Laureates: Sir Arthur Lewis (Economics, 1979) and Derek Walcott (Literature, 1992). I read more of Walcott's poems after visiting St. Lucia and learning more about him. I always brought a stack of books to read in the sun, often including one of Walcott's. The vacations were also a time for me to write. Following is a poem from the winter of 2001. I'm posting it today as a small tribute to Derek Walcott, who died this week. 

Cool Blue

St. Lucia, St. Lulu, blue-green and green-blue---there's an ooh in the blue air, in the o-round mouth on the white deck of the cruise liner chasing a tank ship bound for the oil farm at Castries. Dark parts of the seascape like indigo ink slurred through turquoise fields in the bay. Jet-lets of spume way off shore---the dip boat, no banana boat, shipped out. Each villa boasts a few conch shells, T-Rex of seashells, grail we never find up north, bony case with smooth pink lining. Each villa is a conch of white walls, terra-cotta floors. With its owner away, we snowbirds claim the showy chassis for a couple of hot weeks. Julia, at the front desk, thirty years old this month, says Nelson Mandela said if he had to choose a place to live outside of South Africa, it would be St. Lucia, where he could sleep with doors open. It's so calm, she says. When I tell her I admire Derek Walcott's poems, she says his birthday is January 26th (which is mine, too, I say) and that he'll be home next month for the island's Independence Day party. He may write something special. When I mention his teaching in Boston, she nods, "Yes, the Nobel Laureate." Julia asks if my hometown is "cool," calm, she explains, not too busy like New York City. 



MY NEW BOOK - "Union River"

 NEW BOOK “Union River,” a collection of poems and sketches spanning 40 years of writing

NEW BOOK “Union River,” a collection of poems and sketches spanning 40 years of writing

Bootstrap Press of Lowell is publishing my next book, “Union River,” a collection of poems and sketches spanning 40 years of writing. The book will be released this spring. Thanks to Ryan Gallagher for the cover design. The paperback book will be 5 x 8 in size with cover flaps that fold in where you see the text on the sides here. Thanks also to Kate Hanson Foster, Brian Simoneau, Tom Sexton, and Juan Delgado for the cover endorsements or “blurbs.” Click the image to enlarge the cover for easier reading.

Danger for Democrats

This post appeared on the richardhowe.com blog on Feb. 16, 2017, and is reposted here with permission.

I’m thinking this morning, What’s wrong with this picture? President Trump, less than a month in office, has everyone talking about him and his White House crew. He continues to suck all the media oxygen out of the air. The mainstream media, including cable TV political reporters, have gone back to their respective corporate corners (NY, LA, mostly) and are talking to themselves and the elected crowd in Washington, DC., a big mistake when you remember how badly they assessed the presidential contest. Instead of broadcasting or filing newspaper reports from Idaho, Wisconsin, Arkansas, and Western Pennsylvania, they are yakking their talking-heads off about the latest Trump policy move or his Twitter droppings. They will never ignore the coastal high-population centers, but attention must be paid, to quote a playwright, to the people in the middle of the country.

And the national Democrats are falling into the same pattern, revving up responses to Trump instead of shaping and promoting a counter-narrative of values and policies. They should have learned that saying BAD TRUMP until they are out of breath and out of advertising money is not going to work any better now than it did last fall. The voting public that was not with Trump does not need reinforcement. Trust me, as he would say, they are not going there. (But if he really was smart, Trump would be floating proposals for the trillion-dollar program to rebuild America that he promised and letting all the voters know that he intends to push his plan for term limits for serving in Congress, House and Senate.) The Democrats need a policy package by the summer, coming fast, that will be their version of the GOP’s old “Contract With America”—a distillation of their priorities at the federal level that will be the basis of their challenge to the Republicans as a group, tying Trump to the Congressional majority, in the fall of 2018.

