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.
The good way
Dan turned his
head and dropped
into the bent
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
came to the table
with eyes of a
saint and handsome
brown gloves that
held the jingling
pan so our good
would get us to
push a few coins
his ever-loving way.
A few years ago, my son Joe and I collaborated on a video poem, something I had not tried before. I had recorded poems with music soundtracks for radio at WUML-FM at UMass Lowell a long time ago when the station had a regular feature of short poems by local writers that ran between music shows. Off and on I wondered about poetry as an alternative to music videos. I recall seeing something like that on a PBS poetry program, “Anyone for Tennyson?,” which did not last long. My son had been making short films for a few years, so we decided to try something. We made two. This is the first one, which is on YouTube.com.
In the poem I’m remembering the countless hours I spent playing with toy soldiers, spacemen, horses, and trucks. Years ago, I heard novelist John Irving in a TV interview talking about his experience playing with toy soldiers and his sister’s dollhouse, making up stories to act out on the floor. He said it was his beginning as a writer.
This is section 14 of a long poem called “The War Place,” which tracks the prevalence of war in the history of the United States. One time I made a chart of the years of my life and the years that America was engaged in hot or cold wars during my lifetime. Between 1954 and that moment, there were very few years of peace, if we define peace as the absence of war. The final section of the poem addresses what I call “the war against haters,” a different challenge than the War on Poverty or the War on Drugs as some social campaigns have been framed. In the past few years, hate crimes have increased in number. Recent mass shootings and attempted bombings are just the latest evidence of heightened violence against people who are targeted for their religious or political beliefs, race and ethnicity, social activism in public or online, and other factors.
The War Against Haters
Morris Dees keeps writing to me from the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama to say he has counted 926 hate groups in the U.S.A. and identified all kinds of people who don’t belong to groups but are just steaming on their sofas ready to blow if provoked by a shouter on cable TV or a knock on the door by a Census worker or another picture of our first black president, even if his mother was white.
One survey in 2009 “found that 21 percent of Americans believe President Obama is the Antichrist or may be” and a surprising number of people said they believe “he is not or may not be an American citizen.”
What do I do with a magazine full of details about creeping Nazi fever, anti-Semitic intellectuals, off-the-grid nativist vigilantes, homophobic skinheads, and wealthy donors to racist campaigns—pass it on, put it on billboards?
In his letter to me, Morris lists “What You Can Do” to teach tolerance: Speak up when you hear slurs. Eat lunch with someone new. Complain about stereotypes in the media. Examine your own soul and take a test at www.hiddenbias.org. Encourage police to call a hate crime a hate crime.
I should send him a big check, so he can put up taller and brighter lighthouses to shine on the slime, buy bigger excavators to dig the haters out of their bunkers, and mail copies of his magazine to every citizen.
Two teenaged sisters descended from a Klansman sing out for an Aryan revival. Swastikas get sprayed on synagogues in Washington. Twelve black men beat a white man with a piece of concrete in Buffalo.
Morris puts all this down “For the Record” in each issue. Why don’t I get this free each month from the F.B.I.?
This is a catch-up post on books and journals I’ve read or been looking at but have not read straight through in the past month. I’ve tried to get out of my usual lanes now that I have more time for reading. That’s easier said than done when long-standing interests tend to pull one into the default lanes. I’ll cross-post this on Facebook for anyone who wants to comment for a larger audience.
The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers (Bluemoose, 2017). I didn’t know this writer until Doug Sparks, editor of Merrimack Valley Magazine and the new Bean Magazine, asked me to interview the author for the On Coffee feature in Bean’s second issue. The inaugural issue had Henry Rollins interviewed by Dave Perry (UMass Lowell, Vinyl Destination). Doug raved about Myers’ latest novel. It’s a rough tale set in northeast England in the 18th century involving counterfeit coin-makers in a local push-back against the crown and capitalists who want to mechanize weaving in particular—the early stage of an industrial revolution in Britain. While the story is a grabber, you could read this book for the language itself because Myers is a virtuoso composer of sentences. He took a deep dive into the thick stew of lingo from the period and employs that to great effect. Myers was easy to work with across the ocean, tending his email promptly and being a friendly spirit. He’s a music writer and poet whose latest book is Under the Rock: The Poetry of Place, more evidence of his hyperlocal and bioregional leanings. I’ve only dipped into this one, but from what I’ve seen it will be a good read. Watch for the new issue of The Bean in January to learn more about the author’s coffee and tea preferences and thoughts at large about writing.
North American Stadiums by Grady Chambers (2018, Milkweed Editions, winner of the Max Ritvo Poetry Prize). Chalk this one up to Facebook and the recommendation of Mary Karr, well known for her memoirs and poems. I’m encouraged in my social media use when I see authors and thinkers like her, Garrett Hongo, Robert Reich, Roland Merullo, and others who use the FB tool to talk to people. Chambers is a graduate of the MFA Program at Syracuse University, where he studied with Karr. I would have bought this book for the title itself, which made me think of Whitman and Sandburg. This feels like a first book, loaded with strong poems that he had been stockpiling. Poems move easily down the page, the lines not straining against the reader’s breath. The wide view of the country fits the moment. I’d like to see more writers going bigger with their work. Poets ought to be more central to the massive national conversation provoked by recent political developments. Chambers’ poem “Forbes Field, Pittsburgh, 1966” is worth the price of admission here. “It was midnight in July./I was just a young man. And I walked home over the bridge.”
These Truths: A History of the United States by Jill Lepore (2018, WW Norton & Co). Well, this one is 789 pages, and I have not read the whole book. I enjoy and admire Lepore’s writing, which I see most often in the New Yorker magazine. I like her stance as an historian. To me, she’s an old-fashioned public intellectual, doing her work in the push and pull of the public marketplace as much as in professional academic circles. I remember her coming to the Visitor Center at Lowell National Historical Park, maybe with the Parker Lectures series, many years ago when she had a new book, her first I think: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity. It was a good topic for the Lowell area, whose colonial towns were in the fight. I read an interview with Lepore in the Chronicle of Higher Education that is a good preparation for cracking the new history book.
Colorado Review edited by Stephanie G/Schwind (Fall/Winter 2018, Center for Literary Publishing, Colorado State University). I don’t have as many journal subscriptions as I once had, but I’m glad when the new issue of CR arrives. I got the subscription when I submitted a book manuscript for consideration for an annual prize at the university. I enjoy this one because most of the story and poem writers are new to me. I find the work to be a mixed bag, which is my typical response to literary magazines. Just today, I read that the new editor of The Paris Review expects to find one or two stories that she’ll publish in every 100 that she reads. The odds for poetry are worse, I’m sure. The set up is Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, which is not the way I’d organize the contents. My eyes blur when I see 67 pages of poetry in a run with one poem each by most of the contributors. I was glad to see a range of forms in the poems. Toby Altman’s prose poems matched with two architectural photographs showed me something fresh in form, although he’s not the first to do this. But I liked the deviation. This issue starts with Shannon Sweetnam’s prize-winning story “Aisha and the Good for Nothing Cat.”
The Writer’s Desk by Jill Krementz [photographs] (1996, Random House). I don’t remember where I got this book, but it popped out on a shelf in an upstairs bookcase a few weeks ago and I’ve been leafing through it some mornings. Krementz got access to the inner sanctums of more than 50 writers to make photographs of their work spaces or preferred writing spots. The range of authors is fantastic, from Stephen King and Eudora Welty to Nikki Giovanni and Tennessee Williams. Each black-and-white environmental portrait is accompanied by a statement about the author’s creative process or the place where he or she writes most often. Krementz creates windows into the lives behind the books that go public. I like William F. Buckley, Jr., in the back seat of his car with his dog. There are several younger writers of the day, like Rita Dove and Edwidge Dandicat, but most of the subjects are giants, near-giants, or well-established figures. Ross McDonald, John Cheever, Joan Didion, Toni Morrison, and others.
Outport: The Soul of Newfoundland by Candace Cochrane [photographs] (2008, Flanker Press Ltd). I got this from the photographer herself at Cedar Street Studios in Amesbury, Mass., where she has a work space in a renovated three-story commercial building. There are more than 50 tenants in the building—artists, food entrepreneurs, professionals, and others. Looking at her images of Newfoundland on one wall, I said to her, “The only thing I know about Newfoundland is that it’s the setting for The Shipping News by Annie Proulx.” To which she replied, “One of my photographs is on the cover of the original edition of the novel.” File that under Small World. Turns out that Annie Proulx had seen her photos and suggested that one be used on the cover. Outport documents the Newfoundland that Cochrane encountered between 1967 and 1980 when she was working and living in the province. An outport is a small fishing village, of which there were once more than 1,400. She made the black-and-white photographs during a time when the fishing industry declined and many people left their communities. The pictures are accompanied by spare commentary and helpful captions. There’s a folklife quality to the material because of the focus on work traditions. The larger story is about a longstanding way of life that was mostly unchanged to that point. I don’t know what brought Cochrane to Amesbury. Next time I’m at the studio I will ask.
I sent a midnight report to my friend John in Chicago after the panel talk about 1968 and “The White Album” in Lowell last night. Below is a slightly cleaned-up version of two email messages fired-off soon after I got home and was still pumped-up about the event. Thanks to Jesse Heines for the photograph and the technical support for the production, from marketing to PowerPoint presentation.
We had a very good event in Lowell last night. About 75 people turned out, many from the ‘60s youth generation plus a bunch of college students and members of the youth group of the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association.
