'Bottled Milk'

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

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

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

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

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

Bottled Milk

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

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

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

pumpkins.jpeg



'Lowell Bohemians of the Sixties'

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.

 Artist Richard Marion outside Gallery 21 at 21 Hurd Street, Lowell, Mass., in 1979. (Photo by Kevin Harkins)

Artist Richard Marion outside Gallery 21 at 21 Hurd Street, Lowell, Mass., in 1979. (Photo by Kevin Harkins)

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.

 Exhibition announcement, Gallery 21, 1971.

Exhibition announcement, Gallery 21, 1971.

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.


  Downtown Lunch Break  by Richard Marion (ink drawing on paper, 1981)

Downtown Lunch Break by Richard Marion (ink drawing on paper, 1981)

  Hurd Street Movers  by Richard Marion (acrylic on paper, 1979)

Hurd Street Movers by Richard Marion (acrylic on paper, 1979)







'Stephen King Talks About Getting Happy' (2012)

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 and Andre Dubus III at the Tsongas Center. (courtesy of UMass Lowell)

Stephen King and Andre Dubus III at the Tsongas Center. (courtesy of UMass Lowell)

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


Joan Baez in Lowell (2013)

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 2.jpg



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

'Look at a Dry Leaf'

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.”

 The view northeast from Ledge Hill behind Merrill Lane, near Mammoth and Old Meadow roads, in Dracut, Mass., 1975.

The view northeast from Ledge Hill behind Merrill Lane, near Mammoth and Old Meadow roads, in Dracut, Mass., 1975.

 The woods at Merrill Lane, Whitecliff Manor apartment complex, now Princeton Reserve, in Dracut, Mass., 1975.

The woods at Merrill Lane, Whitecliff Manor apartment complex, now Princeton Reserve, in Dracut, Mass., 1975.

 Another view of the woods at Merrill Lane, Whitecliff Manor, now Princeton Reserve in Dracut, Mass., 1975.

Another view of the woods at Merrill Lane, Whitecliff Manor, now Princeton Reserve in Dracut, Mass., 1975.

 Draft #11 of “Look at a Dry Leaf” in author’s notebook, January 1978.

Draft #11 of “Look at a Dry Leaf” in author’s notebook, January 1978.

'St. Lucia Landing' (excerpt)

st lucia balcony .jpeg


St. Lucia Landing (excerpt 6)

10

Toy bougainvillea,

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—

11

Anchored boat

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


12

The English and

French and

spice-route

gumbo lingo

makes a talk I can’t get—

it’s a classical music,

and I can’t i.d.

composer, tune,

or recording number

st lucia conch.jpeg


13

The hermit crab

or fiddler, one claw busy,

works its way uphill,

emerging from a ground hole

or tree base, the slightest move,

then gone—


14

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

st lucia sailboat.jpeg

City Food Channel: Four Poems

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.

Lowell-to-English

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.

Elks Lodge

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.

Atlantic Views: Two Poems

 Hampton Beach, N.H., harbor, 1999

Hampton Beach, N.H., harbor, 1999

Atlantic

At noon

on the tan

strip by the

inlet a man

in yellow

digs clams,

filling a red

pail. Winter

gulls cry like

hurt dogs.

A pink boat

chugs under

a confusion

of wings.

Atlantic Pine

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.

Mother Earth News: Four Maine Poems

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.

No sound

This far

Into the

Interior.

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.

Bob Dylan Bold for the Lord

In the spring of 1980, Bob Dylan toured the country to promote his second Born Again Christian album, Saved, which was released in June. The year before he had given the record industry and music culture a shake by releasing Slow Train Coming, which sold at the Platinum level in America. The hit song on the album, “Gotta Serve Somebody,” won him a Grammy for Best Rock Vocal Performance (male). Here’s my report on one of his two Worcester, Massachusetts, concerts that led a round of performances in New England. This review is being published for the first time.

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Bob Dylan Bold for the Lord

BOB DYLAN ON MAY 4th opened a New England tour with the first of two concerts at the city auditorium in Worcester, Massachusetts, in the central part of the state, a good location to draw out-of-state fans from the region. He presented himself as a wise man traveling from the west unto the east with a sure-footed spiritual stance rooted in his new-found Christian beliefs. Rock journalists who chart Dylan’s progression much as art critics discuss Picasso in terms of his Blue Period and so forth may rank this dramatic change in the musician-poet alongside his disruption of the folk music scene at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival when he wielded an electric guitar. Dylan produced an evangelical church service presided over by a new convert and a gospel group who brought a holy message minus pipe organ and purple robes.

