'Big Sky Country'

Jennifer Myers of Dracut, Mass., late yesterday posted on her Facebook page a photograph of a fabulous sunset in Lowell, Mass. Her picture made me think of this poem I wrote in the late 1980s. The speaker in the poem is in a car in the middle of the O’Donnell Bridge (Mammoth Road/School Street bridge) and looking upriver into the western sky. I was fortunate enough to have the poem published in Beat Scene magazine in Coventry, England, and then reprinted in a small pamphlet of poems that I released in 1995 called Hit Singles.

Big Sky Country

A painter said Lowell has wonderful skies.

Crimson smear, fronds of gold westerly,

Pigment squeezed out and runny.

My viewpoint is mid-bridge in traffic—

The skinny winter no competition

For minutes of imported pleasure.

A slow quake up high.

Fissured acres of cobalt, scarlet, purple.

In one sound the vehicles accelerate:


'Bottled Milk'

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My family moved from a declining factory city to a rural town in 1956, from Lowell to close by Dracut, Mass. The communities were established in 1826 and 1701, respectively. The English had been in those woods since the 1650s. Pennacook people (Pawtucket and Wamesit tribes) had lived in Augumtoocooke for thousands of years.

I grew up in Dracut from the age of two through my college years. The neighborhood’s colonial-era name was New Boston Village, but that wasn’t used when I was there. We didn’t have a name for the land immediately around us. Sometimes I wonder if it would have made a difference in my consciousness to know such things when I was a kid. In my French Catholic elementary school the nuns never talked about the town. We knew more about Bethlehem and the Sea of Galilee in the Middle East than we did about local roads and ponds. In Boy Scouts we learned a few Indian words. We recognized history around us in Dracut: old farmhouses, worn gravestones, boulders from the glacier. The stories and details were beyond those of us who were part of the large migration to the suburb. Finally, one high school teacher offered a course on Lowell-Dracut History. Madeleine McLaughlin was inspired by the grassroots movement in Lowell to rediscover the city’s history, a ten-year effort that led to the creation of a national park commemorating the Industrial Revolution. She believed her students at Dracut High should know something about where they lived.

The Dracut custom is to name sections of town, not typical neighborhoods because the sections are so large. Officially, my house was at the far northern end of the Navy Yard section, bumping against the state line at Pelham, New Hampshire, and meeting the southern border of the Collinsville section of town. (Explaining “Navy Yard” would take a longer post.)

A house builder or “contractor” as such persons were called in those days named the land uphill from my house Crosby Heights for old Crosby Road where dozens of small ranch- and cape-style homes were built in the late ‘50s through mid-’60s when the first suburban wave crested. Some vintage maps show the name Winter Hill, but we never heard that.

The lowland had Hildreth Street intersecting one end of New Boston Road. Halfway down New Boston, running west, was Shaw Farm, a longtime dairy farm with delivery trucks whose owner modernized the business with a bustling farm store stocking milk, ice cream, frozen home-made foods, jams and jellies, and more items. Years after leaving Dracut, I regularly returned to Shaw’s for nostalgic reasons and because the products are first-rate. After one of those visits I wrote this prose poem, which is included in my recent book Union River.

Bottled Milk

ALL SEEMS RIGHT on this summer evening—the sky streaked blue and rose. Easy air draws me out back to see the cows. Bothered by flies, a black calf rubs its head against a fence rail. Odors of grass, feed, and animals mix into one healthy country smell. Up the hill behind the barn a trail leads to a cemetery with many illegible stones, others with chiseled verse, and a few that say, “Gone Home.”

A dozen cars are notched in around the farm store on New Boston Road. Here, not far from the city beat, I stand in the dirt and sense the natural loop, the closed circuit that runs from rain to bread, from clover to cheese. This is the earth’s milk. This is the town feeding itself, the people feeding the people. This is the curve of the world. Town is a rounded word and world, from the Old English, meaning enclosed place, homestead, village. City is from the Latin for state and citizen—it’s linear, laws, an idea.

In a few months the farmer will set out hundreds of pumpkins for adoption by people who will place them on the front steps in descending order, the largest for the head of the household, smallest for the baby or cat. Pint-sized pumpkins will be given to third grade teachers. Pies will feature the orange pulp. Then vines will be plowed under, Halloween torn from the calendar. And I’ll step out of the store in the early darkness, holding a milk bottle by the neck in each hand like cold white lanterns.

Jack Kerouac's October

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Twenty years ago this month, selections of Jack Kerouac’s early work appeared in Atop an Underwood: Early Stories and Other Writings (Viking/Penguin), which I had the great good fortune to edit.

Kerouac loved the month of October, which shows up in his prose and poetry including On the Road, where he writes: “In inky night we crossed New Mexico; at gray dawn it was Dalhart, Texas; in the bleak Sunday afternoon we rode through one Oklahoma flat-town after another; at nightfall it was Kansas. The bus roared on. I was going home in October. Everybody goes home in October.”

The mighty month of October is fall, football, Halloween ghosts, New England’s red and yellow leaves, remembrance of summer joy and wistful thoughts of coming winter.

October is the annual Kerouac literary festival in his hometown, Lowell.

The excerpt below is from one of his poems written in 1941. He was nineteen years old.

from “Old Love-Light”

I thought the lonely little

houses, lost in the middle

of great tawny grass,

shaggy copper skies and

mottled orange forests, were

full of humanity that

I was missing. Instead, the

writer informed me that

it was chlorophyll that

colored the leaves. I

thought I had all the

significance of October

under my hat & pasted.

I thought that October

was a tangible being,

with a voice. The

writer insisted it was

the growth of corky cells

around the stem of the

leaf. The writer also

said that to consider

October sad is to be

a melancholy Tennysonian.

October is not sad, he

said. October is falling

leaves. October comes

between Sept. and Nov. I

was amazed by these facts,

especially about the

Tennysonian melancholia. I

always thought October was

a kind old Love-light.

—Jack Kerouac (1941)

Return of the South Common Haiku

When this haiku popped up on my Facebook memory prompt this morning, it was as if I was seeing something written by someone else until it came into focus. I knew I had done the South Common haiku, but this one from 2012 had slipped out of my brain cave. If I had remembered it, I could have included it in my recent collection Haiku Sky from SuperLargePrint.com. Here’s a link to order the book for anyone who is interested in seeing more. The photo below is out-sized for the small poem, but maybe that’s good for a haiku that mentions ants.

South Common, Lowell, Mass., courtesy of Wikipedia.com

South Common, Lowell, Mass., courtesy of Wikipedia.com

Ant mills on the slope,

symmetrical, by the book.

Two guys sleeping out.

Pete Seeger and Civics


This is an excerpt from a memory book I’m writing about being a kid and young adult in Dracut, Mass., a semi-rural suburb of Lowell, the textile-mill city where my ancestors had lived since leaving Quebec, Canada, in 1880 to seek opportunities in America. In 1956, when I was two years old, the populations of both places were approximately 9,000 and 95,000, respectively. The town boomed to 21,000 people by the time I moved away at twenty-four. My public high school class had 330 students. The course offerings included accelerated math and science courses as well as foreign languages, including Russian. It was the Space Age, and we had a Cold War with the Soviets, after all, plus the war in Vietnam. The country was modern and moving forward. I was inclined toward politics and government after seeing President John F. Kennedy in action. That set me on a path to being a class officer in high school and an attempt to be elected to the town school committee when I was eighteen years old. In the ninth grade, I had civics, taught by my baseball coach, a course I wish I could have taken each year at levels of increasing difficulty. I was too young to march in the streets in the turbulent 1960s, but I found another way to get engaged in community affairs. It was a start.

Pete Seeger and Civics

BEFORE SUMMER VACATION BETWEEN JUNIOR AND SENIOR YEARS OF HIGH SCHOOL, my guidance counselor, Gertrude Belanger, told me she had recommended my classmate Dan Wyman and me to the Leo C. Roth American Legion Post in Dracut as candidates for the annual Boys State convention at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Seventeen-year-olds named by local Legion posts gathered for four days in a mock state government competition to learn about representative democracy and civic values. The local post sent Dan and me to the gathering, all expenses paid. We were opposites, with Dan being reserved and focused on doing well in his studies, sometimes wearing a dark suit and tie with white dress shirt to school, while I had dived into school activities by my junior year, not too concerned that I wasn’t in the top math class. For their reasons, the Guidance Department staff zeroed in on us for the civics camp.

Boys State is the same program that put young Bill Clinton’s hand in President Kennedy’s hand at the White House, a moment of inter-generational contact preserved in a photograph that became iconic after Clinton won the presidency. The American Legion initiated Boys State in 1935 in response to the Young Pioneer training camps in the Soviet Union, a popular youth program sometimes compared to boys and girls scouting programs in the U.S., but with socialist political theory instead of the American civic creed informing the experience. Two years later, the American Legion Auxiliary sponsored Girls State with All Girls Nation as the culminating event. In 2011, Massachusetts held its first combined Boys and Girls State gathering.