In a way, this Trump-Russia scandal could be the worst thing to happen to the Democrats in Washington. It will suck staff time, media minutes, and money toward the black hole of dysfunction that is Trump’s administration. This goes for the state level Democrats also. The activists must stay focused on their own state houses and not get swept up into marching against Trump every other month. Don’t take eyes off the base at home. Meanwhile, Trump’s supporters in Kansas and Michigan will cheer on his disruptive tactics and not waver in their GOP support. Among other victories, the GOP is close to wrapping up the theft of a Supreme Court appointment, for which there will be no penalty. Senate Majority Leader McConnell was gloating on TV this week, saying the November election was not a change election for Congress. Look, he said, Republicans got returned with the majority here. People wanted change in the presidency, he added, but not on Capitol Hill.

The Democrats need to focus on their own story. Trump is happy when everybody follows his strokes. Avoid that sand trap.

'Ducharmes' Porch'

This is a sketch from my forthcoming book called Union River: Poems and Sketches, due mid-spring from Bootstrap Press. If the book was a music album I think it would be categorized as "Americana," somewhere between folk, pop, classical, and adult contemporary in its forms and content. The writing covers forty years of work and delves into the places and people and events I've encountered in my "American Experience."

Ducharmes’ Porch

Nineteen-sixty-six was the UFO summer in New Boston Village and Crosby Heights, the former being the lowland in my growing-up neighborhood and the latter the wooded incline being rapidly cleared for houses. Mr. and Mrs. Ducharme on Cinderella Circle sat on their back porch every summer night with binoculars and a solar system map watching for odd lights in the sky. Cinderella had been a frog-breeding swamp, Gendreau’s Pond, filled in during the suburban land rush. Green leapers, languid in the heat, stretched their leopard-dot thighs behind them. Huge blue sewing-needles strafed us near algal water rife with hornpout and muskrats. That two adults made an observation post unnerved us on our Sting-Ray bikes cruising the loop of two-level homes in the long twilight after supper and obsessively checking in with the look-outs when the porch lights clicked on. One street over, unpaved, we poured sand on flaming signal pots and stepped into the whale-mouth bucket of a parked front-end loader. A name flew to us, a sing-song plea, “Eeeee-laine,” someone’s anxious mother calling in the dark.

     The radio bled through the Ducharme kitchen window screen with a revved up talk-show host and callers re-hashing the latest news about the self-reported abduction of Betty and Barney Hill. The story had broken in a fast-selling book that was excerpted in the large-format Look magazine. The couple claimed to have been taken aboard a spaceship by lizard-eyed extraterrestrials wearing cadet caps who interrupted their homeward drive just south of the White Mountains in New Hampshire, a road I had traveled with my family. Under hypnosis the Hills described medical-type examinations both had been subjected to and were able to recreate a map that suggested that the aliens may have zoomed to Earth from a star system 37 light-years away, Zeta Reticuli. All this was gasoline to fire up 12-year-old brains already fueled with pop culture space-lore on television, from spooky series like The Outer Limits and Fantasmic Features hosted by the lightbulb-headed creature-character Feep to the jokey adventures of the cartoon Jetsons and Space Family Robinson on Lost in Space (the more knowing science-fiction of Star Trek premiered in September that year).

     The Ducharmes and their older children would jump up and go to the railing facing south each time one of the parents called out about a streaking light over the cemetery a half-mile away. What’s that? It’s moving! They always swore they saw an orange blip inside the white dot. 

Farewell, Mark Schorr

I was saddened this week to hear of the passing of Mark Schorr. He was one of the finest persons I have known. Shocked to hear this. You never heard a discouraging word from Mark. He was the ultimate enthusiast and cosmically savvy. Poets were heroes to Mark. My Loom Press did his book "Bridges to Kerouac" two years ago. He was brilliant to work with. He urged me to work with him in producing the book on the instant book manufacturing machine at Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge, Mass., a marvel of technology. Mark knew the next new thing. Met him years ago during the Robert Frost Foundation beginnings. So generous, so kind, so true. He was a wonderful community person in Andover, Lawrence, Lowell. His spirit will be missed. Condolences to his family.