The program began with the music professor Will Moylan deconstructing "While My Guitar" from the original, remastered, and rough-cut versions. He spoke movingly about how The Beatles have been a through-story in his career in sound recording technology and performing. He said the White Album message from JPG&R was that anything was possible now in music—and maybe beyond. (Follow your bliss, Joe Campbell said to Bill Moyers years later)
I was next up with a "sketch" of Lowell in 1968, talking about the slow-motion tragedy of deindustrialization after 1920. I used data from my essay on population decline (loss of 20,000 people from 1920 to 1960 and sky-high unemployment heading to 12 percent at the peak in 1975—official joblessness was probably 25 percent if you considered random part-time, full-time underemployment, working under the table, etc.). But the "tale of two cities" is that 92,000 people still lived in Lowell while it was leaking oil badly, making it a viable consumer hub for everything from dress clothes and records to medical services and entertainment like The Doors playing at the Commodore Ballroom in 1967 when "Light My Fire" was number 1. The city still functioned even as people struggled to make ends meet. It would take 90 years for the population to exceed 100,000 again in 2010 (106,000). Also talked about the anti-war demonstrations in the city in 1969, 1970. A woman in the audience said she marched in several demos with Lowell State College students. I have two protest marches documented, one ending in a violent clash between local roughs and hard-core protestors, one of whom had a VC flag. Young men from Lowell were getting killed in Vietnam.
The other three speakers talked about their own Sixties and Beatles experiences. Three professors from UMass Lowell. Bob Forrant, history department, was at Woodstock and the Chicago convention (beat up) and other demonstrations. He said the music, Beatles, Stones, Hendrix, others, was a soundtrack of day-to-day life for young people. It was there all the time, and it kept coming in new and surprisingly good forms. For him and others, hearing it now is a time machine for emotional transport back to the days of late Sixties, early 70s.
Greg DeLaurier, political science department, was at Altamont in California, the dark side festival with the Stones where a man was killed, and various anti-war protests. At the height of the Vietnam draft, he joined the Air Force and was sent to Thailand where he and his fellow draftees serviced the cold hard bombers that rained terror on the farmers in Southeast Asia. He is very open about being totally fucked up in the service, and he wasn’t alone. Greg talked about a close friend dying in the war and another losing an arm.
John Wooding, political science, grew up in England and saw the Beatles in 1963 at his hometown theatre in Northampton, on a bill with Tommy Roe and Chris Montez. He was ten, taken to the show by his older brother. He found pics of the show online on a blog written by some guy in England. The show poster has at the bottom, The Beatles. His remarks widened out to the cultural and political turmoil in England and Europe in general, from Enoch Powell's "Rivers of Blood" anti-immigrant rantings in London to the student riots in France that toppled one administration, as well as the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Jesse Heines, computer science, ran the laptop for music and slides—he didn't make a formal presentation but at one point talked about the selective service lottery and the birthday number that sealed the fate of hundreds of thousands if not more than a million in that phase of the war. He was lucky---a doctor friend of the family wrote him up as too ill to serve and got him medically deferred. He choked up talking about it—and then he said his lottery number out loud, 90, which led to maybe the most affecting moment of the evening. I responded by saying my number was 62, followed by ten or twelve other guys in the audience saying their numbers. We all knew our number. It was generally understood that anyone with a number below 150 was on track for combat in Vietnam. Our music professor on the panel had number 4, so I don't know how he got out of the draft. Sitting in the back, Rosemary said it was a chilling moment for her to hear the men say their numbers.
The audience was engaged. Many questions and comments, people sharing their own reactions to “The White Album” and the Sixties in general. People asked about favorite songs on the double album. “While My Guitar” won the small polling sample. Other votes for “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road,” “Back in the U.S.S.R,” and “Long, Long, Long.”
The panel was part of a larger project called Lowell: A City of Learning, which is an emerging effort to get Lowell designated by UNESCO as a world-class City of Learning, of which there are dozens around the globe but not one in the U.S. Lowell would be the first designation, possibly in North America. Not sure if Canada or Mexico has one. The chief organizer, my friend John Wooding, the Englishman who is now a naturalized U.S. citizen, has been working with folks in Cork, Ireland, to get Lowell into the system. There's a review process. Cork has the designation. It's an interesting venture. The event last night was essentially a teach-in or free-school session led by local persons with valuable knowledge.
A bit more.
Last night I met a young woman from Argentina who enrolled at UMass Lowell to play field hockey. She's an art student. I was blown away. Argentina. Came up by herself and got situated on campus and then found her way downtown for the 1968 talk on the recommendation of an art professor. She asked me to send her a summary because she missed a lot of the conversation due to people speaking English fast—of course we were. She's bilingual, to start with, a light-year beyond my language literacy.
So, we had this event last night. Not extraordinary, really, but remarkable all the same, and I came away thinking one cannot underestimate the life experience of those who are close by. People live larger lives than often advertised. Of the five guys on the panel, and we were all guys like the Dave Clark 5, here's some of what we had witnessed or been part of collectively in the Sixties and later:
As a kid, saw The Beatles in Northampton, England, in 1963
Served in Thailand during Vietnam, servicing bomber jets
Got head cracked at Chicago convention riots while protesting war
Made the scene at Altamont (survived to tell about it)
Made the scene at Woodstock (survived and not seen naked in the documentary film)
Got spit on by Johnny Rotten in a British club (not intentional, a ‘70s thing)
Helped crowd try to levitate the Pentagon as anti-war protest (unsuccessful launch)
Escaped the Vietnam-era draft with an advantageous doctor's report
Recorded music at the Hit Factory in NYCity some time after John Lennon did Double Fantasy there
Shaved and cut ponytail to campaign for Clean Gene McCarthy in N.H. primary, challenging President LBJ
Skipped school to see Cream in London and sat four feet from Eric Clapton (AKA, God, according to Tube graffiti)
Edited Jack Kerouac's early writings, now published in three languages (major beatnik beginnings)
Emily Dickinson wrote, "I'm Nobody! Who are you?" But surprisingly, people find themselves or put themselves in the flow of History, the wide, fast stream of events and situations that shape us as our mortal coils unwind. Sure, some people just stay in the house, but more people than one might assume jump in the big river that’s never the same twice.
The informal panel talk described on the poster above will include commentary about and music from “The White Album” as well as the speakers’ reflections about the momentous year, 1968. I was asked by the organizers to provide the local context for the record’s release 50 years ago—November 22 to be exact. I took the assignment for a ten-minute talking slot and made notes that turned into a script, which became a short essay. The end product is longer than I had planned, but as I researched and wrote I picked up more relevant information and my thinking expanded. I needed a structure for my presentation, so I kept going. For the event two days from now, I’ll pull highlights from the essay—facts, anecdotes, passages that will give the audience a sense of the late ‘60s in Lowell, Mass. Below is the full essay for anyone who would like to read the long version, very different from “Revolution 9” as long versions go.
1968 and ‘The White Album’ in Lowell
JOAN DIDION’S NOW-CLASSIC 1972 book The White Album begins: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” In her essays, she’s not writing about The Beatles as much as tapping the vibe of the late 1960s to say what it felt like to be alive in that moment. Didion’s world was shifting and eluding meaning—improvisation had upset a solid storyline. She writes, “We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” She started questioning her assumptions. Events were overtaking the expected pattern. Even The Beatles were shifting from a tight band to four separate players and back again in their double album called The Beatles and more famously “The White Album.”
“Helter Skelter,” a hard-rock song on disc two, whose name comes from a type of playground slide in England, got turned into an obscene threat by the murderous Charles Manson cult in 1969. Manson, a criminal and self-proclaimed prophet, concocted a twisted interpretation of “The White Album” as an apocalyptic forecast. A group of Manson’s followers butchered five people in Los Angeles, including the actress Sharon Tate, who was pregnant. Things were still falling apart, the center still not holding—a situation consistent with Didion’s earlier take on modern American culture in her first book of essays, Slouching Toward Bethlehem.
I was born in Lowell and grew up in the town of Dracut close by. In 1968, I finished eighth grade and started high school. To that point I was obsessed with two things: baseball and The Beatles. My family never missed the nightly news on TV, and my parents read two newspapers each day, three on Sunday if my older brother bought the New York Times. We were a current events family, so I knew what was going on. But my political awakening at fourteen years old didn’t happen until I saw the police thrashing anti-war demonstrators on live TV during the Democratic Party’s national convention in Chicago.
A cousin of mine, Marc, traveled to Chicago with friends from UMass Amherst to protest and was beaten by cops. He’s six years older than me. Marc had the longest hair of any of my cousins and looked and felt like the Sixties to me. His girlfriend was an artist. We never spoke about his politics, but I watched him and soaked up any news about him from his mother, my aunt Rollie. (He intrigued me as a little kid because he had pictures of New York Yankees baseball stars in his room—not Red Sox. The Yankees were winners in those days.)
My rising opposition to the Vietnam War boiled over as I watched the chaos on the Chicago streets and heard young demonstrators chanting, “The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!” Unforgettable scenes and words that shaped me.
A few years later, when reading Norman Mailer’s account of the conventions of 1968 in Miami and the Siege of Chicago, the vivid description of that clash in Chicago jumped off the page and stoked my emotions again. The Chicago convention radicalized me, if that’s not too dramatic for a fourteen-year-old. When Graham Nash sang his song “Chicago” at Boarding House Park in Lowell two summers ago, he lit up my nervous system again with these passionate lines: “We can change the world, rearrange the world/It’s dying—to get better.” Just about everybody knew the words and was singing loudly. “If you believe in justice . . ./And if you believe in freedom/. . . open up the door.”