From the outset it was a strange event, another of Dylan’s guises. In 1975, he pulled up in Lowell, Mass., with the Rolling Thunder Revue, a mix of old folkies and compatriots, making a film on the road, Renaldo and Clara. In 1978, I caught up with him in Augusta, Maine, where he had a stage loaded with musicians and back-up singers who helped him power through new material and upbeat versions of early songs. This year, Dylan showed up declaring he would play only Christian songs from his last album, Slow Train Coming, and works in the same vein from a forthcoming record.

Christian rock music is big where Dylan lives in Southern California. The Orange County Evangelical Christian radio station, KYMS, caters to a generation raised on pop, rock, and soul music who are now getting religious sustenance through that medium. Last summer I first heard that Dylan was Born Again and had been “saved” through the network of evangelical Christian musicians in the region when I was visiting a friend of Karen Lafferty’s, a popular young singer. With Dylan, Donna Summer, and Arlo Guthrie being more forthright about their spiritual journeys, I would not be surprised to see the audience grow.

The average age of the conservatively dressed ushers was about fifty years old. Maybe they were regular auditorium employees. They looked like the ancient and honorable who collect donations and hand out bulletins at the local church. I didn’t see one young security guard shaped like a football player. This was not going to be a typical rock show. The audience was a blend of loyal Dylan fans (some with their kids), compulsive concert-goers, senior citizens, leather-clad bikers, high schoolers, and a large contingent of Born-Again Christians who may have arrived in buses. They were thrilled with Christian Bob. One woman said to me, “Dylan has alway been outspoken, and now he’s bold for the Lord.” She then asked, “Are you a Christian?,” making me think that my Catholic upbringing somehow didn’t qualify for her brand of belief. Behind me, a man told his friends: “Look, you just have to adapt to him. The music is still super.”

I was surprised to find tickets available at the door and more surprised to see many empty seats. How is it that Dylan, ranking with The Beatles and the Stones, could not fill a 3000-seat hall? The show began a half-hour late or for Dylan-specific fans a hour late because the first thirty minutes featured five gospel singers who delivered richly sung although little appreciated pieces. At times their solos were interrupted by rude shouts of “Dylan, Dylan, Dylan!”

Finally, the man himself appeared, kicking off with “Gotta Serve Somebody.” He sang-shouted, “It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody.” He discarded past work and stuck to a limited program, playing almost every cut from his recent album and new Christian numbers. His unique phrasing and voice quality challenge the ear even when one knows the words, but with new material and a poor sound system he was nearly impossible to understand. The over-amplified sound just about ruined the vocals. Of the new songs, I caught the choruses on some and figured the titles might be “I Ain’t Gonna Go to Hell for Anybody” and “What Can I Do for You?”

All evening people paraded down the center aisle where they stopped squarely in front of the stage, just a few feet away from Dylan. Before being ushered aside, person after person peered deeply into his form, as if checking to be sure he was really there like a kid pulling a Santa Claus beard. Dylan played electric and acoustic guitar. On “What Can I Do for You?” he took his famous harmonica from his famous pocket to the cheers of the crowd and wailed a virtuoso piece that held the place up and drove applause through the roof. He’s always been a front-end loader pushing private and public emotions onto Main Street, shifting elaborate gears as he plows ahead for justice and romance. The guitar-plucking lynx at the wheel, his mouth-harp flashing in red stage light, white boot shiny as the microphone chrome, sang with such conviction that I expected him to begin calling the faithful down to the front to dedicate themselves to Christ. The religious focus has magnified his poetic powers, and the new passionate, truth-smacking songs sting the soul like the best of his early work.

Between songs, Dylan delivered little sermons, punctuating his assertions with guitar chords. At one point he said, “There are a lot of people running for president this year saying they’re gonna save the country. Well, they can’t save anything unless they’ve saved themselves. I’m not gonna say, ‘God bless you,’ I’m gonna say, ‘God save you!'“ He said, “We’re living in dangerous times,” and many in the crowd hooted their approval and raised index fingers high in the sign for “One Way.”

I slipped out during the stomping and hollering for an encore. In the stairwell a man handed me a holy picture from a Bible church, and then another guy running back in to the main hall yelled to me, “Whatever you do, don’t give up on Jesus!”