You can find several videos of Mark reading poems on YouTube.



I'm not insensitive to the condition of the White Working Class today, which as an identity politics category seems accepted by chin-stroking pundits in comparison to Environmentalists, now some kind of No Go Zone for political strategists if you listen to the opinion writers (Don't pander to those Green people). After the immigrant ancestors from cold Quebec in the 1880s, I'm a product of the Northeastern class of white workers who didn't make much money in the 20th century, just to be clear. That said, I've read and heard enough about hillbilly woes and the various justifications for the Rust Belt votes for president-elect Donald Trump. Whether it is another review of J.D. Vance's "Hillbilly Elegy" or semi-academic essays about why West Virginia turned against the national Democrats, the public conversation is saturated with talk and writing about one slice of the electorate. The demographic slice under the microscope is in danger of becoming as much of a cartoon as the 1960s TV show "The Beverly Hillbillies."

Poverty and social resentment are not exclusive to the upper central U.S. Poverty and resentment are not strictly white in racial terms. Lowell and the Merrimack Valley went through de-industrialization in the 1920s. The cliche' here is that the Great Depression (not Great Recession of recent) took hold here earlier and stayed longer than almost anywhere in the country (1920s to 1980-ish). While the city in those decades leaked about 20,000 people from its population high of 112,000 to a low of 92,000 around 1970, the community retained enough grit, drive, and imagination to find a way forward (matching some clever, sensible ideas with private and public money). In the mid-70s, Lowell's official unemployment rate was 12 percent, the highest in Mass. and one of the worst in the nation. The unofficial figure, including "discouraged workers," people working under-the-table, part-timers, and the underemployed, could have been another 10 percent. The economic circumstances of millworkers (I'm choosing that occupation because it was common) were as difficult if not worse than those of former steel workers, miners, appliance makers, and energy company employees in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio. There are people today struggling financially in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Vermont, Illinois, Colorado, New Mexico, Oregon, Minnesota (next door to Wisconsin), and everywhere, really.

While Greater Lowell is known to display at times a strong Republican streak, the larger river-valley communities and some towns pull for the Democrats. A lot of those "D" voters are descendants of mill workers from the classic red brick factories along the river, offspring of the survivors of cold-blooded financial moves of long-ago corporate deciders. The old mill towns, Gateway Cities in the new vocabulary of social-and-economic analysts, constitute a key piece of the current Democratic base in our state. I realize Massachusetts is not Kentucky. My fifth-generation American cousins mostly stayed around and found their ways to being cops, nurses, business owners, teachers, dentists, accountants, sales executives, technology industry workers---and their kids are computer engineers, landlords, soldiers, fire fighters, lawyers, software trainers, movie industry managers, and more. Several from the current generation have gone away farther than their parents to school and jobs. Some of my cousins chose Trump over Clinton, which would be worth hearing more about. But I don't see them acting out of desperation or anger in the most negative way, which has to be factored in. Some people simply voted for a big change or against the entire federal government system and its inhabitants. Vice President Biden said something similar about the motivations of the people he grew up with in Pennsylvania.

However, instead of another elegy for the hillbillies, how about a deeper dive into "mill-billy" culture and its trajectory? Is the Rust Belt's post-industrial process now in a comparable situation as 1950s Lowell-Lawrence, and can the miners learn from the Mill Belt experience? (My father was a tradesman in wool production during that time, regularly "laid off" because of business ups and downs. In the mid-1960s, his prospects were so bad here that for several years he took a much better paying job in California and was a migrant, in effect, for eight months each year, working as a wool grader for a huge sheep ranch cooperative in the Great Central Valley. My mother, who was employed as a women's clothing store sales clerk, would fly out every few months to stay with him a while. It was like he was in the U.S. Army again.)