Young Bill Clinton meets President John F. Kennedy during his Boys Nation visit to Washington, D. C., in 1963 (Web image courtesy of cbsnews.com)

Young Bill Clinton meets President John F. Kennedy during his Boys Nation visit to Washington, D. C., in 1963 (Web image courtesy of cbsnews.com)

     Participants at Boys State enact a convention-type situation where they caucus, nominate candidates, campaign for votes, and elect a slate of state senators and executive officers up to governor, plus two U.S. senators who go to Boys Nation in Washington. Our kid-governor John Pothier stayed in the same dorm as I did. He was a star from day one: bright, articulate, and appealing as a kid from a TV show.

     The Boys State counselors were not American Legion-types at all, but more like hotshot campaign operatives. One of them, Lawrence “Larry” DiCara, a short guy whose dark hair was already receding, won a seat on the Boston City Council at age twenty-two and became well known in state politics. He had been to Boys State in 1966 and returned as a counselor, remaining active in the program for decades. One counselor heard that Pete Seeger, a folk music legend by then and survivor of the American communist hunts of the 1950s, was on campus for an environmental conference. A few years before, he and his supporters had adopted the polluted Hudson River in nearby upstate New York as a public cause. Green activists sailed the sloop Clearwater, a replica of historic river ships, up and down the Hudson promoting its clean-up and heightened ecological consciousness about the planet.

Pete Seeger singing “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” (Video courtesy of Percivaldurham on YouTube)

     Seeger agreed to give an impromptu concert in a campus auditorium. In our red trimmed Boys State T-shirts, we walked from the dorm in a group. Tall and skinny as a broom handle, Seeger wore a light short-sleeved shirt and dark pants and played all the familiar songs, from “If I Had a Hammer” to “This Land Is Your Land,” and “Little Boxes.” We sang along, glad protestors. Legion officials in the back looked on approvingly. Pete must have thought, “A concert for the American Legion kids. Times really have changed.” Picking banjo notes, Seeger began “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” a song we recognized from the Peter, Paul, and Mary recording. When he got to the lines “Where have all the soldiers gone?/Gone to graveyards every one./ When will they ever learn?” some of us cried a little inside knowing that the fight in Vietnam was raging and that we would soon be subject to the military draft lottery. A few Legionnaires looked down at their shoes.

We were in the flow of death and destruction. In June 1971, 239 Americans were killed in the war. Another 441 died that summer. South Vietnamese military casualties topped 700. The military reported more than 18,000 killed or wounded for Vietcong and North Vietnamese army fighters. Civilian casualties were said to be in the hundreds, but that statistic seems low to me.

From the 1972 Yearbook of Dracut High School.

From the 1972 Yearbook of Dracut High School.

     The national voting age dropped to eighteen years old the month I turned eighteen in January of my senior year in high school. In March, I announced as a candidate for town school committee, possibly the youngest person in the state at the time to run for office. The war has pressed the politicians to lower the voting age. If you could be shipped to Vietnam to face bullets and mines and be asked to kill, then how could the politicians stop you from having a say in the matter at the ballot box? Similar logic led Massachusetts politicians to lower the drinking age in the state to eighteen, another lucky happening for me when my birthday came around in 1972. My friends and I took full advantage of being legal. Doors were opening. Permissions were granted. I had a taste of school politics from our student government involvement with the elected officials. The process had been demystified. If my friends and I could vote now, why not take the next step? The national and state news was churning. President Kennedy’s words burned in my mind: “Ask what you can do for your country.” I was in a hurry.

Late getting into the school-committee race, I paid a local printer to produce stickers that matched the ballot format and could be licked and stuck to the ballot in the place for “other”—and then X’d by a voter. I ran against an otherwise unopposed veteran school committee member, Bernard Bettencourt, a fine man active in town and school affairs. I told the Sun newspaper that I was running to give voters a choice and to encourage my generation-mates to get involved in politics. I banged together a few campaign signs in my cellar. My classmate Gregg Otto put one in his yard on busy Sladen Street near the Goodhue School. I staked one on my front lawn. The race included a candidates’ night speaking program at the Greenmont Avenue School cafeteria. Each candidate for the board of selectmen and school committee had seven minutes to talk. After making general comments about school policies and pitching for a larger budget, I closed with a quote by Thucydides on the Funeral Oration of Athenian leader Pericles in 431 B.C.—

     “Our citizens attend both to public and private duties, and do not allow absorption in their own various affairs to interfere with their knowledge of the city’s. We differ from other states in regarding the man who holds aloof from public life not as quiet but as useless.”

     A dozen of my friends helped the campaign, skipping school to distribute stickers at voting places on election day. Bernard defeated me 4,000 to 400, approximately. We had a little party at my house for the campaign team. Fresh from the spring election, I showed up at the annual Town Meeting and spoke in favor of increased school funding. I have no idea what the principal and vice principal thought of my activism. I was revved up. They never spoke to me about it.

     That past January also marked the end of draft call ups, the conveyor belt to the Vietnam War. I caught a gigantic break. President Nixon announced a halt in what may have been a cynical attempt to defuse anti-war protests and, more of a reach, an appeal to young people for support in the November election. In 1969, responding to criticism that the military draft was unfair, Congress had changed the system to one of random selection. To that point, college students, for example, received “deferments” while in school, making them a protected category at a time when the war was increasingly deadly.

For the lottery, sealed envelopes with birth dates inside were pulled from a tumbling drum in Washington, D. C. Anyone with a number below one hundred expected to be called up and sent for a physical examination prior to induction into the military. In the year I was eligible to be drafted, my birthday, January 26, was the thirty-sixth number pulled from the drum. The Selective Service chief kept choosing numbers even though the actual draft process had been suspended. Just in case. Not all of my peers dreaded the draft. Some of them came from families with a tradition of military service. Others heard a particular call to serve. Several classmates enlisted in the Air Force, Marines, and Army.

I had been so concerned about being drafted that I had applied to only one school, Merrimack College, a small Catholic liberal arts school in the area. I had expected a momentous decision point: report for military service or drive north to Canada to avoid the draft. Spared that choice, I felt even more responsible to make a contribution with the gift of time that I had received.

     My brothers’ experiences were different. A stroke of grace saved Richard, who reported for his military physical stricken with kidney stones and using a cane to walk. He received a medical deferment. He recovered and was able to continue with his public-school teaching job. After college, David, who had been living in New Hampshire, a college student on the way to graduate school, joined the National Guard in that state as an alternative to the draft. He landed one of the limited number of slots and reported for duty. David was assigned to an artillery company, completed ten weeks of Basic Training, and for six years did two weeks of field training and monthly weekend shifts. To this day his hearing is not right because of repeated exposure to cannon fire.

I had come a long way from writing an eighth-grade term paper in favor of the war, complete with a collage of combat pictures cut from Time and Life magazines on the cover page. I had read and re-read PT-109 about Navy Lieutenant, junior grade, John F. Kennedy and Guadalcanal Diary along with other accounts of my father’s war, World War II. While I was checking out those books at the Dracut library, I picked up brochures for the Green Berets, the elite Special Forces soldiers who were among the first American forces on the ground in South Vietnam. It would take the turmoil of 1968, assassinations, riots, political chaos at the Democratic Party convention in Chicago, for my judgment to mature and political views to become more critical concerning the war.

Between the ages of fourteen and eighteen, I moved from being a middle-of-the-road Democrat to the anti-war wing of the party and favored reforms promoting social justice. I didn’t know where else to begin other than town politics, the place to put civics into action. It was time to run for office, serve on committees, do the small “d” democratic work day to day. As I had done for years in the classroom, I raised my hand, this time to volunteer for community service.

'Long Purples'

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My wife Rosemary and I live in a townhouse condo atop a former ski slope in Amesbury, Mass., just uphill from the compact but busy downtown. Called Powwow Hill for the original residents in this area, the 330-foot hill is crowned with a small public park and woods that are home to foxes, deer, and all kinds of birds. Across the road from our home is a wide swath of grasses and wildflowers, including purple loosestrife which blooms along an engineered drainage ditch that follows the road. Seeing the purple streaks among the dense growth with daisies, black-eyed Susans, and Queen Anne’s lace, I was reminded of this prose poem from many years ago.

Long Purples

PEOPLE WRITE LETTERS TO WRITERS, and sometimes the mail is a gift. Not long ago, Bill Martin wrote to tell me that he’d read a poem of mine that begins with an image of purple loosestrife growing between the stones in the Merrimack riverbed. He described the genesis of purple loosestrife in the valley, the flashy plant that runs wild every summer.