“The White Album”
In late November 1968, my friend Susan in Dracut walked three miles in the rain to buy the new Beatles double album at a Lowell record shop and hitchhiked home when the paper bag started to soak through. “I was one crazy Beatles fan,” she says.
At college, another friend, John, a photographer now, remembers “the beautiful color prints of the boys” that his roommate had taped to the wall. Around the same time, the Rolling Stones released their Beggars’ Banquet recording in an off-white sleeve, a second “white” album. John says it took all weekend to “fully consider both albums . . . listening deeply, testing our understanding of the music and lyrics, poring over the liner notes for hidden communiques.” He adds that The Beatles’ plain white album cover was excellent for rolling joints because “the small bits of weed stood out nicely.” John says the music didn’t catch hold of him and his friends until after winter break and the first half of the year. There were thirty new songs to absorb—in so many styles, with so much content.
My lifelong friend Paul recalls friends from high school who could afford to buy the album “debating for months whether it was as good as Sgt. Pepper or a hodgepodge of John’s and Paul’s songs.” Some of them thought it was a mess. He says, “Beatles’ songs [the group and solo] in 1969, ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’ and ‘Give Peace a Chance,’ were overtly political, but not as clever as the lyrics to ‘Back in the U.S.S.R.’ or as poetic as ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps.’”
Speaking globally, a growing-up classmate of mine, Willy, says: “To have been lucky enough to come of age as those first Beatles songs hit the airwaves was akin to grabbing the lightning bolt right out of the sky.”
My experience with “The White Album” lagged. When the album landed, I was still listening to Beatles’ songs from 1964 and 1967, A Hard Day’s Night and Magical Mystery Tour, plus a handful of number-one singles that I had on the small records, 45s. At later high school dance and beer-drinking parties, “The White Album” sank in thanks to a hundred spins on the turntable and repeated eight-track tape plays. “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” “Rocky Raccoon,” “While My Guitar,” “Bungalow Bill,” even the kooky “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” got us going in the town basements and city living rooms. Before and after the drinking age dropped to 18 years old, we had in our crowd two sets of parents who said they’d rather have their kids drinking downstairs in “a cellar full of noise” than drag-racing on the highway and tossing beer cans out the window if a cruiser fired up its blue lights. Anyone was welcomed to stay over. Nobody crashed a car.
We rocked out to The Beatles, Stones, Grand Funk Railroad, Crosby-Stills-Nash-and-Young, The Who, and lots of others. But The Beatles provided the musical anchor, “The White Album” and Abbey Road dominating. For about ten minutes I was in a makeshift band that tried hard to copy “Rocky Raccoon,” a mash-up of folk and honky-tonk showing the group’s incredible range. As an older guy I go back to “The White Album” for select cuts like “Long, Long, Long,” a gem featuring George’s voice and guitar with Ringo’s massive drumming.
My friends and I didn’t connect “The White Album” to politics at the time, even with the song “Revolution” on the disc and the not-so-subtle commentary of “Piggies” and “Happiness Is a Warm Gun.” We took The Beatles for music first and almost exclusively. That’s what we needed. The sound and the energy. We took them secondly for fashion, hair and clothes.
Lowell’s population in 1968 was about 94,000—92 percent white, 5 percent Hispanic, 1 percent black, and .7 percent Asian. (The 2010 census showed 52.8 percent white, 17.3 percent Hispanic, 6.8 percent black, and 20.2 percent Asian.) Twenty thousand people left the city between 1920 and 1960, many of them World War II veterans like my father moving their families to the ring of suburbs.
After World War II, unemployment in the city rose and stayed high. The authorities began tearing down old houses, tenements, and business structures, hoping to attract new companies with open space for expansion. According to one report by neighborhood leaders: “The Lowell region was one of eight major urban centers in the U.S. classified as places with chronic unemployment, and as late as 1965 the jobless rate was 50 percent higher than the national average. From economic deprivation grew crime, neglect of the young and the elderly, poor physical and mental health, dependence of public welfare programs, and the steady withering of community involvement and spirit.”
A friend of mine walked to high school from his home across the river from downtown. He summed up what a lot of young people saw in the city. “I could have taken a bus, but walking the route, surrounded by empty mill buildings with broken windows, somehow reinforced the new independence I felt since leaving grammar school. Everything was bigger, and older, than the town I knew. History had been made here—had been—but the Lowell I walked through every day from 1968 to 1970 was spent and gray, punctuated only by the burnt-orange brick mill walls.”
Community leaders involved in the federal Model Cities urban renewal project talked about rehabilitating Lowell’s history, mills, and canals as a way to revive the spirit and economy of the city. At the grassroots, activists planned a way forward. They believed in education as a stimulant and pictured a “City of Learning” in a museum-without-walls. Ten years of effort led to tremendous change by 1978, when the city was named a national park, commemorating the Industrial Revolution of the mid-1800s, and the new computer industry created jobs in the region.
On the Streets
In the nation and world every month of 1968 brought an explosion, from the brutal Tet Offensive in South Vietnam that revealed the strength of the opposition to the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy, as well as student turmoil in France and Mexico and the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia.
By 1968, the Vietnam War was in Lowell’s bloodstream. In 1965, Army soldier Donald Arcand, 19 years old, was killed in South Vietnam near the end of his tour of duty—the first Lowell man to die in that war. He was riding in a helicopter that was shot down by fighters on the ground. He had played basketball at St Joseph’s High School. Jane Hoye, who was engaged to Donald when he was killed, wrote years later that she felt an “indescribable sadness” at the news of his death. She added, “There were no men in Lowell in those days. They were all drafted.”
City officials in 1969 dedicated Arcand Drive in honor of Donald—it’s a prominent road in front of the JFK Civic Center and Lowell City Hall. The same year anti-war activists in Massachusetts began organizing peace marches in the older industrial cities where the military was getting so many of its members. They wanted to save lives. In Lowell, some young people and older residents listened to the organizers describe a plan for an anti-war march in 1970. When the day of the march came, the protesting students, community people, and hard-core anti-war activists from outside the city encountered violent resistance from Lowell rough guys who detested what they believed were anti-American symbols and chants.
One of the anti-war organizers, Michael, wrote that he saw the large crowd and knew “something big was up. We believed it was our march. We were wrong.” Talking about the clash years later, one local man said he hated seeing the Viet Cong flag being waved in the march. “Our friends were still there, getting killed.”
There had been another peace march in Lowell with a better outcome. The community staged an action in solidarity with the national Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam. In Boston, 100,000 people assembled to protest, one of many demonstrations across the country. My friend Paul, mentioned earlier, was a sophomore in high school in October 1969 when he and several friends joined a throng of people:
“Walking up Merrimack Street to City Hall under a blue sky with the sun shining through yellow maple leaves. The day was crisp and clear as only October can be at times. Streets were closed. More people joined the crowd when we passed St. Anne’s Church and Lowell High School. The mood was somber. We were protesting the war, exercising new muscles and finding a new voice. For many of us, it was our first political act.
“I felt some concern about participating, as my sister’s boyfriend was stationed in Vietnam, and, of course, my father saw any march like that as unpatriotic. But, again it was like an initial coming-out and acknowledging that I could deal with possible repercussions.”
What else was going on in the city? All the big and little parts of daily life. In 1968, 2500 people went to Shedd Park in the Belvidere neighborhood to watch Lowell High School’s baseball team play in a conference tournament game. It was the largest baseball crowd in the school’s history. Lowell High lost to its cross-town rival, Catholic Keith High School. With only 400 students, Keith won the Catholic Conference baseball championship and played in the Eastern Mass. Championship game, losing to Reading, 2-1. Baseball was booming, in part because of the Red Sox’s “Impossible Dream” year in 1967 when they won the American League championship and then lost in the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games.
In 1968, my cousins Tommy and Danny and I discovered that we could buy a carton of Topps baseball cards for the wholesale price at the Notini Tobacco Company distribution warehouse in Lowell. What a revelation. Cut out the middle man. In those days the price at the corner variety store was ten cents a pack. Each time Topps released a new series for sale, we’d get a carton with 20 or more packs at a discount. What wealth we had when we spread our fresh cards on the kitchen table. We threw out the thin, hard, flat rectangles of pink bubble gum.
The Doors played at the Commodore Ballroom in 1967, a music venue near the Lowell train station today. Their song “Light My Fire” was the number one song in the country. Around that time, the Commodore also presented Cream, Jimi Hendrix, and the Kinks. Fans saw Vanilla Fudge, Moby Grape, Ultimate Spinach, and the 1910 Fruit Gum Company—there was a food trend in names. The popular house band was Little John and the Sherwoods, like Paul Revere and the Raiders. At nearby Canobie Lake amusement park, Sonny & Cher, Brenda Lee, and The Supremes performed. The record stores, Garnick’s and Record Lane, stocked new music. Two AM radio stations kept residents informed and entertained.
A Teen Talk column in the Lowell Sun newspaper from 1968 described the anticipation of teenagers at Lowell High School waiting for the annual spring Field Day parades and outdoor skill competitions. “There was a fever gripping the students,” according to the Sun. In other news, the Middlesex Women’s Club raised money for college scholarships.