Does it make a difference that the Merrimack Valley's early industrial growth was immigrant-fueled? Regarding the response to newcomers as job competitors, is there a qualitative difference between the original Yankee human stock here (from 1620s) and the Scots-Irish stock prevalent in Appalachia and surrounding states? We have had our share of tribalism and group prejudice here, too. There used to be Democratic votes a-plenty in some of those places that are deep Red for the GOP. Culture and religion come before politics most of the time. Did our modern-era religious mix in this region set us up for different outcomes compared to the fundamentalist practices in coal country? What is being noticed now that was there all along in the hills? The hillbilly votes have given us an unexpected political future. The pattern could hold for a while. We should look for commonalities, for lessons.

Three Blog Posts from 2009

In 2009, I was writing up a storm on the richardhowe.com blog. I had a routine of talking long walks on Sunday mornings, sometimes with a friend, and then writing about what I encountered around the city. Following are three posts from March 2009. A version of "Watching the Canalway" appears in my book Mill Power (2014) about the national park in Lowell. 

Centralville of the Universe

     My Sunday walking companion this week was a historian from Christian Hill who has embraced the city full-strength since moving here about four years ago. We rendezvous’d in front of Vic's (Breakfast, Subs & Bakery) at Lilley Avenue and West Sixth Street. Across the street the Lowell Provision Co. (est. 1915) with its longhorn steer logo advertised "Our own corned beef homemade red or gray" next to the leprechauns in the front window. Other signs pushed "Italian sausage hot or sweet," "Delicious prepared meals," and "Steak and chicken marinades."

     A couple of doors up on West Sixth, towards the Peter J. Deschene Memorial Fire Station, there are the Soap Box Laundry, Nana's American Store (African clothing, cosmetics, and handbags), and Sunrise Scrubs Boutique. Opposite is La Reneita Market and Restaurant (Pay your bills here/Paque sus quentas aqui) with "Spanish and American food," Michelle's Hair Salon, and Nails by Christina. Peniel Spanish Christian Church welcomes worshippers at the corner of Ennell and West Sixth.

     Across the intersection from Vic’s, where Aiken Avenue angles in, I saw the red, yellow, and green African continent logo of Auntie Rosie's Cultural Market (African and West Indian foods, clothes, and jewelry.) The neighborhood branch of Eastern Bank fills a silver cube between these small businesses and others lined along Lakeview Avenue. In the distance stands A. G. (Ace) Hardware. I'm fascinated by the micro-economy in the city. Every neighborhood includes clusters of small and tiny businesses, most of them owned I assume by residents who depend on the local patrons for earnings with which they pay the rent or mortgage, buy supplies and merchandise, make goods to sell, provide services, hire workers, etc. The Great Recession is changing their lives day by day.

     This being Jack Kerouac's birthday week, we walked northwest up Lakeview Ave. to make a brief pilgrimage to his birthplace at 9 Lupine Road, the small two-story brown house close to the corner of Orleans Street, which rises sharply and was a favorite sledding hill in my family when my brothers were young. I was too small to join in. We lived for a while at 67 Orleans before my father used his G.I. Bill veteran's benefits to buy a small ranch in the outer Navy Yard section of Dracut. Many of the French Canadian-Americans from St. Louis de France parish made the leap to suburbia in the 1950s. Ste. Therese parish up Lakeview Ave. was an ethnic and religious overflow from St. Louis. The family names were much the same in both Sunday Mass bulletins.

     The top of Orleans offers a panoramic view of the city, especially when the trees are bare. Down the other side, we followed Hildreth Street to the east and stopped at the old cemetery near Aiken Ave. The gate to the main section was open, so we took a look around. The adjoining Hildreth Family Cemetery, which was locked as usual, includes the imposing gray monument in honor of Benjamin F. Butler (lawyer, industrialist, general, governor). The gravestones are like fading photographs. The earliest one I saw was 1810 or so. Many of the names are venerable ones from Dracut, which was settled in the mid-1600s and incorporated in 1702. Coburn. Fox. There was an area of Peabody graves, not a name I associate with Greater Lowell. The phone book lists a handful. Several markers were broken, but the cemetery was in good shape for its age.

