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 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 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 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

'Frost and the Future': Notes, October 1998

In October 1998 I attended a lecture at the Robert Frost Festival in Lawrence, Mass. The featured speaker, Dr. Bonnie Costello, was invited by the Robert Frost FoundationThe following notes are direct statements by Dr. Costello or my paraphrasing of her remarks.

How does lyric poetry represent time? The moment, suspended out of the flow, is relived in memory. 

The Imagist poets threw out narrative in favor of presenting the ideal image which amounts to an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time. 

Robert Frost was interested in the boundless moment or moments. We are usually aware of time in a Frost poem.

With Frost it is often about going and coming back as opposed to linear time. It's not transcendental. Frost moves beyond by going inward. There are poems about being overtaken by the end. Anxiety. 

Poetry in a recursive shape (repeating) can give us a sense of something not being over or defeated.

Again, the going and coming back. Frost goes to the Dismal Swamp after being spurned by Elinor, then comes back. 

He heard voices that were not his own.

Frost's poems resist the countdown to zero. [What does this mean?]

Frost is a dramatic, a dialectic poet. He likes things in two's, pairs, couples. In "West Running Brook," a man and a woman have crossing views.

Coming 'round to completeness.

The sound of sense, meaning below the semantic level. Rhythms of conversation give their own meaning. Patterns of syntax and image: "chiasmus" [rhetorical figure in which words are repeated in reverse order]

Frost said we are extra-vagrant. Wanting to go beyond the familiar.

He said, "Earth is the right place for love," no need for transcendental experience of going beyond earth to get wholeness.

Desire exceeds the terminus of the will. End of will but not end of desire. Retain onward impulse.

Frost's poems have endings but they do not end. 

'White Sands': A Guide to a Museum Without Walls

This book review was first published in the Lowell Sun on August 30, 2016. I recommend Geoff Dyer's books in general, including The Missing of the Somme and Another Great Day at Sea.


"White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World," by Geoff Dyer (Pantheon Books, 2016, $25) 

By Paul Marion

The cultural critic Lucy Lippard describes the preserved sites and heritage displays in Lowell, Massachusetts, as "artworks," but ones that "diverge from the conventional museum and historical society." She says the story presentation is important because we "need to know others' histories." It's part Lowell being a highly charged place, one that can speak to us if we successfully plug in to the location.

In "White Sands," Geoff Dyer goes looking for meaning and to be moved by artworks and the residue of art-makers in places as different as Tahiti and The Watts Towers in California. He's on an eclectic tour of places animated by artists, from Paul Gauguin to Sam Rodia.

Given that Lowell has 500 or so visual artists and hundreds more musicians, dancers, writers, craftsmakers, actors, and other "creatives," Dyer's field reports should resonate especially well with those practitioners, not to mention the audience for creative work.

At "The Lightning Field" (1977), Walter De Maria's mile-sized rectilinear installation of 400 steel poles curated by the Dia Art Foundation in the New Mexico desert, Dyer and a few friends seek out what the unconventional sculpture is giving. And he it is almost ecstatic: "an intensity of experience that for a long time could be articulated only ... within the language of religion. The group is in awe."

In Utah, he tracks down "The Spiral Jetty" by Robert Smithson (1970), a stone spiral made at the Great Salt Lake, maybe the premier work of the Land Art movement of the '70s, of which Smithson was the foremost preacher. Again, an artist's intervention into a natural landscape turns up the vibe dial on the geographic site. These are major alterations at least in terms of what one person can do to the Earth. Dyer's lucid and evocative prose puts us in the scene.


Before he traveled to Tahiti, the author stopped at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts to see one of Gauguin's master works, "Where Do We Come From? Who Are We? Where Are We Going?" The vast painted lush vision of an ideal South Seas culture, with boldly colored foliage, women, and fruits was on loan at the time, but Dyer did see a copy in the Gauguin Museum in French Polynesia. I've seen the painting dozens of times. It's a favorite.

These questions are what Geoff Dyer is after in his stops along the curated way. His book becomes a four-star Acoustiguide in a museum without walls.

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'Bear-Shit-on-the-Trail' School of Poetry

One of my early influences when I began trying to write poems was the poetry of Gary Snyder from the West Coast of America, a friend to Jack Kerouac but not someone who wanted to be hemmed in by the Beat Generation-writer label. Kerouac had made him a minor literary legend with the portrait of Japhy Ryder, the mountain-climbing poet with the Zen soul in Dharma Bums, (1958) which paired with On the Road (1957) made Kerouac a must-read writer in the 1960s. I admired Snyder's spare, smart nature poems and enviro-political consciousness as well as his firm stance in support of community-building at the hyperlocal level. His book Turtle Island won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975, just when I was "getting" what he offered. It was one of my go-to books for a long time. I still buy every new Snyder book in hard cover and have a Snyder shelf in one bookcase.