     A beekeeper who worked in a local mill learned that bees were drawn to purple loosestrife. “When a large shipment of wool bales came from Australia, he knew it would contain loosestrife seeds,” Bill explained, “Australia being the only place on earth that grew this wonderful plant. He swept the floors after the bales were opened and washed, took home bags of dirt and seeds from the floor, and piled it around his hives. That year, plenty of loosestrife grew, and he sold the seed around the world through a beekeeping magazine, becoming quite famous in those circles.” The farm was in Chelmsford, near the cloverleaf of routes 495 and 3.

    That’s not the only story of the origin of the loud purple flowers. Historians say the seeds were embedded in wool shipped from England to the valley’s textile mills. Long purples, as they are known there, grow in the English countryside. Shakespeare mentions the wildflower in one of his plays. A writer-friend says her mother in Dracut calls the plant “mill weed” and seconds the Australian wool story. My oldest brother swears he was told the seeds had come east on the wings of airplanes flying across country from California during World War II.

     The Latin words for the plant are Lythrum salicaria. Loosestrife itself is a translation of lysimachia, a genus of plants named for Lusimakhos, the Greek doctor credited with its discovery. The plant was used as a tranquilizer for animals and a nerve tonic for people—a remedy for stress. North American field guides call it an “alien plant” or an “imported European.” The sturdiest type thrives in southern Canada, the American Midwest, and throughout the Northeast. Local naturalists despise the invasive loosestrife for the way it crowds out native species.

     When a friend of mine from Los Angeles visited in deep summer, she praised the strange, prolific plant. Seeing the rocky bed of the river streaked purple, she said the loosestrife should be on the town seal. Some folks consider loosestrife a weed, not purple tuning forks vibrating with the memories of no-school seasons. I know a teacher who says the ugly color signals the end of vacation.

     The flowers rise in July, just before native corn hits the stands. Patches decorate side roads. Purple veins trace a brook into the woods. Like dog-day torches of summer, loosestrife ignites the ditches and flares across fields of wild grass and brush. I almost expect to hear the sirens of fire engines rushing to extinguish the blazing color.

     The mill that beekeeper worked in was the same mill in which my father worked as a wool grader for most of his life. The mill was a hot, stinking place in July. When I was eighteen, I tended machines in the basement for two days before quitting. My father brought home colorful foreign stamps torn from sample bags of wool shipped to the mill. Another man found the seeds of purple loosestrife.


Farewell, Charles Nikitopoulos, Humanitarian and Poetry Fan

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This post appeared first on the RichardHowe.com blog in Lowell, Mass.

My friend and mentor Charles Nikitopoulos of Lowell, Mass., passed away a few days ago. His obituary is here. He came to Lowell at six years old from Greece, and made a life and a living in the city. I never met a better person. He was the definition of humanitarian and citizen, on top of being the kind of husband, father, grandfather, friend, teacher, runner, and gardener that we all want to be.

I have a hundred things to say about Charlie, and will say more his contributions to the community and UMass Lowell in a follow up post on this blog, but I know him well enough to think he might want me to start by posting a poem in tribute to him. He sometimes commented on posts on the Howe blog under the name Kosta. He was Internet-savvy very early. I can hear him saying, “Paul, put up a poem on the blog.”

Of all the activities Charlie was engaged in, he had a special place for poetry in his personal journey. He found dozens of opportunities to bring poets and poems into the life of the city, from events sponsored by the Hellenic Culture Society to his editorial work on the innovative online bioregional journal at UMass Lowell called The Bridge Review. Charlie read American and world poets. He wrote haiku and other poetry. In his house in the Highlands neighborhood, one bookcase has a long shelf of poetry books that he collected and referred to regularly. He pushed for Lowell to establish a Poet Laureate position. As I mentioned, I’ll write another post with more recollections about him.

Charlie organized events that brought Cleopatra Mathis; Yale Prize-winners Nick Samaras, Olga Broumas, and Michael Casey; Joseph Donahue III; and many other writers to local audiences. He always looked for a place for poetry in the community. It was part of his community psychology vision for a thriving, compassionate community. Bread and Roses (America). Loaves and Hyacinths (Persia).

Here’s one of Charlie’s poems from The Bridge Review(1998 issue). He wrote this in a writing workshop sponsored by the Hellenic Culture Society, which included Mary Sampas, Walter Bacigalupo and Mary Bacigalupo, Xanthe Mangiavas, Eleni Zohdi, and others.

Tomatoes, Tea, and Beer

Every summer I grew my father’s tomatoes.

I trimmed, weeded, and watered,

And planted in the most sunny spaces,

Usually, to no avail.

Every summer in a shady yard

Behind a five-family on Lombard Street,

My father grew his giant super-red tomatoes.

I remember him sitting in his chair,

Sipping Lipton tea while tomatoes grew.

This summer, after an inconvenient illness,

Rainy weather, and non-weeding,

I discovered that tomato vines dutifully

Support morning glories. Sometimes,

Sipping a Sam Adams in my backyard chair,

I marvel that Polivios never grew more morning glories.


—Charles Nikitopoulos


Now here’s one for Charlie. In 2004, Athens, Greece, hosted the summer Olympics. Organizers in the Greek-American community in Lowell produced a companion event at the Lowell High School auditorium with songs, dances, and more. I’m of French Canadian-American background, 100 percent, but have always been welcomed warmly in the Greek community in Lowell, which explains why I was invited to write something for the Lowell celebration, a local cultural Olympics. I didn’t know what to write for the special occasion until I found myself in a plane descending on Montreal, Canada, and saw the stadium built for the Olympics in 1976. And I thought about those cultural Olympians in the Hellenic community in Lowell, of whom Charlie was a leading light. Charlie was a culture-keeper, a memory worker who looked forward as much as to the past.

Listening as a Sport

“We know it; we are time.”—Cavafy

On a morning when ponds near Montreal are giving up their ice,

The Air Canada jet banks low over the white stadium

Docked like a mythic ship on the old Olympics site.

I close the in-flight magazine, whose cover touts the coming Athens games,

Contests that will write themselves into the record in this jagged time.

In places like Lowell, pride will power interest.

Greek and non-Greek, we’ll all be philhellenes until the flame recedes.

Among the most devoted spectators will be the cultural regulars

Who fill city auditoriums, galleries, and theaters.

They lean in to catch each gesture.

They squeeze story-sponges when they talk and teach.

In a city of 100,000 souls, forty of the faithful take in

A documentary about Sparta on a rainy night downtown.

Eighty crowd a cooking demonstration at a church festival.

Two busloads of them ride to Manhattan to see Mycenaean art.

At a piano recital, 200 applaud for a Greek-American prodigy.

They are the muscular memory workers—

As elite as Kenyan runners in every April’s marathon.

Make room for these champions when the anthem resounds.


—Paul Marion


'Haiku Sky' and SuperLargePrint.com

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‘Haiku Sky’ and SuperLargePrint.com

My new collection of poems is published by Brendan Gaylord of SuperLargePrint.com, a specialty publisher of books featuring extra-large print, twice the size of the large-print books available in public libraries, for people with sight challenges. Brendan takes books and parts of books that are in the public domain, meaning beyond copyright restrictions so that anyone can bring them into print, and produces his extraordinary volumes to serve a slice of the reading public. He began making one-off books for his grandmother when her eyes were weakening and she still wanted to read from actual books. From there, he realized a business opportunity may be at hand.

When I saw the books at the home of his mom and dad, Susan and Charlie Gaylord of Newburyport, I asked Brendan if he would be interested in doing a book of haiku. He liked the idea. The haiku in this book were written in the past 40 years. Every once in a while I’d get the haiku bug and sit down to compose the small poems.

With the South Common haiku series in the book (2012), I tried to create one a day in my head while I walked Ringo the dog in the park. I’d come back home and write out the lines, revising if necessary, and then posting immediately on Facebook to keep the process in the moment as much as possible. The Hurricane Coup haiku were written during Hurricane Bob, August 1991, the same day as a coup was in motion in the Soviet Union (the coup failed). There’s another sequence called Riverwalk Haiku with poems based on observations and happenings along the Merrimack in the early 2000s. The book concludes with a section of haiku on scattered subjects.

If you are interested in the haiku or want to support Brendan’s larger mission of helping people with sight challenges, the book can be ordered at this link. 

The photograph on the cover is by Jennifer Myers, an image of brilliant maple leaves on the ground in the Acre neighborhood after a fall snowstorm last year. As soon as I saw the image posted on Facebook, I knew it would make a striking cover image—without knowing that it would be an excellent choice for the haiku book. The image itself is a visual haiku with the simple but startling combination of vivid leaves and fresh snow. I think the Japanese haiku writers would approve.

2020 Campaign Trail (1.)

This is a cross-posting from the RichardHowe.com blog in Lowell, Mass., which I’ve been writing for since 2008.