     We moved on and took a right that brought us to Homestead Road, which has a few distinctive compact houses that remind me of the small Victorians around a park in, I think, Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard. These small houses in Centralville are architectural curiosities as worker housing. We wound our way down Bunker Hill Street with its neat houses in a row and on past the shuttered St. Louis de France church. My companion lamented the loss of the imposing social edifices of such churches whose activities once stabilized and pumped energy into neighborhoods like this one. Today's Boston Globe article about the decreasing number of Catholics in Massachusetts underscores the changes.

     We moved deeper into the side streets and byways of lower Centralville, but that's for another report. In 90 minutes we covered a broad patch of a neighborhood that is in transition, a place remaking itself house by home, street by block. If every picture tells a story, in the words of the Rod Stewart song, then every window frames a drama. I think about that when I pass the buildings, each a container packed with history.

March 9, 2009

Watching the Canalway (with Apologies to Elvis C.)

     We had a pure blue near-spring morning for a Sunday walk that loosely traced the rough cut of a stretch of canal walkway along the midsection of the Pawtucket Canal. My walking partner this morning has expert knowledge of the Canalway, the official name of the system of canal-side paths that crisscross the city. We met on Jackson Street and traversed the Hamilton Canal District, where we may see some real construction start by late spring or early summer. There's a mini-industrial canyon vista up the Hamilton Canal with two remaining suspended walkways over the water. The area was fairly quiet at 8 a.m., with the Charter School not in session and the upper-story residents getting a slow start on Sunday. Photographer Jim Higgins calls this area the "last frontier" of Lowell's mill-scape. Once redevelopment begins, changes will come swiftly. The plan calls for extensive preservation and adaptive reuse—and even the protection of some of the factory ruins as architectural evidence of the scale of production once seen in this part of the city. These are the early mills: Hamilton Mfg. Co. (1825), Appleton Co. (1828).

     We walked over the Lord Overpass and crossed the invisible line between the Acre and the Lower Highlands. The sidewalk overlooks a subterranean section of Middlesex Street that you have to be looking for not to miss. Of note is the Nobis (sustainable) Engineering building, a historic rehab of the former Davis & Sargent Lumber Co.—which is being certified by the U.S. Green Bldg. Council as a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) project and may be the first LEED project in Lowell. Around the back rises an unusual chimney, and the side closest to the Boys and Girls Club is clad in corrugated metal that complements the cleaned-up brick and stone exterior of the original structure. The property backs up to what will be the Canalway path. Birds sang loudly in nearby trees. Next door, Kenny's Cleaners (leather and suede service center) occupies an impressive brick building whose weathered green window bays jut out, flanking a stone archway above the door. Behind the Boys and Girls Club back lot is jungle-thick brush, high twisted thickets and inter-wrapped branches that could hide any kind of wildlife.

     We popped out around the side of the Club, opposite Palin Plaza with its Asian angles and busy business cluster (Angkor Wat Realty, New Palin Jewelry, White Rose Restaurant, H & R Block, etc.). Roberto Clemente Park across the street was unusually deserted—it’s one of the most active parks in the city: basketball, skateboarding, volleyball, swings. California-based poet Tom Clark (who wrote one of the best biographies of Kerouac) has two memorable poems about the baseball legend Roberto Clemente. One short one goes this way: "won't forget/his nervous/habit of/rearing his/head back/on his neck/like a/proud horse." The other poem recalls Clemente's death in a plane crash at sea (near the so-called Bermuda Triangle) while on his way to deliver disaster relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua in 1972. Clark’s poem called "The Great One" concludes: "No matter how many times/Manny Sanguillen/dove for your body/the sun kept going down/on his inability to find it//I just hope those Martians realize/they are claiming the rights to/far and away the greatest rightfielder/of all time".