May 1980




Gary Snyder: 'I Can't Forget Anything I've Ever Read'

On November 10, 1990, Gary Snyder read his poems and talked about writing and other subjects at Boylston Hall, Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The following composition captures the setting and some of his comments from that night. It was the second time I had attended a reading by Snyder, the first being at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., some years before. Snyder was a leading figure in poetry for me going back to the 1970s when I became serious about writing. His early book Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems strongly influenced my work. His essays are as important to me as the poems. The event at Harvard marked the release of a collection of essays, The Practice of the Wild. Of particular interest to me is Snyder’s stance in relation to the various communities with which he connects, whether immediate neighbors, sympathetic readers, activists aligned with his environmental views, or other networks. His advice about putting a stake down and getting involved in the community of your choice reinforced my instinctive feeling that local engagement is essential. This essay was published in Beat Scene magazine in England in 1991, but has not been reprinted until now.


Gary Snyder: “I Can’t Forget Anything I’ve Ever Read”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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'St. Lucia Landing' (excerpt 5)

St. Lucia Landing (excerpt 5)


72.

BBC follows me south

and the network

plugs Billy Bragg

and Wilco doing

Woody Guthrie

archive songs —

Heard them first

two summers ago

on the Beeb radio

in Westminster, London,

Stakis St. Ermin

hotel suite across from

New Scotland Yard —

now I surf to a

documentary on

the record they made


73.

First cruise ship today

slips past the point:

blue-bordered sheet

of white notepaper

being tucked into a

forest-green envelope


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74.

No doubt why

the lawn man’s

eyes sparkle as he

hurries to load the

day’s tools aboard

his pick-up for a

bouncy ride over

the hill, where his

wife watches for him


75.

Big blown plume

of cumulus like massive

exhaust from the back

of a formula race car

blasting off the line

at Azure Straight-away


76.

Mourning dove

goes woo . . . woo . . .

in a bamboo flute like

Lowell mourning doves,

old Highland Street,

not high as the highland here —

our Highland in the South End,

the Flats (for tenement tops),

near Meeting House Hill —

this is Hibiscus Lane


77.

I track their steps

from hillside balcony,

the best 2/3rds of

my family pie chart,

the wife, the son,

walking beach-ward,

small as bronze ants

on this lounge chair

mid morning heat






Dana Point Journal (excerpt)

I didn’t write in my journal every day when I was a graduate student in Southern California, living in Dana Point near Laguna Beach, but made an effort to keep track of what I was doing. On this day I visited my friend Juan and his wife Jean at their home northeast of Dana Point. He and I were students in the master’s writing workshop at UC Irvine. Today, Juan is a professor at California State University in San Bernardino who teaches creative writing and Chicano Studies. Jean is an educator with degrees in languages and teaching. Juan has published several collections of poetry. In 2016, he was featured in a New York Times article about one of his recent projects. We’re still in touch via social media.

Dana Point Journal (excerpt)

March 30, 1984

Visited Juan Delgado and his wife, Jean Douglas Delgado, at their home in La Sierra, near Riverside. After a "ranchero" breakfast of eggs and tortillas fixed by Juan, he and I made the rounds of used bookstores in Riverside and San Bernardino. In Riverside we stopped at the Mission Inn, an historic landmark that is a marvel of old California architecture. The sprawling, multi-storied building is a hotel-resort-shopping plaza-chapel and more. Courtyards, spiral staircases, tiled domes and patios, a swimming pool, old bells, narrow balconies, and an array of plants and trees. It looks like Mexico and Spain, and there's an Asian section, too. A fascinating structure. The day was bright and warm with puffy clouds. Riverside is the low desert. Dry hills and mountains, brown and tan, loom in the distance. Juan and I checked out three stores, looking for used poetry books. The store in Riverside had a few interesting things, including a copy of Michael McClure's Scratching the Beat Surface. The guy at the counter was slipping magazines into plastic bags when we walked out. The magazines were some kind of sleazy porno numbers with a twist—the models were all pregnant women.