2020 Campaign Trail (1.)

I told my co-blogger Dick Howe that I would write a series of posts about the 2020 presidential campaign because everything is connected: national-to-local, coast-to-coast, global-to-regional. When I lived in Lowell I walked across Highland Street to the Rogers School, the James P. Scondras Memorial Gymnasium, to vote in every election while I was a resident. From City Council to President of the United States. What happens in Washington, D.C., affects life in the states and towns every minute of every day. And that’s a good thing because we live in a representative democracy. Those things happening in the nation’s capital are not allowed to occur without the consent of the governed, the people, the voters. We’re approaching, really, in it already, the big contest that comes around every four years for control of the executive branch of our federal government. The presidency.

More than 20 members of the Democratic Party are competing for the nomination to represent the party against the incumbent in the White House, the Republican Donald Trump. For me, it’s been a Twilight Zone experience for the past 2.5 years watching Trump barge around the political stage, knocking over furniture and pulling down curtains every day. Has there ever been anything so strange to observe in the presidency? Aside from looking like President Grover Cleveland in profile, Trump resembles nobody who has ever held the office. That said, more than 60 million people voted him in, and our system worked in such a way that he gained the required electoral college votes to win.

Of all the Democrats (Is Bernie a Democrat, really, or just visiting from his Independent island?–to be clear, I supported him last time)–of all the Democrats, I picked up three campaign autobiographies at the Jabberwocky Bookstore in Newburyport last week. I told the clerk I was supporting the Freedom of the Press with my purchase. I also got historian Jill Lepore’s short manifesto called This America: The Case for the Nation and former speechwriter David Litt’s witty memoir Thanks, Obama: My Hopey, Changey White House Years. Of the candidates, I’ve been reading the books by Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg (Buddha-Judge), and Michael Bennet. I’m particularly interested in any behind-the-scenes revelations or descriptions of what they were doing when nobody was watching, as the cliche goes. This kind of book is an introduction to voters and a summary of the candidate’s world view and policy vision.

I don’t have a great track record of picking winners other than getting on the Barack Obama wagon early in 2007 and riding it all the way. I’ve been watching US Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado for about a year, wondering if he would run for president. He impressed me as a smart, progressive guy with some qualities that Paul Tsongas exhibited, meaning that he is compassionate and practical. Paul used to say, “You can’t be pro-jobs and anti-Business.” Bennet is more in the middle of the Democratic policy spectrum but hits all the right notes on the environment, education, immigration, health care, and income equality. The subtitle of his book is Restoring America in an Age of Broken Politics. He fiercely condemns GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who now has a formidable opponent in one-time Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath. Bennet blames McConnell for poisoning the political waters in Washington. Bennet’s book includes a lengthy section on his thoughtful deliberation before voting to support President Obama on the Iran nuclear control agreement. He prevailed in his re-election against hysterical attacks by the GOP, saying he chose “terrorists and madmen” over US citizens. Figures like Bennet are essential to future success of Democrats nationally. He describes Colorado as a third Democrat, a third Republican, and a third Independent. It’s a western Purple state that’s been showing Blue tendencies. The Democratic Party must encourage Western Democrats like Bennet and Gov. Bullock and Sen. Jon Tester of Montana. If these Westerners want to be Democrats, the coastal and urban D’s have to believe them.

michael bennet.jpg

A former School Superintendent in Denver, Bennet adds an extensive list of sources and recommended readings in his book, which reveals a mindset. He praises Walt Whitman’s poetry, recommends Emma Lazarus’s words on welcoming newcomers, quotes Frederick Douglass’ Fourth of July address of 1852, and highlights Thucydides on the danger of political factions obsessed with power. Here’s his website and a YouTube clip of him blasting US Sen. Ted Cruz about the federal government shutdown.

Bennet’s been in the race about two months and struggling to gain traction. In the latest financial filing he reported raising about 10 percent of the amount that top-tier players like former Vice President Joe Biden and US Sen. Elizabeth Warren raised. He’s got a lot of ground to make up.

US Senator Kamala Harris of California is rising in the public opinion polls and pushing toward the head of the pack. Her name is pronounced “COMMA-lah.” She arrived on the political scene some years ago with high expectations. She reminds me of Barack Obama in that regard. Moving fast. From Attorney General in Calif. to US Senate and now a presidential candidate. She has the tools from what I’ve seen. Her book, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, recaps her path as a politician and lays out a vision of a caring and fair society. She writes about growing up in a family with a father and mother from Jamaica and India, respectively, the dad an economist and mom a cancer researcher. I was struck by a long section in her book about the supportive network of families in Oakland when she was growing up, including an after-school program in one family’s home and a community cultural center called Rainbow Sign where black residents gathered for film and dance events and guest speakers like former Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm and author Maya Angelou. Clearly, these formative experiences helped make the future Senator who she is today. She writes, “I came to understand that there is no better way to feed someone’s brain than by bringing together food, poetry, politics, music, dance, and art.”


Harris’s criminal justice background gives her a street credibility as a liberal, always an issue when GOP law-and-order rhetoric starts raining down on the Democrat. She has taken heat from some progressives, for example, who critique her decisions in enforcing the laws on school truancy. Twice, early in the campaign, she got herself in tricky situations related to her stance on health care coverage, standing up for Medicare for all and indicating that she would support the elimination of private insurance plans. She backtracked on abolishing private plans, as far as I understand it. She doesn’t have the range of policy plans that Sen. Elizabeth Warren has rolled out week after week, but there is not a lot of difference between the leading progressive contenders on the core issues like tax policy and climate change. She smiles a lot when she’s on the trail. Here’s her campaign website.

The mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is running for president. He’s a strong mayor, so it’s not exactly like Lowell’s mayor Bill Samaras running for president. South Bend is smaller than Lowell. Pete Buttigieg (Buddha-Judge) is a man in a hurry. He’s not forty years old, and he looks younger. In the second quarter of 2019, Mayor Pete (people call him that because they can’t pronounce his last name) raised $24.5 million, shocking the media observers and political professionals who keep track. He’s not policy heavy in his presentation, but rarely does he fail to impress questioners and listeners with his knowledge on almost every topic. He’s battling a rear-guard problem back home this summer because of community stress caused by friction with local police and charges of racial insensitivity or worse. Recently, a black man was shot and killed by a South Bend cop. In the first debate among Democrats, Mayor Pete said he had not been effective in dealing with racial issues related to the police department. There are few black officers, for example. The number has dropped from 29 to 15.

Any mayor can bleed out from a million municipal cuts, so it remains to be seen if Buttigieg can keep moving forward. He’ll tell you anything you want to know about Smart Sewers, an example of city-university cooperation that he cites in his book Shortest Way Home: One Mayor’s Challenge and a Model for America’s Future. His university at home is Notre Dame, which a lot of mayors would be happy to have in the back yard. His parents both taught there, maybe still do. The campus-city partnerships can be a special weapon for mid-sized cities lucky enough to have a college, whether collaborating on economic development initiatives or engaging in efforts to address social challenges like homelessness.

Buttigieg Navy Reserve.jpeg

Mayor Pete has provided a refreshing counter to the Republicans’ claim on Christian religion. He’s upbraided fellow Indiana resident, now Vice President, the pious Mike Pence for being a “cheerleader for the porn star presidency.” Church-going Buttigieg rejects the fake holiness of the Religious Right, whom he sees as not walking the Jesus walk, in fact, being way off the New Testament path of love and forgiveness. It’s personal with Mayor Pete because he’s gay and feels the condemnation of the self-righteous Right, which as a group has been fierce in pushing public policy hostile to LGBTQ people. Buttigieg has another distinctive asset: he’s a veteran who served as an intelligence officer in Afghanistan, a member of the Navy Reserve. That detail stands in high contrast to “Cadet Bone Spurs” in the White House these days, who evaded the draft during the Vietnam War.

The New York Review of Books ran a long piece on Mayor Pete in the July 18 issue that whacks him hard a number of times. It’s ostensibly a book review by Caroline Fraser, but serves as an overview of him as a public figure. Fraser writes, “Buttigieg often approaches himself with a Spock-like detachment” in telling his story. She’s suspicious of his gold-plated resume and bristling ambition. Too good to be true, almost. Multi-lingual, piano player, always the smartest kid in class. I got the impression that she thinks he has not suffered enough to have earned the maturity to be the most powerful person in the world. Voters can take their own measure by reading his book and visiting the campaign website. 

I was glad to see Mayor Pete push to the front of the line. We want younger people to step up and take leadership positions. President Kennedy in 1961 called for “the torch to be passed to a new generation.” Maybe we are there again.