    At this spot, the Pawtucket Canal makes a broad curve around Western Avenue on the other side. In the early days of the National Park, tourists in the canal boats swinging up this way would often get waves from the workers in the Joan Fabrics plant when the windows were open. Today there are hundreds of artists working in studios in the massive industrial structure.

     Past Clemente Park, we slid down a side street (Saunders) that dead-ends at the canal, where there's a big old taxi barn for yellow cabs, and proceeded down Payne, where you begin to think that Lowell is the auto-body-repair-shop capital of the northeast. We've got Le's and Vo's and M & R and James Trinity bunched up. At the corner is School Street Light Truck Parts with a neat, compact operation that reminded me of Hampton Beach. Truck fronts and backs, cabs and rear ends, are stacked three high just like the shelves of boats at Hampton marina. A green canopy shields a row of tires. We noticed a funny juxtaposition of businesses in the building—upstairs are a chiropractor and a sign about accident treatment.

     We crossed the Korean War Veterans (School Street) Bridge and passed through the National Grid complex behind the Stoklosa School. When I was a kid, my father would drive our family over the original School Street bridge late on Sunday afternoons to get fresh, warm donuts from Eat-a-Donut farther down on School, and we'd eat them in the car. I liked the marshmallow and have never had one better. I also remember the huge gas tanks in the Lowell Gas Company complex on School Street. I can't remember if there were two or three reddish brown behemoths several stories high, which always looked a little ominous.

     We wound our way back up Willie and Franklin streets, where, on Franklin I'm pretty sure, there are two remarkable small stone houses on either side of a wooden house with a strange roof detail that reads "1902." From there we picked our way back to the recently completed section of the Canalway along the Western Canal at Suffolk Street, behind the American Textile History Museum, and then crossed Dutton to the Swamp Locks area and back to our starting point. The ice had not completely given up its hold on the canals, and we were surprised to see a beat-up blue rowboat trapped in the lower part of the Merrimack Canal. How did it get in there?

March 15, 2009

Hale-Howard Next Door Neighbors (a found poem)

Hood's Sarsaparilla

   Comfort Furniture





The Glory Buddhist Temple

   Buddy Elston Plumbing & Heating Supply

Clear Channel


Bangkok Market

   Buck's Bar & Grill

Flanagan Square

   Bridal by Bopha

MA-COM Technology Solutions

   119 Gallery, Where Art Meets Innovation

Tepthida Khmer Cuisine

   Monro Muffler Brake & Service

7 Eleven

   Palin Dental

Culligan Water Conditioning

   Morning Star Travel

March 25, 2009

'Back Pages': A Blog Post from 2008

This post appeared on the richardhowe.com blog in Lowell on December 31, 2008, shortly after I had become a regular contributor to the popular Lowell publication. 

Back Pages

My family’s house in the South Common Historic District was bought by my wife’s grandfather in the 1930's. The house was built for managers of the Appleton Mill Company in 1860. Occupants in the first 70 years left things behind. One curiosity is a shelf of books from the 1800's—random titles from personal libraries that got passed down as the house changed hands. That's my guess, unless one past occupant collected the mixed bag of books. Poking through the books again this morning, I was struck by some coincidental dates.

     There's a beautiful, three-inch thick copy of Byron's Complete Works, Illustrated (Phillips, Sampson and Company: Boston, 1854) signed: "Mrs. Sarah E. M. Goodrich, January 1st, 1855." This volume contains "unabridged, line for line, word for word, the complete works of Lord Byron" in 1,071 gilt-edged pages, including "his suppressed poems and a sketch of his life." We have a two-volume set of The Ingoldsby Legends; or, Mirth and Marvels by Thomas Ingoldsby, Esq. (The Rev. Richard Harris Barham), published by W. J. Widdleton of New York in 1866. These are illustrated stories in verse about French musketeers, knights and ladies, the Merchant of Venice, smugglers and buccaneers, jackdaws, witches, milkmaids and nurses, and ghosts. What caught my eye today is the inscription on the title page: "F. P. Putnam, Lowell, Dec. 31, 1867"—signed 141 years ago to this day. Sometimes History jumps into your hand.