Snyder's popularity sparked a following among young writers, guys particularly, who could not help themselves from emulating his work. Pretty soon there was a Snyder-type poem showing up in little magazines and chapbooks that was so prevalent that a mocking category of poem was coined by some critic: the bear-shit-on-the-trail poem. Knowing Snyder's sense of humor, I figure that he laughed about it. I wrote more than a few of those poems myself in the late 70s and early '80s when I was knocking around the northern precincts of New England, from Maine to Vermont. It was my semi-"rugged outdoors" phase before I went all in on the urban front in Lowell. After a while I was not yearning to camp out in the woods. 

Digging through old files this week, I found one of "those" poems typed on a page ready for submission to a literary journal when I was in graduate school in California in 1983. Here's the short composition, which even has the word "bear" in it. You can't make this up. I'm guilty as charged.

Bear Bells

on my pack


as I hike north

to that star

between the pines.

The Canalway (1987)

Here's a sketch built from notes I made on a walk-around of the canals in downtown Lowell on May 20, 1987. This is the first time it's been aired out.

Merrimack Canal-water is as dark as oil. You can see yourself in the mirror slick. Some days I enjoy this city and could walk the streets forever. The blue sky playing off red bricks from bank to bank boosts my attitude. I forget about the slimy waste-brown debris revealed in every drain-down. The pipes, tires, and nameless crap caught in the underflow. Other days I see a face I don't admire in the water's flat black, and feel like I should get the hell out fast. Where the canal current makes a right toward the Boott Cotton Mills, you find sections of quick water and bursts of foam. From a burnt-out gatehouse, the water throws itself down in greenish glassine bolts.

In front of RRR Records on Paige Street there's a tall woman with long black hair and an angular face. She's attractive in a fierce way, smoking a cigarette and maybe thinking about what dance club she and her guy will go to this Saturday night. She's familiar, and I may have seen her another day with girlfriends standing in front of the hair-dressing academy close to Cappy's Copper Kettle tavern.

Two kids fish off the Central Bridge, one has a sheath-knife. I follow the Eastern Canal past the Curran-Morton Warehouse, a huge rock-solid ten-story bunker with large holes punched in the backside and part of the roof bashed in. A couple of old-timers nose around the police barriers. Maybe they live in "elderly apartments" nearby. Life down here is a little less boring these days.

I meet the fishing boys again on the walkway over the Pawtucket Canal at Lower Locks. They climb down under the footbridge onto a chunk of land cropping out over the Concord River, running high this week. One boy casts his line with a long hiss. A full curtain of water spills over the Lower Locks dam. Looking up the Concord, I see water churning ahead of the famous confluence of Merrimack and Concord. 

At Jackson Properties, workmen relax on a small bridge over the Hamilton Canal, which feeds south from the Pellon Corporation. Yellow hard-hats sit on the railing. This is a school vacation day. Kids ride bikes in the middle of the streets when I cross into the Acre neighborhood. An Irish-looking girl in a pink running suit jogs toward me. I walk up to the Marion Street sign only to see that it has been spray-painted white on one side. The name is not my Marions. I'm not related to the old Swamp Fox of the Revolutionary War. 

Along the Western Canal in the Acre I pass a young Latino guy lugging a two-foot-long boom box at max volume. These banks were groomed in the 1970s and then let go. Benches and walkways remain. Between the lean stone tower of St. Patrick Church and the Grecian gold dome of Holy Trinity Church, Ecumenical Plaza spans the water. A couple of gray pigeons pace around pecking at bread crumbs. An uncle of mine who raises birds calls these "commies," short for common pigeons. In the right light you can see their iridescent neck feathers, shimmery blues and greens. Father along the canal a woman on a ladder fixes a window in "Cement City," the sprawling harsh-block housing complex that replaced part of the Little Canada enclave of wooden tenements. From the open back doors of her well-worn company van comes the sing-along ending of "Hey Jude" in all its rousing nobility. 

May 1987

Something for Democrats to Think About

I wrote this post for the blog in Lowell on August 11, 2016. Considering the presidential election result, it may be worth revisiting. Much of the post-election commentary from left, center, and right is sorting through the "big miss" by Democrats.---PM


August 11, 2016. I think this analysis by columnist Thomas B. Edsall in today’s NYTimes is too binary and too harsh on the Democrats coast to coast, but inside his argument are truths about trends and the record of priorities in the past 40 years, since Jimmy Carter’s presidency.