Downtown Lowell had two department stores and several good-quality women’s and men’s clothing stores as well as shoe stores and two thriving Five-and-Ten-Cents stores, Woolworth’s and Kresge’s. Banks and offices for lawyers, doctors, and dentists lined the streets and filled upper floors of commercial buildings. Stores had regular business hours that included Monday and Thursday night openings. Dozens of churches and many religious schools, Catholic and Hellenic, thrived. In a city that had more than 40 movie theatre since the early 1900s, the city’s last first-run movie theatre, the Strand on Central Street, closed in 1968.
The Sixties counterculture writer Raymond Mungo grew up in Lawrence, about 15 miles downriver from Lowell, and became an antiestablishment media star as a student news reporter at Boston University. He had his own take on Lowell in 1969. He and friends decided to recreate Henry David Thoreau’s boat trip up the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. When he got his canoe out of the Concord River in Lowell this is what he saw: “There is a strikingly nineteenth-century downtown area, but despite the energetic promotion of the oldest merchants in town, it is slowly corroding as it loses ground to the highway shopping plazas. Life there is sooty, and even the young people look hard and wrinkled. Though it is only a stone’s throw from cultured, boring Boston, it may as well be a thousand miles away for all the intellectual influence it absorbed. We didn’t know it [but our friend Peter] had earlier fled the city, terrified by the fierce looks and obscene catcalls which his long hair had provoked.”
Raymond was not intimidated, knowing this kind of working-class city. Later, a Lowell man put Mungo’s canoe in his truck and drove the travelers to the Merrimack River bank. People living nearby heard about the campers and brought them donuts and coffee.
Beat to Beatles
Mungo wanted to pick up Jack Kerouac and take him away from Lowell, but Jack had moved to Florida a year before Mungo dropped in. The famous “beatnik” author, in his mid-forties, had come back home in 1967 after marrying Stella Sampas of Lowell, whom he knew in his youth. With his wife and sick mother, Jack lived in a suburban-style ranch house in the outer Highlands neighborhood. In February 1968, his novel Vanity of Duluoz was published. He had put the finishing touches on the story while in Lowell. It was the last of his novels that he saw published. In the book, he re-tells his youthful adventures with football, the Merchant Marine, and New York City subterranean life. A New York Times reviewer called the book “slap-dash” and “one-dimensional.” A recent web search showed seventy-seven media articles about the novel when it was launched.
In the novel he jokes about his lightly disguised seaman character docking in England and spending time with a couple of women who were happy to welcome a sturdy young Yank. The ship carried bombs for the British war effort against the German Nazis. He writes: “We sailed . . . straight for Liverpool. 1943. The year the Beatles were born there, ha ha ha.”
Kidding aside, twenty-one-year-old Kerouac was saddened by the wartime deprivation in Liverpool: “Here, I saw queues of shawled women (clothing is scarce) waiting in line for some of the palest meat I ever saw . . . . The children are dirty, ill-clothed, and just plain ill.” The German air force mercilessly attacked Liverpool because it was an important port city. John, Paul, George, and Ringo (or Richard as a boy) were all war babies, born between 1940 and 1943. Despite challenging conditions, their families managed to make their lives reasonably comfortable, allowing them to imagine working as entertainers and artists.
In 1964, Kerouac saw there was Beat in Beatles. The Beat Generation, which Kerouac named, is taken by people in different ways: weariness as in beat down, the musical tempo of jazz, even beatific in a spiritual sense. Poet Gregory Corso, a friend of Kerouac’s, quipped: “Five guys a generation don’t make.” Kerouac’s friend William Burroughs made the short list of people shown on the iconic Sgt. Pepper album cover. I don’t know if that was Lennon’s or McCartney’s doing. Another of Jack’s Beat Generation allies, poet Allen Ginsberg, quickly picked up on the pop magic of the group. He later collaborated with Paul McCartney on “Ballad of the Skeletons,” a song for peace.
I haven’t found a source linking the Beat writers’ label directly to The Beatles, but there was an affinity between the two. In Liverpool, the talk was about Beat Music and the Mersey Beat for the sound of local bands along the Mersey River. And an earlier name for the band was The Silver Beetles, similar to Buddy Holly’s Crickets in America. Like the core writers of the Beat Generation, the four members of the band functioned as a group, reinforcing each other’s creative ambition. The Beats came through the war as young adults scarred by the carnage and looking for an alternative way to pursue happiness, that essential American dream. Unlike them, the young guys who made The Beatles survived the war as little children, without the damage that was done to the souls of the Beat writers. They were past all that and ran toward the light, drawn forward by the revved-up sound of rock and roll.
11/6/18 Paul Marion
* Special thanks to Michael Ansara, Susan April, Paul Brouillette, Willy LeMay, Eileen Loucroft, and John Suiter for sharing their reflections and recollections.
My wife Rosemary and I have been watching the History Channel’s three-night presentation of a new film about the political scandal Watergate, which is disturbingly relevant because of the current chaos in Washington, D.C. The documentary or docudrama approach provides a cool, fact-based account of the sprawling corruption that brought down the administration of President Richard M. Nixon. The Commander-in-Chief and “all the President’s men,” to borrow a book title from the time, had subverted the nation’s electoral process, abused executive power, broken laws and obstructed justice, and waged political war on Nixon’s enemies, as he called them. He resigned in August 1974 after a long battle with a special prosecutor and Congressional investigators. Vice President Gerald R. Ford stepped up to the presidency and soon pardoned Nixon, saying that it was time for the “long national nightmare” to end. The next year, I read a news story about Ford being honored as “Minute Man of the Year” by a national association of Army Reserve officers. That was the catalyst in this case. The news article also gave me the original title.
Trying to sum up the Watergate affair for myself and put a frame on the wild series of events, I wrote the following poem. Because the story is so complex, I used an irregular sonnet form to contain the information. I’ve composed more often in open than closed forms, so this piece is an exception from my early writing days. There are many inside references such as Nixon’s middle name, Milhous, but I felt that the details were crucial to evoking the history unfolding in real time. Eighty million people watched John Dean testify on TV before U.S. Senators, according to media reports. The poem was not published until 2017, when I included it in my book Union River. The poem fit in a sequence of poems set in California. The book’s Americana theme also provided a rationale for finally putting it out there. I changed the title to “San Clemente” because I lived north of Nixon’s California coastal home for a time in the 1980s. He was living there, where he had retreated and tried to rehabilitate his reputation after quitting the White House. Sometimes I pictured him walking the beach in his coat and tie,“free to drink martinis and watch the sun rise,” in the words of Bob Dylan.
My relationship to Nixon, if I can call it that, is complicated because I benefited from Nixon’s decision to suspend the military draft just as I turned 18 in 1972. I had a low number in the Selective Service lottery, 62, and would have been ordered to report for a physical exam and then combat duty because I was healthy. The same month, the voting age was lowered to 18 years old by federal law. I consider myself fortunate in this regard.
We asked if the system had worked when it was through.
The drumming of Post reporters in ‘72
Had White House bag-men scrambling in the stew.
Instead of counting dead Viet Cong, they dreamt payoff sagas,
Talking “stonewall” and “tossing out the big enchilada.”
Credible Dean blew a factual whistle for Sam Ervin.
Milhous squirmed, but knew Spiro had slipped the pen.
The Saturday Night Massacre of Cox drew mail by tons.
Oval Office lawyers and priests trotted out candid lines.
Dick TV’d his edited transcripts, said he wasn’t lying.
But Judge Sirica persisted, the full Supreme
Court said, “Give,” and Rodino, red-eared from screen-
Ing tapes, found the high crime. Impeachment’s Goliath Sword
Sent Nixon scuttering west in a dethroned whirlybird.
In the late 1970s when I was deep into my discovery of poems and poets, I made twenty simple portraits of writers I admired. Growing up, I always dabbled with crayons, watercolors, and colored pencils, making pictures. I copied the Peanuts comic strip characters and Fred Flintstone from TV. At home, I watched my artist brother Richard closely when he worked in the cellar. I didn’t take art classes in high school, but signed up for watercolor painting as an elective course in college. The instructor was Carlton Plummer, a respected New England painter. He urged us to “think like a turtle and paint like a rabbit” to keep the watercolors fresh. Alongside the writing, my notebooks have drawings, painted scenes and people, collages, and scrapbook paste-ins. This set of portraits was more ambitious but still done quickly to keep the work loose and expressive. They can be taken as cartoons for the exaggeration.
The originals are small, approximately 8.5 x 11 with a few exceptions like the longer Yevtushenko piece on watercolor paper. The paper varies from standard white or a light gray stock I had on hand to colored sheets like the blue for Emily Dickinson. Frost and Kinnell are on thin white cardboard. I wrote the names with an unusual drawing pencil whose marking turned violet when I brushed water on the letters.The portraits have been filed since I made them. Once in a while I took them out to remember the time. So many years later, the colors are still vibrant. Following are seven from the series. I’ve got Yeats first, but that doesn’t suggest a priority in the sequence. Others in the group but not shown here include Langston Hughes, William Carlos Williams, Charles Simic, Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, Allen Ginsberg, Theodore Roethke, Wallace Stevens, Robert Lowell, e e cummings, and a few more.