     This is the same Mr. Putnam who inscribed another book "Frank P. Putnam, Christmas 1872, from Eliza." Frank received as a gift Rambles of an Archaeologist among Old Books and Old Places by Frederick William Fairholt, F.S.A., published by Virtue and Co. of London in 1871. A book written in French that seems to go with this one is L'Age du Bronze: Instruments, Armes, et Ornaments par John Evans D. C. L., L. L. D., published by Librarie Germer Bailliere et cie. of Paris in 1882. There's also The Monumental History of Egypt as Recorded on the Ruins of Her Temples, Palaces, and Tombs by William Osburn, R. S. L. (London: Trubner and Co., 1854). In the style of the time, several of these volumes have marbled or feather-design end papers in rich greens, blues, reds, and gold.

     Mr. P. had other interests also, because his name shows up in an unusual book, The Hasheesh Eater: Being Passages from the Life of a Pythagorean. In the vein of tales from the East, this mysterious author recounts the secret to the "Eastern narrative" and mind. His subject is "Cannabis Indica," the resin of which is hasheesh. He writes: "From time immemorial it has been known among all the nations of the East as possessing a powerful stimulant and narcotic properties ...." Harper & Brothers of New York published the book in 1857. The explorer proceeds with his narrative through stages of curiosity, ecstasy, pain, and torture to, finally, "abandonment of the indulgence." Sounds a little like a 19th-century version of the 1936 film classic Reefer Madness. Forget what you may have heard about Jack Kerouac experimenting with plants and chemicals. Is Putnam the missing link in “Beat” attitude in Lowell? In an Appendix, J.W. Palmer, M.D., citing medical journal articles and experiments in India, makes a case for medical use of the herb, all of which is oddly timely given the new law in Massachusetts regarding use of the substance.

     Putnam appears in real time in The History of Lowell and Its People by Frederick W. Coburn, volume III (Lewis Historical Publishing Company: New York, 1920). There's a full-page photo of him in business attire with a white handlebar mustache and a cigar in his hand. Here’s his profile:

     "Frank P. Putnam was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, November 15, 1848, and has ever resided in his native city and added to her mercantile greatness. He attended the public schools of the city, but at the age of fifteen years left high school to go into his father's store, business life greatly attracting him from boyhood. This was in 1863, or 1864, the clothing store of Addison Putnam [the oldest of Lowell's men's clothing and furnishing stores] then being located at the corner of Market and Central streets. He rapidly absorbed the principles upon which the business was conducted ... and upon arriving at legal age [became his father's] partner, the firm trading as Putnam & Son. [He later became president of Putnam & Son Company at 166-168 Central Street.]

     "Addison Putnam was a member of the Board of Aldermen for a time, but Frank P. has accepted no political office, but served the city for twenty-one years as a trustee of the Public Library. He is a director of the Appleton National Bank; trustee and vice-president of the Lowell Five Cents Savings Bank; director of the Traders' and Mechanics' Insurance Company of Lowell; and is a member of the Board of Trade. He is a thoroughly public-minded citizen, one who can be relied upon to aid in any movement promising better things for Lowell or the country-at-large. He is a Republican in politics.

     "In the not always peaceful arts of trade he has won eminence, and in his native city of Lowell is well known and highly esteemed as merchant and citizen. There are few men, who, if fortune had been kind to them in a financial way, but would develop some special interest which often amounts to a passion, sometimes a hobby. Mr. Putnam is not an exception, his passion being the cultivation of flowers, carnations, and single chrysanthemums being his specialty. Many are the prizes and first premiums which adorn his home, where four large greenhouses are stocked with the specimens and varieties which most appeal to the owner's tastes.

     "Mr. Putnam married, in Lowell, November 1, 1898 [at the age of 50], Sarah Barry. The family residence is at North Tewksbury, where the greenhouses are Mr. Putnam's especial pleasure, and a generous hospitality is extended."

December 31, 2008