The TV show “All in the Family” with lead character Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor) was broadcast from 1971 to the early ’80s and captured effectively the Democrats’ problem. Here was a working-man character who should have been a solid Franklin D. Roosevelt-John F. Kennedy Democrat but who felt abandoned by what should have been his natural club and believed he was being shoved aside by activists in the commendable effort to liberate people who deserved more equal treatment in life. Archie was an avid Republican and Richard Nixon fan. I’m not saying Archie-type bigotry should be dismissed as harmless or his resentment applauded, but writing off the Archie-type is not helpful. My parents were of Archie’s “W-W-TWO” generation, and they managed to have a progressive view of change and fairness. They lived the Catholic value of love your neighbor. They watched Archie and laughed at him and sometimes griped with him. They didn't turn him off.

The national Democrats after the 1960s lacked the imagination and will required to get Archie Bunker into the party. While the circle of inclusion widened, not enough attention was paid to balancing the effects. More people deserved to be in the circle, whether in the country at first or in the world now, but the sharing of the “pie” has fallen disproportionally on persons with modest means and fewer competitive tools.  Even in the face of obstruction by the national Republicans, the Democrats in Washington, D.C., especially, should have at least been able to make a more compelling case that they had better answers for the problem of growing inequality and social alienation. For example, why didn't the Clinton Foundation based in Arkansas make its primary purpose the regeneration of the economy in the surrounding "red states" and nearby Rust Belt? The work in the U.S. is dwarfed by the Foundation's international efforts. 

That said, I think the partisan re-sorting has more to do with the national GOP’s racially coded “Southern Strategy” that poured gasoline on flaming resentments, as well as a cynical rejection of scientific inquiry and findings in favor of a faith-based reality. And the Southern Strategy was then applied in other regions as an accelerant for class strife, which is doubly cynical for a party that pretends there is no upper class, only “job-creators.”

Here’s the article.

My Book Review of Annie Proulx's "Barkskins"

This book review appeared in the Lowell Sun on Sept. 27, 2016.

Annie Proulx Says Don't Break the Forest

by Paul Marion

"Barkskins" by Annie Proulx (717 pp., Scribner, $32.00)

I once stood next to Annie Proulx for a group photograph at a Franco-American writers gathering in New Hampshire. At the time a rising author with a novel and a story collection, she would be a cultural celebrity with The Shipping News and a Pulitzer Prize just two years later.

Her willingness to drive over from Vermont to join other Franco writers with little or no reputation proved she cared about her Canadian roots. She wanted to connect.

She writes about her identity, half French-Canadian, in her book Bird Cloud (2014), describing "rootless people who have no national identity" and quoting Jack Kerouac about the "horrible homelessness of all French-Canadians abroad in America."

With her new novel, "Barkskins," Proulx turns that attitude around with an epic tale that fills in centuries of blanks and provides a rough-as-bark narrative of the industrious French making a place for themselves in North America.

All this at the expense of the seemingly limitless forests and furred animals of the northeast and later timber spreads overseas.

I was astonished by the sentences in The Shipping News, language that is extravagant, muscular, and often shimmering in its freshness, which also holds true for this book.

Touted as her masterwork, the new story follows Rene Sel and Charles Duquet from their scrappy start in 1690s New France (Kanata to the native peoples) through their respective descendant lines into the 2000s.

Ambitious settlers, unlike the tribal occupants, believed the vast dense boreal forest of eastern Canada and New England had been waiting for someone to dominate Nature and turn the splendid trees into money.

In her entertaining and instructive book, Proulx winds the clock back on the cause of today's climate change and has enough pages to bring us full circle to the contemporary Sels doing reforestation from Nova Scotia to Sumatra.

Through the decades, the Duquets morph into the Dukes as their rapacious business empire expands. There is enough bad karma in their genealogical cart to warrant the end Proulx scripts for them.

The Sels, married early into the local Micmac culture, fare less well materially but rely on the woods and forest wisdom on their journey.

Superb in her rendering of places, Proulx moves the reader from Quebec and Boston to Amsterdam, China and New Zealand, taking us through wilderness, pre-industrial cities, and oceans.

When a hole showed up in the ozone due to the tonnage of chemicals that humans sprayed into the air, somebody lamented, "We broke the sky."

That hole appears finally to be closing according to NASA.

Proulx's driven and at times stumbling characters help us see how breaking the forest to spur progress is ruinous.

In the end, the scientist Sapatisia Sel cries out, "Can't we try again?"

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Another Notebook Poem (1984)

I was in Southern California in 1983 and '84, studying in the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program at the University of California, Irvine, and living in Dana Point, about halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego. Capistrano Beach is one of the local beaches. Here's a poem from February 1984, right out of a notebook. 