In my next campaign post, I’ll say more about the Jill Lepore manifesto arguing for a new Americanism that is not toxic nationalism, a new and energized patriotism, and the memoir by the Obama speechwriter, David Litt. Writing about the Obama presidency, Litt gets serious when he says the Republican Party by 2009 had become not so much a partisan organization as a church with articles of political faith, which has made it nearly impossible for Democrats to collaborate with. The GOP now rejects the legitimacy of duly elected Democrats. A case in point was Sen. McConnell stealing a Supreme Court nomination from Pres. Obama in his second term.

Dylan's Rolling Thunder Tour Rolls Again

With a new film and music recording, Bob Dylan’s rollicking Rolling Thunder Revue tour of 1975-76 is back in the public eye. Writing for UMass Lowell, longtime music journalist Dave Perry recounts the Lowell, Mass., stop of Dylan’s caravan. The gypsy bandmates stopped in Lowell for this reason, according to Rolling Stone magazine: “The Pilgrims Have Landed on Kerouac’s Grave.” In tribute to one of his early artistic influences, Dylan stayed overnight in a motel by the highway after the concert in Costello Gym on the north campus of what is now UMass Lowell, across Riverside Street from young Jack’s growing-up neighborhood in the 1930’s. In the morning the group, guided by Kerouac’s brother-in-law Tony Sampas whose sister had married Jack in 1966, visited highly charged Kerouac locations in the city like the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes behind the Franco-American School on Pawtucket Street (also a setting for scenes in K’s novel “Doctor Sax”), a powerful religious site for young Jack, and the author’s grave at Seventh and Lincoln streets in Edson Cemetery in South Lowell (where Dylan and Allen Ginsberg communed with Kerouac’s spirit in the bright November sun under autumn trees).

Many years later, I was with my family in Liverpool, England, doing the Beatles pilgrimage, visiting the suburban-like home where young John Lennon grew up (Aunt Mimi’s on Menlove Avenue). The curator who greeted us said Bob Dylan had been there two weeks earlier, looking around John’s old bedroom, the tiny enclosed porch where John and Paul McCartney composed songs, and the landscaped back yard beyond which is the children’s home called Strawberry Field, where John roamed the grounds and woods. Dylan is a pilgrim like the rest of us.

Here’s the Dave Perry article.

Later, I wrote a poem to mark the occasion of Dylan’s public tribute to Jack Kerouac:

Dylan Sings to Kerouac

The railroad earth

The hot autumn earth

The cemetery earth

The Lincoln earth

The November earth

The dharma karma earth

The Indian summer earth

The Rolling Thunder earth

The musical earth

The deep dug earth

The Lowell earth

The afternoon earth

The literary earth

The cowboy poet earth

The Minnesota earth

The French-Canadian earth

The old Jewish earth

The Bicentennial earth

The folk ground

The quiet ground

The round red earth

The hay-colored earth

The sunny leaves on earth

The brown and red-brick leaves

The yellow-orange leaves

The golden red grave leaves.


Joan Baez & Bob Dylan singing at Costello Gym in Lowell, Nov. 2, ‘75. Photo courtesy of UMass Lowell.

Joan Baez & Bob Dylan singing at Costello Gym in Lowell, Nov. 2, ‘75. Photo courtesy of UMass Lowell.

My ink-and-watercolor notebook sketch of the concert scene made a day later.

My ink-and-watercolor notebook sketch of the concert scene made a day later.

Dylan and poet Allen Ginsberg at Jack Kerouac’s grave in Edson Cemetery, Nov. 3, 1975. Photo courtesy of “Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder” by film director Martin Scorsese.

Dylan and poet Allen Ginsberg at Jack Kerouac’s grave in Edson Cemetery, Nov. 3, 1975. Photo courtesy of “Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder” by film director Martin Scorsese.

War & Poetry

Marcel Marion soldier (2).jpg

"I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.” [Today, we’d say sons and daughters.]
― John Adams, “Letters of John Adams,” addressed to his wife, Abigail Adams, 1780

Photo mash-up by Joe Marion with Marcel Marion, US Army, fighting the fascists, 1945, and me, reading the poem I was commissioned to write for the Sesquicentennial Celebration in Lowell, Mass., 1986.

The Insulation of Ordinariness (2016)

I’m cross-posting this archived item from the RichardHowe.com blog in Lowell, Mass.

After reading today’s New York Times article about Ohio supporters of President Trump who are staying the course with him despite all the chaos associated with his presidency, I’m re-posting my thoughts about his victory that appeared on this blog on Nov. 16, 2016.

It would be a mistake for me to claim that he can’t win another term. He has triggered something in tens of millions of people (more than 60 million voted for him) that is emotionally loaded and not going away. But he’s also got a coating of familiarity that cannot be overlooked. He likes glitzy hotels, fast food, beauty pageants, TV wrestling, casinos, Twitter, and junk news. He’s not pretending in this. He really likes all those things. He hasn’t had one “arts” evening at the White House even though Kanye and Kid Rock have visited. And he swaggers. Some of us may think he’s a fool, but he’s got amazing stamina in his current role. Has he been sick one day since taking office? Right now, he’s running the House Democrats around in circles, insulting them once an hour as they chase him with a butterfly net.

The Democrats, Independents, and Republicans who don’t want to see him repeat in 2020 better speak up, organize, and write checks for the cause. The media and polls may be as wrong this time as most of them were in 2016. The 2018 U.S. House results were encouraging, but not the U.S. Senate results. Don’t bet your own house on Trump losing.–PM


(Nov. 16, 2016)

IN COMPANY WITH OUR READERS, I have been thinking about the election results and reading articles left-right-and-center for a week. How did Donald Trump manage one of the epic upsets in American political history? Why did so many people who analyze government and politics for a living miss what was going to happen?

I get the appeal of his blunt talk about making America a “winner” again, in economic and military power. I get the effectiveness of pinning the blame on certain groups of people for the troubles on Main Street in Middle America. Aside from that, however, Trump benefited, in my view, from his massive exposure as a TV personality, a TV character, really, which I believe provided a kind of insulation of ordinariness. In other words, the obnoxious uncle who comes to Thanksgiving dinner and says gross things and acts weird may get excused as “That’s just uncle Sherman” because he is so familiar and is known for saying and doing thousands of things over the years, many of them not so bad. The out-of-bounds behavior is diluted in all the other stuff that has been seen and heard by people who know him. Years of weekly TV exposure made Trump, for some people, a person/character whom they could relate to in an almost non-judgmental way, a family way. He just “was” or “is.” My family regularly watched his show “The Apprentice” because my son liked it when he was about 12 years old. Around our house somewhere is a Donald Trump action figure in a suit. When the string in the figure’s back is pulled, you hear “You’re fired!”

Has Trump done something to change the campaign paradigm with his success or was he simply a “perfect storm” candidate who was the right person for this combustible moment competing against an opponent with lots of baggage? Will he be the start of more celebrity politicians with 100 percent name recognition going in to a contest? There are precedents such as Reagan, Schwarzenegger, Jesse Ventura, Al Franken, and even General Eisenhower in the 1950s, all outsiders in their own way coming in to the political sector from the entertainment world or for “Ike” the military. Trump’s Republican opponents were relative nobodies compared to his celebrity status. Jeb Bush is a Bush, but who really knew much about him?

I can’t prove this, but my hunch is that his ultra-familiar presence is the reason he was excused for statements and actions that would have finished a conventional candidate. Trashing a P.O.W? Disrespecting a Gold Star family? Refusing to release tax returns? Bragging about sexual assault? Somewhere I read that his followers “took him seriously but not literally” while his foes took him literally but not seriously. That may be too glib a way of describing what happened, but there’s a kernel of truth in it. Otherwise, how did he get a pass from so many people? It’s too broad to say they were all “deplorable.” I know some good folks who chose him because he held out the possibility of blowing up the hardened political spoils system. And some people just felt, “Let it fly,” I’m sick of the whole thing in Washington, D.C. And for most of them the other choice was a non-starter. Not everyone spends a lot of time thinking about politics. But most people know they can vote, take action, and maybe make a difference once in a while. Tens of millions of people are happy about the outcome. There is something to be learned here.

At the start of his administration, however, it does not look like he is going to “drain the swamp” of influence peddlers and cash-distributors and will instead blow up social and environmental programs with the assistance of the Republican-controlled Congress.

Gary Snyder, Remembering What He Read (1991)

For his birthday week (89 years old), I’m reposting this 2018 piece from my blog about Gary Snyder’s visit to Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., on November 10, 1990. He read his poems and talked about writing and other subjects at Boylston Hall. The following composition captures the setting and some of his comments from that night. It was the second time I had attended a reading by Snyder, the first being at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., some years before. Snyder was a leading figure in poetry for me going back to the 1970s when I became serious about writing. His early book Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems influenced my work. His essays are as important to me as the poems. The event at Harvard marked the release of a collection of essays, The Practice of the Wild. Of particular interest to me is Snyder’s stance in relation to the various communities with which he connects, whether immediate neighbors, sympathetic readers, activists aligned with his environmental views, or other networks. His advice about putting a stake down and getting involved in the community of your choice reinforced my instinctive feeling that local engagement is essential. This prose sketch was published in Beat Scene magazine in England in 1991 and had not been reprinted until its appearance on the blog. The portrait is a watercolor from the late 1970s , which I failed to date specifically. I made a series of illustrations of poets I was reading at the time. I don’t know why he has no eyes here.