This is an email message sent to my friend John Suiter in Chicago at 6.30 AM, about three hours after the mythic contest between the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers ended with an 18th-inning victory in game three of the World Series. I quit watching TV after the top of the 15th inning when the Red Sox blew a good chance to break the 2-2 tie with at least one run. That was at 2.30 AM. The game of over seven hours, longest in World Series history, began about 8.00 PM Eastern Time. I’ve loved baseball for about 60 years, brought along by my father and second-oldest brother, David, from the time I was four or five. For a time it was my dream to play major league ball, but I was not good enough to get beyond high school baseball. I was the size of Jose Altuve and Dustin Pedroia minus the super raw talent required for a short guy to succeed in the big leagues. I’ve followed the Red Sox all this time, watching them miss being champions until the now-legendary 2004 defeat of the dreaded New York Yankees and ensuing World Series win against the St. Louis Cardinals. The game last night and into this morning spurred me to tell John what I was feeling. He had sent me an email message from Chicago after waking up and seeing the game was still on. He wanted to know if I was up in New England and were we watching the action simultaneously. Here’s what I wrote to him—I added the title “Red & Blue Diamond Heroes & Villains” just now.
It was baseball like opera, like a Russian novel, baseball binge-watched in real time.
I turned off the game after the top of the 15th when the main man Mookie (is he nicknamed for Mookie Wilson of the Mets or for Mookie in Spike Lee's movie?) took a whiff pitch with two outs and JackieBradleyJunior on second. Backwards K. Our proven-MVP Mookie broke a record with 0-7 in a World Series game, matched by shortstop Xander B., 0-8. The top 3 slots for Red Sox were, like, 0-23. Terrible. But they had a chance to win.
I couldn't watch more. It was 2.30 AM. The game did not end for another hour. I couldn't watch with all the horror movies of past Red Sox seasons in my head. Even with them up 2-0 in the World Series, I felt total dread. The sporting life is never safe for a Red Sox fan.
Nate Eovoldi. What a superman. He pitched a whole game, 97 pitches until he got stung by Max Muncy. Max. I think he was named after my recent story narrator, Max in Maine, in some crazy time warp twist of birth in Texas or wherever Muncy is from. Maybe Trenton, N.J., where his mother slipped through a seam in a black hole and read my future short story on my website just before going to the hospital to give birth and name her new boy Max. The new Kirk Gibson of LA-LA Land. 18th inning. Bottom. What more could Nathan do? Fly to Nathan's in New York and get that man a red-hot, a Coney Island, a half-dozen with onions, relish, and mustard as yellow as Tweety Bird in the cartoons.
Eduardo Nunez. A Boston Globe writer said he was in the wrong sport last night. The Bosox third baseman should have been in soccer shorts for all the tumbling, diving, and lurching he did from the 12th inning on. Is he dead yet? I was thinking after each of three falling-diving up-ends. A Facebook friend put up a clip from a Monty Python film with the knight missing two arms and a leg saying, I’m invincible.
The game was Boston’s but for a skid in the near-outfield grass by 2b-man Ian Kinsler, who is what on the side? A bagpipes salesman? A kilt manufacturer? No, it turns out he's in business with rock star Jack White in Texas, making baseball bats. But, Kinsler, who got beat out for his college shortstop spot at Arizona State by Dustin “Pedey” Pedroia (who would go to the Sox), causing Ian to transfer to Missouri—Kinsler slips and makes a wild throw to first that never-before-playing-first-base Christian Vazquez (catcher) cannot haul in, not his fault—the throw goes wide to the photographers’ corral. Run scores. Run scores. Tie game instead of a win for Boston. Nate must have died inside. Fellow pitcher Rick Porcello told the Globe he cried for Nate when it was over because Eovoldi left nothing on the field. An epic relief job. Magic Manager Alex Cora pushed him to the brink. 97 pitches. Leaving the scary Drew Pomeranz, lefty, sitting alone in the bullpen for what seemed like eternity, afraid to bring in Drew who could blow up in an L.A. Minute. It was Drew “Don't-Go-There” Pomeranz unless Nate had taken a line drive to the forehead. Even then maybe Cora would have made Brock Holt pitch. Brock-star has played everywhere else this year but catcher.
Oh, the pain. Insufferable Globe scribe Dan Shaughnessy with his insufferable tics (the Sons of Cora, like the Sons of Farrell and the Sons of every other Boston manager, plus his pop music name-drops) is already writing the obituary for the 2018 Sox. They were up 2 games, and now they are dog meat.
For 14 and 1/2 innings I watched one of the most magnetic baseball games I've seen on TV, even if only 4 runs scored at that point. They had me. The prospect of going up 3-0 vs. L.A. was not to be believed but suddenly possible before Mookie got whiffed and then the Sons of Dave Roberts hung in by fingernails until Max Muncy, let go by Oakland in 2017, blew a hole in the imaginary surreal HOOD dairy company blimp of Fenway Park fame floating beyond the outfield wall in Chavez Ravine, a stadium whose loaded origin can be learned in Ry Cooder's concept album of the same name that tells us about the working-class Mexican-American neighborhood that got bulldozed and wound up in hands of Brooklyn baseball money-men who brought their product to the west coast. But that's another story for another day.
Here, this morning, it's all hail Nate Eovoldi, the fallen almost-hero of the Carmine Hose who grew up in Alvin Texas, also hometown of hardball god Nolan Ryan, can you believe that synchronicity? Nate Eovoldi who came back from Tommy John surgery and pitched like Babe Ruth last night, the way the Babe in red socks pitched 14 innings in 1916 against the Brooklyn Robins in the borrowed Boston Braves field in Beantown. Nathan Eovoldi who performed under the Olympian gaze of Sandy Koufax sitting close to the field in a Dodger comp seat and looking like ten million bucks, a survivor of the Rat Pack-era who has kept his dignity and handsome looks. We remember Sandy Koufax. We will remember Nathan Eovoldi even though he got the "L" in game three of the World Series of 2018.
So, it's on to the field tonight after a seven-hour game. Ernie Banks used to say “Let’s play two,” and they did last night even though unplanned.
Writing from the high hill in Amesbury, Mass., whose Main Street mural poet gave the name to Whittier, California, where the Quakers put down roots and up grew a toxic plant called Richius Nixonium, but that's another story. The Whittier Quakers of today were surely wearing Dodger-blue caps and rooting for Max Muncy at midnight. Root, root, root for the home team.
Au revoir, my dark hours correspondent.
Your fellow fan,
AKA Paul Blair, cf, Balt. Orioles
Blueberry Bears: A Story
LEAVING BANGOR’S GREYHOUND STATION, Sash and I drove across the bridge toward Clifton, his old red pickup cruising along Route 9. Called “The Coaster” for its hills and curves, the road hugs the acrid Cheemo River. Through Brewer and Eddington the road passes neat suburban plots and whitewashed schools until the junction of 160 when the scene degrades. Dwellings are now mismatched, all in stages of disrepair. Trailers, Quonset huts, sagging barns, half-cellars, and tar paper shacks crop up alongside family farms with split-rail fences, weathered shingles, and a goat in the yard. Sash is pointing to the cottage where he buys milk when he slows and hooks into Sam’s dooryard.
The first impression is ramshackle. Then you see it’s homemade. The dog sniffs your leg like it would anywhere, the horse barn stinks like any other. The house is two gray stories, complete with mosquito wetlands in the rear. Inside, the family watches Bible TV on the color set that will be paid for next week says laughing Sam Branch. A wood-stove dominates the living room. Tacked-up family snapshots cover half of one wall. A gold-framed photograph of President John F. Kennedy stands on a table in a side room. His daughters are buzzing around the house, up and down the stairs with art supplies for a 4-H Club project, the older one, Lily, helping the younger, Tammy.
Rangy, grizzled Sam wears a tan County Glass shirt and sweat-stiff jeans. In an easy chair, he’s propped his white-socked feet on a hassock. Sam and Sash have worked together since Sash arrived in the area two years ago, leaving Rhode Island to Roger Williams. Sash is also wearing his shop shirt and features blue gas station pants. Sam showed him the ropes when he got hired by County Glass. They are often paired on service runs for big jobs in Machias (they say “Match-iss”) and Eastport.
On this day, I’m the new guy visiting from down south. I’m between jobs and hanging out with my old pond hockey teammate. What’s really going on is that I lost my girlfriend, and it was my fault. I didn’t know how to act with her. I thought it would help my attitude to get out of town, shake loose of the gloom.
Sam’s wife Edie has a mouth that seems to be customized for a cigarette. She’s short and dressed in a print blouse, evergreen slacks, and pink slippers. While talking to us she pins up her grainy silver hair. After serving us coffee, she needles Sash about women that he has or doesn’t have, depending on the season. He’s been through this routine with her.
“What are you doing with Katey Morin? I hear she’s gettin’ a rise out of numb-nuts Chester Wilkins at Otis Hardware sayin’ she needs a male plug for her female socket—and askin’ does he have something on sale that he could deliver? She’s crazier-en hell, but you’d be missing out. Don’t let Chester connect the dots.
“Katey’s sister put Ray Marcotte out of her fancy trailer when she found out he was jumpin’ on the donut shop lady in Brewer whose husband drowned last spring. What a shame. The husband must-a got a cramp doin’ his exercise laps by himself less than a hundred feet from shore. He was studyin’ to be a medical technician, can you believe it? Some fisherman from Mariahville found the body.”
She carries on about her tasty pepperoni pizza last night at Jimmy’s Grill in the next town over—and the milk adder she chopped up with a shovel yesterday. “Big around as a garden hose,” she says, making a circle with her thumb and middle finger.
Sam interrupts her to ask if we want to buy a CB radio. “Still in the freezer coolin’ off. Son-of-a whore sold it to me has a friend at Radio Shack, know what I mean.”
His jokey talk is clipped and full of wheezy noises. “I’m watchin’ church on TV. Every Sunday.”