The Holy Ghost at Capo Beach

The Father dressed in black jersey and black pants rolled to the knees

Walks up the sand out of morning haze beginning to burn off,

And two persons he had embraced near the waves stand talking

In fog that looks like what ghosts and souls are said to look like.

Digging in the Notebooks

I've been looking through old notebooks and found this poem I'd forgotten about in a notebook from 1989. I traveled to Virginia and North Carolina for a conference and to interview a folklorist that I know. I stayed at my brother's house in Farmville, Virginia, where he and wife were college teachers. I was surprised to learn about the communitarian Moravians around what is now Winston-Salem, N.C. The snark may be a bit too much here, but sometimes you can't leave it on the field.

Don’t Tell Jesse Helms

 A hummingbird sucks red syrup from a tube at a brick bungalow

Where I’m hearing one of the region’s foundation stories.

Mud-green ceramic catfish decorate an heirloom sideboard.

On the Salem side of a Carolina city branded by tobacco,

There’s an old part settled by Moravians, neighbors of the Bohemians,

United Brethren who favored a ritual “lovefeast” of sweet buns and wine.

The German Protestants who walked south from Pennsylvania

Made a church community whose history museum today

Says those early Americans believed in radical sharing:

From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.

My Book Review: 'American Philosophy: A Love Story' by John Kaag

Philosophy professor John Kaag of UMass Lowell has written a wonderful book about his experience putting his emotional-and-intellectual self back together again several years ago. The New York Times Book Review carried a positive and long notice about the book yesterday. Here's my review from the Lowell Sun on Oct. 25.

Life Is Worth Living, With Zest

by Paul Marion

"American Philosophy: A Love Story" by John Kaag (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016), $26.

It's a memoir. It's a love story. It's a buried treasure tale. It's a philosophical tract. It's a group biography.

UMass Lowell philosophy professor John Kaag melds these forms into a lucid account of a troubled man finding his way back to clarity of mind on a path that runs from Harvard University to the White Mountains and over to O'Leary Library at UMass Lowell.

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1975), author Robert Pirsig journeys across western America and thinks about the meaning of life.

He writes, "The real cycle you're working on is a cycle called yourself" as he seeks a unified sense of being and along the way contemplates Plato's dialogues and the Greek notion of "arête" that joins reason and beauty. He calls this conceptual sweet spot "Quality."

That wasn't the only time a popularly published book delved into philosophy in story form, but I was reminded of Pirsig while reading John Kaag's "American Philosophy: A Love Story."

The book is another kind of search for meaning after personal suffering, in this case Kaag's existential crisis at 30 years old that leaves him emotionally and intellectually adrift.

For Kaag, the question is not "How shall we live?" but, "Shall we live?" or specifically "Is life worth living," the William James question that drives this narrative.

The buried treasure at the center of the story is a precious pile of books moldering away in the New Hampshire forest, a trove assembled by William Ernest Hocking (1873-1966), longtime Harvard teacher and noted philosopher himself.

First editions of Kant, Emerson and the above-mentioned James, a Hocking mentor, are among the thousands of volumes shown to Kaag by 93-year-old Bunn Nickerson, who had lived on Hocking land.

Aware of the value in front of him, Kaag committed to protecting Hocking's library with the family's endorsement. He immersed himself in the effort, thankful for the concrete purpose.

In the process, he regained his psychic balance and even found his way back to loving when his colleague, Carol, offered to help with the books. She gave him zest.

Handling the consequential books, he re-engaged with many of the ideas that had formed him, and in American Philosophy he tells us why these ideas remain urgent.

Thanks to the Hocking family's generosity, some of the rarities, including a 1651 first printing of "Leviathan" by Thomas Hobbes, now reside at UMass Lowell, where students can experience for themselves the mysterious power of potent books.

Kaag recently co-authored an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education in which he and Clancy Martin ask if professors like themselves are teaching students enough about "the big questions that matter most," such as "why are we here?"

It's the teacher in him who did the work to rescue those old books and who wrote "American Philosophy" in a form that increased the likelihood of more of us reading about transcendent questions.    

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Website Re-Launch

With a lot of help from Gerry Nelson of HeartStudio in Amesbury, Mass.,I have re-launched the website with a new format and fresh images. This has been a long-standing renovation project, so it is good to see the result. My goal is to make this site hum and buzz with interesting and useful information that will bring viewers and readers to the pages. I have a lot of catching up to do, but now I have time to invest in building this site. People can reach me through Facebook and my regular email, My Twitter account got hacked a while back, and I'm still repairing the damage, so I'm not up on that universe at the moment. My blog here will be the thing to watch going forward. I'll cross-post on Facebook when I have something new. Thanks for looking in. --- Paul Marion