Gary Snyder: Remembering What He Read

RAIN-WHIPPED NIGHT OUTSIDE nondescript auditorium, school hall plain to hold wild ideas, maybe. Slowly building crowd reaches some 100 — students, Cantabrigians, academic scruffs, a few small kids, casual country-style dressers shaking off the wet. Someone tells me Snyder asked to make an appearance, saying, “He used to be a hanger-on here years ago,” but I can’t figure the logic of that since he’s from the west. This fall, he’s teaching a stint just south at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. The Grolier poetry chapel has a book table in back. Microphone test next, and then, what’s this?, a video disc player is brought in.

Huge man in plaid shirt overfills a front seat. Two croissant-eating youngsters with blonde mom reading a college paper take seats to my right. Young woman behind me describes a film about the Berlin Wall. Many Snyderish men with beards, ponytails, work clothes. Another woman reading Ovid. Someone with stacks of books expecting GS to sign. A few veteran professors in the young-trending audience. Raincoats bejeweled with drops. A host of earth-colored sweaters. Cups of yogurt and steamy coffee. Umbrellas and ponchos shaken. Two black wooden chairs at a fold-up table on stage. Tech director in his booth drinks from a quart of orange juice.

This event celebrates the publication of an essay collection, The Practice of the Wild, and re-issue of Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems by North Point Press of San Francisco, those lovely, flinty old poems that made such a difference long ago. GS starts reading “Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout,” ends “Looking down for miles/Through high still air.” Then he tells on himself: “There’s something not true in this poem—’I cannot remember things I once read’”— he admits, “I could remember Chinese poems. Maybe the truth is I can’t forget anything I’ve ever read.” Follows with “Piute Creek” with “All the junk that goes with being human”—”I was working for the National Park Service at the time.”

He picks up the essays, ten years of work. “How do we resolve the dichotomy of civilization and the wild?”— “What we call wild is very orderly.” He reads calmly with witty intonations. The audience wants to laugh and chuckle, they are so happy to be in the room with him. “We have made a lot of this place, but the fishing is no good anymore,” a car dealer in California told him.

On stage GS is a small-framed man with gray-brown hair and a short gray beard wearing a blue cotton shirt open at the neck under a charcoal-gray sport coat. He says, “Very bold people from the ‘60s are still in play. Everybody’s heart was in the right place.” To the guaranteed-to-be-asked question about Jack Kerouac, he replies: “Part of his problem was alcohol . . . He looked to the past but was not necessarily reactionary. He was charming in his way.” And on being the model for Japhy Ryder, he reminds us: The Dharma Bums is a novel. “I like The Subterraneans better than The Dharma Bums, and Doctor Sax is my favorite Kerouac novel.” GS recalls climbing the Matterhorn again—”Range after range of mountains/Year after year/I am still in love.”

Why do you write?, he’s asked. “It helps me organize my own thoughts. It’s a way to participate in your community. I never thought of writing as a solitary activity. I always considered it a dialogue.” To another questioner, he responds, “You have to be a working-class person to read a lot.” He talks about community work, political work, cultural work. He says his plan for the next seven years is to finish many writing projects. “Everyone is busy. Why? They’re trying to keep up with things.” And near the close says lightheartedly, “My daily life is like everyone else’s.”

—-Paul Marion, 1990

Via Galactica

The news that astronomers are expected to reveal images (“pictures of a pair of putative black holes,” according to NY Times) of two gargantuan cosmic entities in two galaxies, our Milky Way and Messier 87, sent me back to my composition “Via Galactica” from 2004. I’m surprised that contemporary poets don’t write more about space. We don’t have a Walt Whitman of the Milky Way or the countless other galaxies. Maybe space is more suited to filmmakers now that we have that technology. The body of work on that subject is substantial and growing. I remain intrigued by the mysterious and infinite out there.


Via Galactica

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

—President John F. Kennedy, 1962, Rice University 


When I turned 50 years old, I decided to try to keep up with the Universe, that, and the world of high finance. It was time to both take care of business and contemplate the long view. What is “This” all about?

     I bought a subscription to Sky and Telescope magazine, which advertises “innovative astro-imaging gear for non-gazillionaires,” “sky sentinel cameras,” “Nagler Zooms,” “Dialectric Diagonals,” “Truss-Tube Dobsonians,” and the “Celestron sky-scout personal planetarium,” all this on pages between articles about Dark Matter, solar eclipses and lunar seas, meteor showers, the Sagittarius star clouds, black-hole jets, cosmological enigmas, and Mercury’s orbit. One of my neighbors has a telescope on a roof deck, but I didn’t go down that shopping road. I began reading more and watching “nature” programs on television.

     The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston owns a painting by Paul Gauguin that has one of the best titles for an artwork: Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? It’s one of Gauguin’s paintings from Tahiti. In 1897, he made the tropical tableau filled with native islanders, animals, and a statue of an Eastern deity. The artist said the visual narrative follows the journey of his life. The background is mountains, sea, and sky, the opening to space.

     Before I had turned 50, I was clipping news articles about space and saving them in manila folders, which I marked with the year, thinking they would be fodder for later writing. Who is the great poet of space? Who is the Walt Whitman of the Milky Way, the via galactica or road of milk as the Romans named it? In the film medium, we have creative heroes of the Space Age like Stanley Kubrick, Tom Hanks, Carrie Fisher, Steven Spielberg, Sigourney Weaver, Ron Howard, and George Lucas. Tom Wolfe made The Right Stuff sail as non-fiction. Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Isaac Asimov gave us fictional space worlds.

     In early 1997, the owner of a company where I live, a company specializing in polymer-coated textiles, called me about a free-lance writing assignment. I wound up managing several days of media relations for the manufacturer of “the first man-made material to touch the surface of Mars,” when the Mars Pathfinder bounced down on Ares Vallis of the Chryse Planitia region on July 4, 1997. Bradford Industries, whose main business involved coating car airbag fabric with silicone, had been chosen by NASA to prepare material for a cluster of Vectran airbags that were deployed to soften the landing of the craft, which bounced 15 times and didn’t rip.

     There was even a quirky tangent: nineteenth-century astronomer Percival Lowell of the “Lowell” Lowells in Boston made news in his day when he claimed to have spotted canals on Mars. He posited that the linear surface features had been dug by Martian engineers. Later critics suggested that Lowell may have over-interpreted his observations of natural depressions in the soil because he was familiar with the extensive power-canal system in the textile-factory city named for one of his ancestors. The Mars Pathfinder held inside of it a robotic vehicle, a rover named Sojourner in honor of the well-traveled African-American abolitionist and advocate for women’s rights Sojourner Truth. The rover communicated with its designers on Earth until late September 1997.

     On May 29, 1998, page one of the New York Times featured above-the-fold articles about Pakistan’s underground nuclear tests, calling it the first “Islamic bomb,” and a fuzzy digitized photo of radiating starlight above a small illuminated sphere described as “the first image of a planet outside our solar system.” The location is the constellation Taurus, estimated to be 450 light-years from Earth. The Hubble Telescope made the picture of the planet, which could be twice the size of Jupiter, at the end of a 130 billion-mile trail of starlight. The third story above the fold was a report about the federal Environmental Protection Agency announcing that automobile catalytic converters form nitrous oxide, which worsens global warming. Life is a chemistry set.

     My son turned eight years old on February 9, 2003. When I was eight, Lt. Col. John H. Glenn, Jr., became the first American to orbit the Earth, and the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the United States and Soviet Union to the edge of a nuclear war. Government officials advised average families to build concrete fallout shelters in their basements to be prepared for a missile attack. The father in the family across the street from my house constructed and equipped a shelter for the two parents and three children. The man worked for a defense firm, a manufacturer of American missiles. I went inside the shelter once when I was at a birthday party in the cellar of the house. Blankets, water, canned food, tissues, toilet paper, a radio, and a small tool box were stored on shelves. There were seats that converted to beds. The same year, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, exposing the damage done to living things by the misuse of chemicals and probing the public conscience like a needle to the national brain.

     Eight days before my son’s eighth birthday, a NASA spacecraft disintegrated as it sped back to the Earth’s surface. “The space shuttle Columbia, streaking across a bright blue Texas sky at about 3.5 miles a second, broke up as it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere,” James Barron wrote in the Times. Everyone on board died: Navy Commander William C. McCool, the pilot; payload commander Lt. Col. Michael P. Anderson; Dr. Kalpana Chawla, an engineer; Navy doctors Capt. David M. Brown and Cmdr. Laurel Salton Clark; and the first astronaut from Israel, Col. Ilan Ramon.