“Did you see Larry and Louise with their new outboard over to Graham Lake? He’s been dyin’ to give it a run. I thought I saw his trailer down by the boat landing close to your place. What’s the deal on your well, anyway? Did the driller hit China yet? Ha!”
Sash finishes his coffee and says, “Max and I come to pick blueberries out back.”
Edie offers to fix muffins if we get a “couple-three quarts.” With that, Sash and I and the two Branch daughters climb into the truck and start down a dirt path leading to a hill where the fields are heavy with berries.
Sixteen-year-old Lily has shaggy curls and a heart-shaped face. She wears denim cut-offs, a black halter, and clomp-heeled school shoes without socks. Her legs are scratched from cutting vines on the side of the barn. Tammy, ten years old, is a talking machine, wondering if we’ll see a bear around the next curve and retelling her every woodsy adventure. She’s in a T-shirt and cargo pants, red basketball sneakers.
The road is washed-out in spots by a week of rain, so a mile in we leave the truck and hike the last steep stretch to the blueberry bushes. We begin to pick the plump fruit, in no time filling a plastic lemonade jug, a marshmallow spread container, and three family-sized jelly jars. We eat our way up the hill, following a path narrowed by a wet gully and clumps of yellow flowers. Brown-eyed Susans dot the high grass. Granite stepping stones become islands for us to crouch on as we bring in the harvest. Berries ease into our palms when we rake fingers across the top of low bushes. Among the ripe ones are smaller reddish berries that will be ready in another week. It’s not like fish that you can throw back in the lake if they’re too small. The spheres with small crowns look dusty until you rub them—then they gleam midnight blue. In the mouth, they’re sweet with a bit of raw tang. Carrying our full containers we walk to the top. Clouds mass, threatening a shower. Sash hollers, “Max, I’ve never seen so many blueberries. Look at all the bushes. This is like the poppy field in The Wizard of Oz!
Lily gets after Tammy, saying, “You better not be eating any berries when we get home ‘cause you didn’t pick any, all you did was eat. Plus, Ma is making a set-down dinner later for family Sunday. Chicken with roasted potatoes. And apple pie.”
“I don’t care. I’m not hungry anyway,” Tammy snaps.
On top we see rolling hills, valleys, many-fingered lakes, and five shades of green stretching to the horizon. To the east is a sheer rock cliff—higher peaks on the horizon. Huge flat stones around us are rafts in the noon sun. A deserted cabin leans near a thick pine tree.
The long view reminds me of who I’d like to be standing close to. My girlfriend told me it was too much, too fast. She didn’t want to be taken care of. I feel like I’ve put on a full-body shock absorber to get through the days. The situation did not go unnoticed by my family. My mother said, “If you were with her you’d be in heaven—and this, right here where we are, this is not heaven.”
Tammy starts talking bears. Her mother saw a bear at the back door one time and said it made her hair stand straight up like a wire brush. Her father hunted around here. Once, he and two friends were caught “jackin’” or jacklighting. Somebody saw them shooting into a field from a car window at night and called the cops. The fine was $200 each. Jacklighting is almost as bad as killing someone, Sash says.
Back at the house, Sam is in his truck hooking up the hot CB. Edie says it’ll be good to have so he can raise her on the home box to let her know he’s coming for supper. She sings a few lines from C. W. McCall’s “Convoy” CB novelty song that was a hit coast-to-coast, mimicking the truckers.
The girls want to ride horses. Sash offers to help with the saddles. This is not my area of expertise. He declines Lily’s request to join the riding party with a flip of his palm: “Sorry, no slow dances, I’m strictly boogaloo.”
After a bit of parading and short races in the corral, Lily switches to her sister’s horse and lets me ride the calm horse, Sonny, both of them deep brown with white blazes. We walk with increasing pace along the fence and then head up the path to the street. Right off, Sonny gallops and has me bouncing and hanging on as I try to slow him. On his own he pulls up and walks nicely just as Lily said he would when we reach the street. We go a short distance up the street, and then turn back to the house. Tammy catches up to us on a brown-and-white spotted pony just before I get Sonny back to the yard without more surprises. I’m glad to get back on land.
The girls now have company—two Micmac Indian kids with smooth bronze skin and hair so black it’s almost got blue highlights. Pete and Sarah, young teenagers. They’re on ten-speed bikes and want the girls to ride with them to Cheemo Pond, a mile away. That leaves the grown-ups to sit under the chestnut tree drinking beers and telling stories.
In a while Edie jumps on the tire swing and pushes off with both feet. She uses what weight she has to build momentum. Quickly she’s in motion and smiling widely. “Up, up, and away in my rubber Chevrolet.”
It’s time for Sash and me to move along. Sam points at his wife and blows her a kiss. We get his goofy wave. Back on the road, Sash says to nobody, “Katey Morin, Katey Morin. I could share a quilt with her.” He’ll call me in a week or two with a progress report on Katey or maybe Karen. Tomorrow, I’ll get the Greyhound bus in Bangor and ride the turnpike back into my past. This isn’t heaven, but it’s not hell either.
* This is a work of fiction. No character in the story is based on a real person, living or dead. Any resemblance to a real person or real incident is coincidental.
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.
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.
Lowell, Massachusetts, boasts a thriving cultural scene with hundreds of visual artists, literary and music festivals, a professional theater, ethnic dance groups, and major performance venues. But when and where did the local Big Bang take place to set much of this in motion? One small arts galaxy far, far away in time was Gallery 21, founded by my oldest brother, Richard Marion. Just this week I heard that Lowell’s Canalway Cultural District, the arts and heritage core of the historic downtown, received a prestigious award from a national association of city planners. The following short essay which tells part of the origin story appeared first in the Lowell Historical Society Newsletter in April 2008. I have not updated the essay with references to the many cultural ventures that have emerged in the past 10 years, from Luna Theater for films and the Kinetic Sculpture Race to more galleries downtown and Flying Orb Productions with its arts fusion events.
Lowell Bohemians of the Sixties
WHEN I WAS FOURTEEN YEARS OLD, I made a room-sized painting. It was the subterranean back room of my brother Richard’s art gallery at 21 Hurd Street, which he operated from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s. We broke through a plasterboard wall to enlarge the downstairs exhibition space. The scruffy room used for storage was in bad shape, so my brother gave me the green light to turn it into a life-sized knock-off of a Jackson Pollock action painting. I wrapped myself in plastic bags taped at the ankles, waist, neck, and wrists with masking tape, grabbed gallon cans of black and white house paint, and proceeded to drip and whip paint around the floor, walls, and ceiling until all surfaces were spattered and drooling.
That’s what we did at Gallery 21, the epicenter of contemporary art in the city during the early years of Lowell’s revitalization. I remember a lime-green bookmark my brother made that read: Join the Lowell Renaissance!
Before Western Avenue Studios and the Arts League of Lowell, before the Revolving Museum, before Open Studios Lowell and Ayer Lofts, before the Lowell Public Art Collection, before the University Gallery at UMass Lowell and Brush Gallery & Studios at Market Mills, before Guy Lefebvre’s Lowell Gallery, before the Art Alive! co-op, before City Fair with a dozen arts jobs funded through a federal employment-and-training program—before these was Gallery 21, blazing a modern trail when Lowell’s main stage for visual arts was the solid Parker Gallery of the Whistler House Museum run by the Lowell Art Association, the oldest of its kind in the nation (est. 1878).
Next door to the Harkins Real Estate office close to the District Court, the Gallery attracted local bohemians. They were Mass. College of Art and Museum School graduates, small-time art buyers and big-time appreciators, transplanted Bostonians, precocious Lowell High School kids, college professors, and blow-ins from Texas and Manhattan as well as from the Lowell suburbs and farther out. Beards and mini-skirts. Paisley ties and big hoop earrings. Flowered dresses, corduroy jackets, and blue denim. Sandals, Beatle boots, and wingtips. They read The New York Times on Sunday, watched educational TV on Channel 2, bought memberships at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and enjoyed the opera, foreign films, and Peter, Paul and Mary concerts. For several years, the director was a guest auctioneer on arts night for the annual Channel 2 Auction. They boosted early concepts for an innovative urban cultural park. Soulmates at Gallery 21, they constituted a small but sophisticated youth movement, the shock troops of the coming cultural revival that made Lowell what it is now.
There was more going on, of course. Around the city there were garage bands and folksingers, amateur theater groups, auditorium events, school marching bands, Parker Lectures, variety shows, union musicians doing gigs, stars like The Doors and Cream making noise at the Commodore Ballroom, and churches and temples keeping choral music, ethnic dances, and traditional foods alive. With his wife from Lowell, Stella, and ailing mother, Gabrielle, Jack Kerouac lived in the Highlands neighborhood in 1967-68 when some of this was happening. The Vietnam War raged. Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon. Lowell’s economy slid downward until a late ‘70s upturn.
Who would you see at Gallery 21, besides the director at the start and later his wife, Florence Patti Marion? Janet Lambert-Moore, Mico Kaufman, Carol Bacak Durand, Charles Durand, Sherman Rider, Selma Schwartz, Sarah Supplee, Jeannine Tardiff, Ross Hanvey, Jack McWilliams, Helen Weld, Antoinette Nault, Bernie Betruziello and his wife Kay, Bill Giavis, David Brow, Hiroko Trainor, Al Santerre and Richard Santerre, Lillian Cooper, Carlton Plummer, Joan and Bill McGeer, Frank Wyman, Phyllis Berwick, Leo Panas, Suzanne Ballantine, Andy Robinson, Raymond Foye, Kevin Harkins, Dan Rocha, Robert Kuszek, and more members of the creative class (before that was identified as an economic sub-group).
On display were watercolors, black-and-white photographs, brass rubbings, prints, mobiles and stabiles, fabric art, oil paintings, assemblages, drawings, jewelry, sculpture. Gallery-goers might see abstract paintings in slashing colors by an Eastern European artist or meticulous ink drawings of ostriches. Lowell scenes in any media had their fans, particularly corporate clients. Bankers and attorneys knew where to find just what they needed for their walls. Customers could walk in and order prints out of the New York Graphic Society catalogue for delivery in a few days. Restoration, repairs, framing, interior design consultation—all available. With the director at his day job teaching art in public schools, part-time gallery sitters, sometimes one of his aunts, kept the door open.
The artists who orbited around Gallery 21 took their work on the road under the name of the Lowell Sunday Painters, and with their easels and boxes of paints and brushes traveled from Tyler Park in the Highlands to the city parking lot along the Concord River that pre-dated the Lowell Hilton, now UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center. The Gallery partnered with the Lowell Art Association to produce a downtown art festival in Lucy Larcom Park. Organizers rolled out a 150-foot piece of fabric from the Pellon Corporation on the walkway and then handed out brushes and pots of poster paint to citizens to create a spontaneous group scroll.
Gallery 21 artists displayed their works in the lobby of the now-gone Route 3 Cinema in Chelmsford, at the Lowell public library, and other locations. The director carried works to the outdoor Poly-Arts Festival in Cambridge, Mass., one time losing a large framed piece not tied well enough to the car roof rack as he sailed along Route 128—whoosh!
Lowell Sun art critic Ann Schecter, a painter herself, reviewed all the new shows at the Gallery. She never missed a Sunday in the newspaper, covering regional, Boston, and northeast exhibitions. There would always be an image or two with the review. This essential piece of media infrastructure connected the artists to their public. She was an enthusiast, but didn’t hesitate to point out less than successful attempts.
When Gallery 21 closed, the director moved to a studio space at the Brush Gallery. Today he works out of his home studio in Lowell. He later received a grant from the Lowell Cultural Council to create an artist’s book documenting the life and times of the Gallery. This one-of-a-kind volume is available to researchers at the UMass Lowell Center for Lowell History, a special collections library, at the Patrick J. Mogan Cultural Center of the National Park Service, 40 French Street, in Lowell.
Here’s another review of an important artist on stage in Lowell, Mass. On December 7, 2012, Stephen King kicked off the Chancellor’s Speaker Series at UMass Lowell’s Paul Tsongas Center, the sports and events arena downtown along the Merrimack River. This series is reserved for A-List figures and does not happen every year. King was followed by Meryl Streep in 2014. This month the university announced that Oprah Winfrey will be featured on November 18. Ticket sales and sponsorships provide money for student scholarships. This essay, first published on the RichardHowe.com blog in Lowell, is collected in History as It Happens: Citizen Bloggers in Lowell, Mass. (Loom Press, 2017), available for purchase online.
Stephen King Talks About Getting Happy
IN THE SAME YEAR THAT UMASS LOWELL and the National Park Service celebrated Charles Dickens’s famous visit to Lowell in 1842, the University hosted the author who is arguably the Dickens of our time when it comes to readership and popular interest—that would be Stephen King, the guy who grew up in the gritty dooryards of northeast Maine with an outsized passion for reading, writing, rock’n’roll, and the Red Sox. He brought his one-man literary power station to the Tsongas Center at UMass Lowell last night. “This is my first stadium show,” he shouted to the capacity crowd of 4,000 people (The area behind the stage was blocked off). There was a lot of yelling, arm waving, and fooling on stage as he bantered, reflected, and preached. He was both pitcher and catcher to his friend and fellow author Andre Dubus III, just right as questioner and listener—and the face of the English Department, which gained $100,000 for scholarships on this night. Five thousand dollars came from a raffle of the two signed armchairs that the guys used on stage.
When I was growing up as a writer, I read about the mass audience for poetry in the Soviet Union. Poets could fill sports arenas for their readings. In Lowell, I’ve seen 1,000 people show up for a group reading by Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and fellow Beat writers. Maya Angelou read to 1,000 in the Smith Baker Center for Middlesex Community College. Lowell Memorial Auditorium drew more than 1,500 for David Sedaris last year, and pulled in a similar-sized audience for Garrison Keillor. Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot in their prime filled large performance halls. I’ve never seen anything like the scene last night. King joked at one point that it felt like a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert. He’d mention a book title like The Shining or The Tommyknockers as if name-dropping “Free Bird,” and cheers and applause would erupt. Both he and Andre plugged in to the electric author-love.
The program came in three sections: Steve and Andre talking shop, King reading a new story about death and regret, and audience questions. About 20 lucky people got a chance to ask a question, including fans who had traveled from Chicago and Pennsylvania and an 11-year-old girl who charmed everyone when she said out loud, as if pinching herself, “I’m speaking to Stephen King,” before posing her question. To the woman who asked about Red Sox management decisions, Steve said re-signing David Ortiz was an act of good faith that Red Sox Nation needed.
Stephen said you have to get a buzz off what you are doing as a writer in order to stick with the solitary work. He told touching, gossipy, funny, inspiring, and profane stories about his journey from a rookie writer whose devoted wife fished his first novel Carrie out of the trash (he got $2,500 for an advance payment on the hardcover publication . . . and then $200,000 for his share of the paperback publishing rights) to the rarified air of cultural royalty who honored a request from Bruce Springsteen to meet for dinner in Greenwich Village. “Yes, I’d like that,” he told his Rock and Roll Remainders-bandmate and music critic Dave Marsh who had carried the request from The Boss.
Andre closed out the first part of the program by reading a passage from Stephen’s book about writing in which the author describes regaining his strength and capacity to create after being run over by a car many years ago. “Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.”
December 8, 2012
Reading about Joan Baez on her “Fare Thee Well Tour,” I was reminded of one of her performances in the Summer Music Series at the national park in Lowell, Mass. On the evening of June 28, 2013, a rain storm pushed the concert indoors, which was unfortunate because Boarding House Park is such an inspiring venue for music. This show marked the third time I had seen her in the city, starting with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975. By then she was already a legend, so what label applies now? Legendary legend? She put something permanent into the culture with her voice and humanitarianism. I count myself lucky to have heard her perform. This essay first appeared on the popular RichardHowe.com blog in Lowell with which I have been associated since 2008.
Joan Baez in Lowell
IN THE END it was like church. A generational church. A church of humanity. Of joy. Of suffering. Of soulful community. She brought us together one more time, and there was a poignancy to it because a lot of us are getting “up there” and have seen plenty of water flow under our bridges. The rain amplified the mood. A big part of the familiar sound of that water we’ve heard rushing toward us and running under the bridges came back to us last night in the auditorium at Lowell High School. She was in the city for the Lowell Summer Music Series.
In a poem, Walt Whitman wrote that he contained multitudes. On her more than 50-year journey of music and compassion, Joan Baez has gathered up a multitude of experiences and people that layer her performances as an artist. In a city with History as one of its top industries, Joan Baez brought her heritage to the stage. She reached back to beginnings in coffeehouses of Cambridge and Boston to play folk standards as elegantly as she did when she was an unknown long-haired girl with a guitar. She gave us selections of Americana, spirituals, and pop along with choices from her own catalogue of compositions—both hits and deep cuts.
Always of her time, whether she was singing for Civil Rights at the Lincoln Memorial or pushing for human rights in Latin America, she name-checked the Supreme Court and this week’s decisions on the Voting Rights Act and gay marriage—one minus, one plus—and sang her commentary. She has a forever bond with Bob Dylan that gets richer and deeper as they age. Her renderings of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and “The Lonesome Death of Poor Hattie Carroll” were exquisite, heartbreaking, really, for the profound emotional freight the music and lyrics carry. We got it straight from the source last night. She was there. She’s the carrier of that truth. She mentioned playing “Hattie Carroll” with “Bob” when the song was new in the very Maryland county in which the murderous act had occurred. “We had to get out of there fast after the show,” she said. On “Baby Blue,” she mimicked Dylan’s outlaw croon for a few key lines, drawing laughs from the crowd. The night began and ended with standing ovations.
She is such a generous artist. Her repertoire includes brilliant interpretations of work by the family of composers, those long-gone and others more recent. The encore featured a gorgeous version of “The Boxer” by Paul Simon. I wonder if somebody told her about Lowell being a fighter’s town? Throughout the evening her guitar-playing was a joy to absorb. Other than Carole King on piano, how many other women of a certain age are delivering a 90-minute show of singing and instrumentation? And who from her era is standing up with a guitar all night? Joni Mitchell sang a few songs on stage at a recent event in Canada, I think it was. She’s younger, and not on the road these days. Joan Baez remains in play with her signature artistry, intelligence, morality, and subtle humor.
So, there was Joan Baez, who first played in Lowell in early November 1975 as a member of the Rolling Thunder Revue, barnstorming the northeast on the Dylan bus. I remember their crystalline singing of “Blowing in the Wind” in the cozy Costello Gym at what is now UMass Lowell. Late in the show last night, Joan Baez thrilled the audience with a beautiful and sly version of “Diamonds and Rust,” her monument to their legendary relationship. My guess is that many of the people in the auditorium last night had been on the lawn at Boarding House Park a couple of years ago when she played the national park pavilion. I remember wonderful music under the stars.