Little Canada: Telling Somebody Out There Who We Are


The Library staff at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell posted photos and documents related to the demolition of the city’s Little Canada neighborhood in the early 1960s. I’m grateful to the staff for integrating into the website my poem “New Pine Hill,” written in the late 1990s when the area was still being rebuilt. The dramatic pictures of the so-called Urban Renewal project that was funded with federal money can be seen at this link. Kudos to everyone who helped develop this resource site, including the late George Poirier, “George of Lowell,” one of the outstanding chroniclers of Lowell life in the 20th century. The two photographs are by George Poirier, c. 1964. “New Pine Hill” is included in two of my books that are out of print but often can be found in used condition on the internet: French Class (1999) and What Is the City? (2006).

New Pine Hill

Mr. Alphonse Hudon, wearing a blue parka and dress hat,
leans on his cane on Pawtucket Street, checking the freshly tarred walk
and grove of short pines along the Northern Canal.
“Looks good, doesn’t it?” I ask.
And he says, “I liked it better the way it was,” which opens up a line of talk,
because I know he’s missing the French Canadian-American village
that once colored this shoulder of land at the wide bend in the river.
I tell him my father, Marcel, was raised on Cheever Street in Little Canada.
He knew my father and grandfather, Wilfred,
whose meat market filled a corner on Moody Street.
He corrects me on the address of Nap’s Filling Station, owned by Mr. Marquis,
where my dad had our family car serviced before wrecking cranes pulled up.
A house across the street had a tree poking through the front porch roof.
“Oh yes,” he says, “that was Mr. Marquis’ house.
And there was a monkey there, too.”

The black-and-white sign on the canal bridge reads,
“Jean-Paul Frechette, The Blond Tiger,” with the boxer’s two dates underneath.
Another remnant, like the Little Canada memorial,
bronze plaque mounted on a granite stone
“from one of the last blocks to be torn down,”
placed by Franco-Americans and the priests of St. Jean Baptiste parish,
now a Latino Catholic church, Nuestra Señora Del Carmen.
There’s a fleur-de-lis in each corner, beginning and end dates, 1875-1964,
like a gravestone, like one life, and a litany of streets running up the sides:
Aiken, Cabot, Cheever, Coolidge, Hall, Melvin,
Montcalm, Pawtucket, Perkins, Suffolk, Tucker, Ward.
The amen is Quebec’s motto, Je Me Souviens! Lest We Forget!

All that history and geography in a supersaturated marker,
tucked between evergreens on Aiken Street,
in the middle of a district once so dense only Hell’s Kitchen beat it.
You stuck an arm out of the window to touch the next tenement.
You heard one tongue for blocks.
People ate, slept, drank, dreamt, and multiplied
in a native sound arranged like code.
Rag man, icebox, coal chute, baseball.
Pork pie, baked beans, mill rat, whiskey.
High Mass, soiréeL’Étoile, soupe rouge.

What was here was what Mr. Hudon liked better,
a familiar world that seemed to work
for people who got up in the morning with something to do.
Even I remember when Urban Renewal clear-cut the blocks.
The way he looked down at the long canal made me want to say something hopeful.
I admire the young trees, the sweeping path,
whose design draws us to the manmade channel
and black water that still moves the wheels.

The rough, stubby foundation stone
is a local version of the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey,
the one that made the monkeys go ape,
the one the moon-men couldn’t figure, the floating answer-bar.
This hunk of rock on Earth states its case for the record,
like the metal message boards shipped out with satellites,
telling somebody out there who we are.

Demolition Little Canda crane.jpg

'A Nation Once Again'

irish map.jpg

This poem appears in my book What Is the City? (2006), which is out of print but usually available in used condition on internet sites. Jackie Brady was a champion boxer in Lowell, Mass., in the 1960s. The local scene from the 1980s predates the easing of tensions, even the prospect for peace, resulting from the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 to end the brutal “Troubles” (more than 3,500 deaths) and the related British-Irish Agreement a year later. As a measure of how charged the peace process continues to be, the issue of the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland of the UK is a key to resolving the Brexit situation in the UK. The Republic is part of the European Union, and today there is an “invisible border” between the south and north. Should Brexit be realized, it is likely that the border would not be as open as it is now.

A Nation Once Again

Brady’s Irish pub at the Spaghettiville train bridge gathers a lunch crowd of American-Irish from Sacred Heart and the late St. Peter’s parish. The slow dark pint, a cold Harp, beans & franks and burgers with the best hand-cut fries, sprinkled with vinegar. Chunky soup and chowders, sausages on seeded buns, fat lobster rolls. The jukebox spills out crooners, gangsta rap, Hibernian chestnuts. On the four walls, glossies of Brady’s bouts, Victorian-Lowell streetscapes, map of the Isle, and the electronic paint of TV.

“Who tripped Bobby Orr when he scored his Cup-winning goal in ‘70?”

“Barclay Plager of the Blues?”

“Noel Picard.”

“The Fabulous Moolah?”

“Who’s that?”

“Who’s got what horse?”

“Are you going to the Derby this year?”

“Did you see the Bruins Friday night? Ray Bourque’s got a stiff hip.”

Martha, Colleen, and Sue, friendly as your favorite aunts, drive the kitchen operation. It’s Irish Culture Week with Masses, Mary’s soda bread, a tour of St. Pat’s Cemetery, the flag-raising and Gaelic anthem on the City Hall steps, ceili at the Elks, and Variety Show.

The center-table group will converge at Our Lady of Good Voyage in Boston on Easter Sunday to praise old martyrs and young hunger-strikers, the Four and the Eight, all jailed by and for politics. Outside, the faithful buy medals, buttons, and cards. Our day is near, they say, and, as he does each year, Liam Murphy, who claims he scrapped as a boy in the 1916 rising, will turn around in his front pew, making a finger-gun: bang, bang.


Jackie Brady, 1964 Greater Lowell Golden Glove 112 lb. Novice Champion; 1964 112 lb. New England AAU Champion. (photo and data courtesy boxrec.com)

Jackie Brady, 1964 Greater Lowell Golden Glove 112 lb. Novice Champion; 1964 112 lb. New England AAU Champion. (photo and data courtesy boxrec.com)

Standing Around the Movies

Standing Around the Movies


February 1982, Irvine

A Hollywood film crew set up on campus to shoot a scene for a movie titled Creator whose cast includes Mariel Hemingway and Peter O’Toole. The scene was a touch football game. Fine Arts Department students made up the two teams. A few of my students signed up as extras. They made a crowd and walked around looking like students. The shoot lasted all day with plenty of standing around for the stars. I saw MH up close, tall and long-legged, hair cut short, looking scruffy, dressed in sweatshirt, blue track shorts, socks, and sneakers. She stayed off to the side, chatting with the crew. After a while she put on yellow sweatpants. She signed autographs, ate an orange, drank coffee.

I was a little embarrassed, seeing her right there behind the Humanities Building, remembering pictures of her undressed in a slick magazine on a convenience store rack and also thinking of her revealed in the film Personal Best. People stared all day. I stared. She knew it. Felt it. Despite her invisible shield of privacy. Anything said to her by a stranger would probably glance off into space. Until today, for me, she was more art than real, an image, not alive. She was too young for Woody Allen’s interest in Manhattan. Here, she was a casual undergraduate except for the famous face. It’s none of my business to want to know her, and I don’t really want to know her. When I watch the new movie, I’ll look for myself in the background.

Writer's Block movie poster.jpg

May 1991, San Diego

Star Wagon. Catering. Making a film called Writer’s Block in the Sculpture Garden of Balboa Park in San Diego. Spanish Renaissance buildings. 1970s-era sculpture court. Movies have been filmed in Balboa Park since the 1920s. The crew and technicians wear shorts, T-shirts, and baseball caps. Their utility belts sag from the overload of tools.

Two guys in the crowd talking:

“I was in two L.A. Law’s and never thought that show would last so long.”

“I was in one Simon and Simon, with all my scenes done on Point Loma.”

“I made $102 in two hours as an extra and got a big plate of pineapple and shrimp. These productions are catered to the max.”

The scene in progress: Actress Morgan Fairchild in a short black skirt and matching jacket sits on a bench. Two kids chase a ball near her. She picks up the ball, looks at it, emoting a bit, then throws the ball to the kids, laughing, and walks away.

In the Sculpture Garden are works by Louise Nevelson, Henry Moore (the classic mid-size Hank), and others on the preferred short list of artists to have in your public collection.

A derelict approaches me and slurs, “Can I have your autograph?”