She closed the show with a group sing of John Lennon’s wishful anthem “Imagine.” There were more than a thousand of us in unison on the modern hymn. She led the gray-tinged choir, singing for what might have been or what still could be if the spirit moves enough people at the same time. The auditorium became a cultural church of shared values. The thoughts point in a good direction, a path for aspiration, a clearing in the woods to which we can head. And there was Joan Baez leading the choir. We knew all the words.
June 29, 2013
Last week, I was asked by my friend John Wooding to select about 20 poems about the fall or harvest time to be displayed at the Harvest Festival of Mill City Grows in Lowell on October 13. Okay, I said, I’ll take a crack at this universal subject. The challenge was to get deeper than the popular sentiment about autumn with its familiar images of bright foliage and candy corn while avoiding work that is either deadly serious or lacking humor entirely. I looked for insight, keen observation, wit, emotion, and wisdom. I sent him a batch of poems by a variety of authors, from Robert Frost, Grace Paley, and Donald Hall to Basho and Li Po, as well as Rita Dove, Amy Lowell, John Greenleaf Whittier, Jack Kerouac, Karina Borowicz, Du Fu, Carl Sandburg, Sally Anderson, Bill Shakespeare, Langston Hughes, and Lucy Larcom.
John’s idea is to link the Harvest Festival to this month’s Jack Kerouac literary celebration in the city. The organization, one of the most vigorous in the city, has been linking its community gardening and food security programs to local activities. With the bunch of poems for John, I slipped in one of my own compositions, “Look at a Dry Leaf,” written in 1978. Below is the poem, a notebook draft, and notebook watercolor sketches of the season that I made around the same time.
Look at a Dry Leaf
A dry leaf is a physical map:
River beds are sap routes forking off a prime vein.
The underside is not printed, but the face is a bright
Terrain or scaly parchment resembling earth cracked by drought.
In one quadrant of this chart locate red hills, check another
For tracks of golden birch following tributaries south.
Like old maps, leaves curl and flake.
Oak is smooth brown leather. Wine skin of a maple buckles.
A year-old leaf pressed flat is a brittle dollar.
These small flags tell me: “Autumn. North. Good.”
St. Lucia Landing (excerpt 6)
a hint of the magenta cascades
across the lane and back in
Dana Point, my old haunt
west of Capistrano, hardly the same
two-seahorse town 20 years on
in full-build gallop—
wobs just so,
a port, a pier,
a raft in the middle,
going nowhere, holding on,
its white-arrow bow
aimed to go when
twin swimmers haul
their sopping selves aboard
The English and
makes a talk I can’t get—
it’s a classical music,
and I can’t i.d.
or recording number
The hermit crab
or fiddler, one claw busy,
works its way uphill,
emerging from a ground hole
or tree base, the slightest move,
Curved clay tiles,
color of plant pots
and pipes, the same
terra cotta roofing
in hot Mexicali,
mission style, pieces
of tomato-dyed pasta,
hard shells formed on
the shins of early builders
Arthur’s Cheese Tower
Behind the counter at the Paradise,
Arthur’s peeling single slices
from a long block of American white,
building a sticky tower, diamond-wise,
which he places in the fridge.
It’s local wisdom, a trade trick.
For the next grilled cheese-with-tomato,
he’ll life a slice, then another,
picking each by an overhanging edge
to dress bread already griddling.
The blue wash of cruisers at the corner signals some kind of injury. Four postmodern kids, jazzed-up and famished, describe the crash as they walk in with us. In the late-night lunch cart aglow in Formica and bright tile, citizens dine on plastic trays. We order french fries and dogs with house toppings: “The Works” and “All Around.” Black moons the size of bagels and fig squares sealed in plastic wrap flank the cash register. Though off the formal tour routes, there’s a display of snapshots and news clippings with quotes like this: “If you walk in and someone’s lying on a table, then someone is on the table.” We read the scene as we eat, conscious of the outside edge. The more we talk, the more we change, as slow as word-by-word translation.
Milkmen, engineers, cooks, plant workers, truck drivers, union men, special cops, guys in the middle of the work force, real estate agents and accountants, laborers, repairmen, carpenters, supervisors at the local paper, salesmen and store managers, men who serve on town boards and city committees, a cross-section jammed up around tables crowded with dead beers, cheering a Latin middleweight contender on TV. Every Friday night at nine o’clock they line up for ham-and-cheese sandwiches served with jar-pickles on paper plates. Steel bowls of potato chips are placed near the store-bought napkins. Once a month on a Sunday, rookie members make spaghetti-and-meatballs with garlic bread for the group, served at seven o’clock. Later, the quarter pool and monthly drawing numbers get pulled from a tumbling game-show drum. This week the guy at the microphone orders everyone to sign up their kids for the annual Christmas party. He wants donations, too. “The card players out back got up sixty bucks for the scholarship fund, so now let’s see you all match it!”
Pork Pie Hat
Boss of the hospital slouched in black car coat and frumpy pork pie hat, lifts a chipped white coffee mug to his lips in front of George Washington teeth in the lunch cart diner, blue top stool-lined, greasy countered, full of men who could be heads of all the hospitals in the valley. They spread their Boston Heralds over empty egg-smeared plates and toast dust. These corner diners look like cabooses, stay open all hours, pull in customers via amber-and-red neon name tags blinking with the same dull glow as electric stove rings, set to medium heat. Mr. Chrome-Dome, very erudite, slouched in black car coat and dented pork pie hat, sips coffee through his George Washington teeth.
on the tan
strip by the
inlet a man
filling a red
gulls cry like
A pink boat
Chainsaws whine, rev, snarl, rip the birch and pine meat.
A deer’s heart sinks at the sight of us looking that way.
In Maine, it’s not buffalo grass but it makes me think it could be.
Icy foam on the tide bucking stones honeycombed with snail glue.
Rash of periwinkles and kelp welded to rocks by slick iron feet.
Birders, walkers, and lovers fan out amidst twisty gray brush.
Sun lances clouds like movie heaven over the woodsy marsh.
The garden strewn with small walnut helmets leaking black ink.
Loam that’s done its work hardens before the wild snow.
Water’s tricky to read, and there’s no craft for perspective.
Gulls atop sardine factory yell over sanders grinding the dock.
“I’ll use a shotgun to keep my land,” Johnny Bouchard says twice.
Amy in the trailer paints her young daughters’ nails red-sparkle.
The truck radio turned way up—Jean used an adze to dig post holes.
Wind in the pines rumbled like a ten-wheeler on bumpy Otis Road.
Cherryfield, Machias, Cutler, Lubec, and Calais said like “callous.”
Naval Listening Station strung out like a giant Erector Set hearing-aid.
Guy driving says Passamaquoddy chiefs want half the state back.
Old couple down to the lake fired up a new high-horsepower outboard.
The sleet on sticks and dry leaves makes a noise: sizzling steak.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, I spent a lot of time in Maine, towards the Ellsworth area and places on the coast. I had a high-school friend who headed north after reading about organic farming and geodesic domes in Mother Earth News. He bought land, stayed the course, and made a life and living there for himself and his family. When I began visiting him, a community service group in the region, H.O.M.E., published a monthly tabloid newspaper called This Time from their base in Orland, Maine. Each issue included a page of poetry. The editors used several of the poems that came out of my experiences in Maine. Below are a couple of compositions from that period and a newer piece that’s a mash-up of a few letters I sent to my friend decades ago.
On the Union River
Laughing at the thought
Of tennis rackets on my feet,
I moved over a snowfield
Blue by the moon and stopped.
At this high cold point,
Impurity froze out of the air.
I pictured our cabin,
The wet hay bales
Stacked around for insulation,
Stinking all day.
Something from Maine
I was a big man on a big trip. I yelled out the car window,
“I eat death for breakfast!” and gunned the engine.
What catches me?
A gray horse framed by apple blossoms.
Sky-colored river drifting reeds.
Water preening the shore, slurping boat oars all morning.
Nine black-and-yellow butterflies taking sun in mid-road,
So drowsy I can hold one, so drowsy one gets crushed by a truck.
Words to Viv on Water Street
You carried chickens and a geo-dome on a big red truck,
A tandem-wheeled flatbed that seized up in the cold.
Jane is single again, if you want to share a quilt with her.
I don’t know what chronological age means after 21.
We’ve had melt and fog for days, and snow is due.
To be in mud by April, beg for the right groundhog.
Research the home economics of Zuni farmers,
Who said property is for use rather than power.
Stick your middle finger into the soil to the second joint,
And then place your carrot seed and cover the hole.
Joyce told me you are holding ten acres for her.
Dean recommends The Forgotten Art of Building Fireplaces.
Your Town Meeting folks voted against loose dogs,
But not for a fine? Are you wailing the “Etna Settler Blues”?
Softball Game, Down East Maine
Call the town meeting to order, Mr. Moderator.
It’s the Otis Ice Cream Palace vs. the Heron Chokers.
We’re convened at the lumpy field near Maggie’s camp—
Dead grass, cereal-box bases, junked car-hood backstop.
Regulars pull up on bikes, cycles, in pickups, old vee-dubs.
Fifteen players, six gloves, and a dog-chewed catcher’s mitt.
A couple-three cases of beer. Iced Moxie. Total equal opportunity.
Women, children, guys, old men, players, dabblers, gamblers.
One pitcher wears combat boots. The bat’s cracked-and-taped.
Talk about Game of the Week—this is all beyond TV.