“Please move on,” says a guard in a green uniform.

In front of a line of trailers and vans, three guys play hacky sack in a tight circle. They’re good at this minor skill.

Rosemary and I watch the action and the standing around through the posts of a black iron fence.

A blonde stand-in for MF sits for a lighting check.

Ginsberg, Corso, & the Locals Read for the Benefit of Mr. K. on St. Patrick's Day (Night) in 1986

Allen Ginsberg, right, with George Chigas, center, and me at the piano in the home of former Lowell City Manager William Taupier and family in Lowell following a poetry reading with Allen, Gregory Corso and writers from the community. The event at Liberty Hall/Merrimack Repertory Theater was a benefit for the new Jack Kerouac literary organization in Lowell on Monday, March 17, 1986, St. Patrick’s Day evening. George and Allen are playing a tune while Allen sings a song from his long poem “Contest of the Bards.” He sang the lines and his collaborators repeated them all the way through. (The photographer may have been George’s wife, Thida Leoung.)

Allen Ginsberg, right, with George Chigas, center, and me at the piano in the home of former Lowell City Manager William Taupier and family in Lowell following a poetry reading with Allen, Gregory Corso and writers from the community. The event at Liberty Hall/Merrimack Repertory Theater was a benefit for the new Jack Kerouac literary organization in Lowell on Monday, March 17, 1986, St. Patrick’s Day evening. George and Allen are playing a tune while Allen sings a song from his long poem “Contest of the Bards.” He sang the lines and his collaborators repeated them all the way through. (The photographer may have been George’s wife, Thida Leoung.)

The following is a diary entry from March 18, 1986, the day after a remarkable cultural event in Lowell, Mass. In 2019, Lowell is again Marching for Kerouac with a marathon reading of On the Road at the Pollard Memorial Library (3/9), a Jack Kerouac Birthday Celebration produced by Lowell Celebrates Kerouac! Inc. (3/9), and a new play adapted from Kerouac’s 1944 novella The Haunted Life, which begins its run at Merrimack Repertory Theater on 3/20. Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso had probably not been in Lowell since the funeral of their friend Jack in October 1969. Allen returned several times and Gregory once or twice more to support the community’s long-running effort to keep Kerouac’s legacy vibrant.—PM

March 18, 1986—An amazing event at Liberty Hall last night. The benefit reading for the new Jack Kerouac organization in Lowell was a wild success. About 300 people filled the sold-out theater. The audience included writers from the area, local arts activists, national park staff, longtime Kerouac advocates, members of the media, fans from New York City and Boston, Franco-American leaders in the city, community cultural enthusiasts, and curious others. Allen Ginsberg opened with a spontaneous song for the evening, accompanying himself on the harmonium. He wore a suit and a skinny shiny silver necktie. Allen was quoted in the Lowell Sun yesterday saying that Kerouac is a kind of saint. He pointed out that Kerouac is popular in China, where selections from On the Road are used in an English-language anthology used in some reading classes.

Next, Tara Taupier read selections from two of Kerouac’s Lowell novels, Doctor Sax and Maggie Cassidy, followed by Dan Connelly, a University of Lowell student who read a poem by faculty member Charles Jarvis (Ziavras), a Kerouac biographer. Music teacher and operatic singer Gerard Brunelle stunned the audience with an epic poem about polyglot Lowell and its Little Canada neighborhood, a huge, tough poem jammed with the stuff of French Lowell. Brian Foye, founder of the new Kerouac nonprofit group, then introduced writer George Chigas, who read three striking poems about Cambodian refugees, including his wife, Thida, who have settled in Lowell—their experiences in America and back home in Southeast Asia. George finished with his opus, “Flashes of Kerouac,” a sprawling poem in praise of the author. After all that, I read poems from my book Strong Place—“Bush Pilots,” “Green Windows,” “Merrimack Street,” “Dylan Sings to Kerouac,” and “Crazy Horse.” That was the end of the first half of the program. Cheers and applause for all the readers.

Fifteen minutes later, the second part of the program began with a tape of Kerouac reading from Doctor Sax. Ginsberg brought the recording, and it was the first time the tape had been played in public. The hall went quiet. Kerouac was a wonderful reader of his own work. He’s not frantic at all, as some might expect from his spontaneous prose style. Listening to his favorite radio shows as a kid must have given him a sense of how to modulate his voice for performance.

Next, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso took the stage, sitting in two chairs, sharing a microphone. Corso started, reading a few short poems, reciting others from memory. He stopped and interrupted himself and offered asides. During the first half of the program Corso sat with the other readers to the side of the stage and kept up a running commentary. Gregory turned the mic to Allen, who read from his Collected Poems, choosing pieces with a Kerouac connection. The highlight was a powerful rendition of “Sunflower Sutra.”

Gregory then read his long poem “Elegiac Feelings American,” composed as an outpouring of his heart following Kerouac’s death. He read the entire poem, stopping at times to comment, explain, and criticize his work. The reading now was getting to be three hours long. Allen closed with his poem about Kerouac’s death and one of William Blake’s songs, again singing while playing his music box.

Earlier, when I had stepped down from the stage after my reading, Allen looked at my book and asked, “Who published this?” “I did.” “Good idea,” he said. It was a whirling, heady evening, everyone caught up in the excitement.

Following the event, a crowd of people attended a reception at the Taupier family home on Clark Road in the Belvidere neighborhood. See the photo caption above for more details about the party.

What a night.

Lowell Sun  newspaper, March 18, 1986. Article by Rick Spencer.

Lowell Sun newspaper, March 18, 1986. Article by Rick Spencer.

One Night at the Old Worthen in Lowell: A Poem

This poem was written in the 1970s, when I spent many nights at the Old Worthen tavern (established in 1834) on Worthen Street in Lowell, Mass., close to City Hall and the Whistler House, birthplace of the famous artist. The drinking age dropped to 18 years old when I turned 18, so my friends and I got going at the Worthen right away. Glasses of beer were 25 cents. Small glasses. We can debate whether that was a good idea or not—the lower age, not the small glasses. Today, it’s called The Worthen House Cafe, a popular place to eat and drink. There’s a raven on the business sign, referring to the legend that Edgar Allan Poe drank at the tavern when he visited Lowell. Around the same time that I wrote the poem, my older brother Richard made a drawing of the Worthen, which was reproduced as a black-and-white print. The version below was adapted for a Christmas theme with color added. The poem is included in my recent book Union River: Poems and Sketches (Bootstrap Press, 2017), which is available for purchase online.

Lowell was the Christmas city when I was growing up in the small semi-rural town next door, Dracut. My mother worked in a women’s clothing store, Cherry & Webb, on the corner of Merrimack and John streets downtown, so we felt close to the city. Plus, my parents grew up in Lowell and lived there when starting a family. Lowell was the choice for Christmas shopping when I was young. The Bon Marche department store was the commercial centerpiece of Merrimack Street. It remains a standout building that is a fine example of historic preservation. Bon Marche always had elaborate decorations and a lavish toy department with full-scale displays of featured toys. Gift-wrapping was available upstairs. You’d also find toys in the five-and-ten stores, Woolworth’s and S.S. Kresge’s, in Poirier’s hobby shop, and at the Giant Store. Record Lane and Garnick’s sold the latest hit albums. We went downtown at least once during the season to see the colored lights on buildings and streets before visiting the Nativity scene with large figures of the Holy Family, Three Wise Men, shepherds, sheep, and angels in front of City Hall. I don’t recall Christmas parades in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, but there may have been parades on Thanksgiving weekend.

When my friends and I were old enough to drive, it was special to get a bunch of guys and girls together and go to Midnight Mass on Christmas. We’d choose one of the big old Catholic churches in the city, the ones with tall stained glass windows and marble columns like cathedrals—even though most of us had stopped going to Mass on Sundays. And even if there were a couple of Protestants in the car. It was a good excuse for a late-night group date. I ran the elevator part-time in Cherry’s during my first two years of college—a manual elevator for which an official tan sports coat and an operator’s license were required—and enjoyed the holiday shoppers when I worked nights and all day Saturday. By the late 1970s, the malls and suburban shopping strips were drawing people to Burlington, Methuen, and over the border in Nashua N.H. with brand-name stores offering more products than were found in Lowell.

“Old Worthen” by Richard Marion, c. 1978

“Old Worthen” by Richard Marion, c. 1978

One Night

The good way

Dan turned his

head and dropped

three nickels

into the bent

tambourine of

the Salvation

Army-man between

sips of 25-cent draft

and bites of pretzel

at the Old Worthen

in one of the high-

backed booths with

his three friends who

had stopped the cribbage

game when the deaf

Frenchman in a

blue-green overcoat

came to the table

with eyes of a

saint and handsome

brown gloves that

held the jingling

pan so our good

Christmas will

would get us to

push a few coins

his ever-loving way.