We then drove to San Bernardino, more of a low middle class community. In the section of town we rode through I saw mostly Latino and Black kids on the streets. Juan recognized one young guy who plays on the UC Irvine basketball team. Growing up, Juan played lots of hoop—one of the kids he played against was Ronnie Lott, now a defensive back for the San Francisco 49ers. Juan's about my size but in solid shape. He wrestled in high school. I think he was a regional champion. At one bookstore I was tempted to buy a copy of Latin Poets, but put it back. I can get it at the library. I don't expect to be reading Ovid and friends very often. In Art’s Book Shop on West Base Line Street, run by a Mexican-American woman, I picked up an old paperback copy of Kerouac's Big Sur for 35 cents, 38 cents with tax. Juan bought a few little art books with color reproductions and a paperback of Dubliners by James Joyce.

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Around 3:30 we decided we were burnt out on bookstores and headed home. When we arrived, Jean was preparing an unusual (to me) spaghetti dish. She used her mother's Italian recipe, which called for bacon, eggs, cheese, parsley, and other ingredients. The result is a tasty pasta dish, a change from the standard tomato sauce-covered spaghetti. We drank Lambrusco and bottles of Oregon beer. It was a good day. It took me about an hour-and-a-half to get back to Dana Point. All the way I listened to the Dodgers-Angels ballgame, called the Freeway Series here, the last pre-season games.

 Riverside and San Bernardino are in the upper center on this map. Laguna Beach is about midway between Los Angeles and San Diego.

Riverside and San Bernardino are in the upper center on this map. Laguna Beach is about midway between Los Angeles and San Diego.

'A Place in the Woods'

Below is one of various starts on a memoir I’ve been writing on-and-off for several years. My experience is middle American in many ways, and the challenge I’ve set myself as a writer, going back decades now, is to recognize and describe what is essential and universal in that middle-ness. My family was lower-to-middle middle class if compared to the status of people in our community. Economists might have labeled us working class. But we thought of ourselves as middle class.

My father and mother worked full- and part-time out of the house, respectively. We had a car, never a new one until my parents in 1972 sold the suburban house they had bought in 1956. I thought of my town neighborhood as the middle landscape, not the city next to us and not the rural area of the town, but a location that allowed us access to the nearby city of 100,000 people (Lowell) and bigger Boston, an hour away, as well as woods, fields, ponds, dairies, and farm stands of the close countryside. And it was the middle of the twentieth century. We were not in the middle of the nation or the continent, true. I’d like to think we were not middlebrow as a family. My parents had high school educations, but read avidly and followed current events in the broadcast and print news and watched “educational TV” along with the popular network shows. My two older brothers earned college degrees in teaching (art) and political science (culminating in a Ph.D.). We proceeded in the broad middle lane of the American experience when I was growing up, not speeding ahead to pass on the outside edge and largely avoiding the breakdown lane.

Judith Guest’s novel Ordinary People (1976), later a movie, featured a well-to-do if not wealthy family with internal problems. We were more ordinary than those folks. More average. At least that’s how I saw it for a long time in the rearview mirror. Growing up, I was too young to analyze our situation. So, as I began saying, I’d like to render the middle-ness of it all in a compelling way. The older I get, the more I see and understand the particular drama in the lives I know best. Nobody’s life is ordinary. Crisis. Joy. Struggle. Love. Boredom. Achievement. Anxiety. Pain. Luck. Violence. Regret. All these are in every box on the block. The test for the artist, the reporter, the interpreter, the inventor, is to make something memorable of it.

A Place in the Woods

THERE WAS A WHITE PLASTER CAT on the roof of the house next door. It was a French thing. The cat. Every mémère had a minou, a real kitty. My grandparents (Mémère and Pépère, sound like meh-may and peh-pay) had purchased the house after my father and mother bought their shoe-box sized ranch-style home at the corner of Hildreth Street and Janice Avenue in Dracut, a countrified suburb immediately north of Lowell, Massachusetts, the small, classic textile-mill city whose urban economy had lured my ancestors and thousands like them out of the frozen fields of Quebec in the late nineteenth century. The prospect of a paycheck from one of the red-brick factories that lined the Merrimack River for a mile was a strong enough draw to get them to leave whatever little of material value they had in Canada.

In 1956, my parents moved to Dracut, whose Native American name in Algonkian, Agumtoocook, means “a place in the woods,” and became the first in their respective genealogical lines to live outside the city. Dwight D. Eisenhower was in the White House in Washington, D.C. My father had no use for “Ike.” That’s the way he would say it, “I’ve got no use for him.” Dad had fought the Nazis in the U.S. Army in World War II, under Ike’s command, but that did not put him in the President’s corner after the war. My folks voted for Democrats. Whenever Ike’s name came up, my father would say, “The country slept for eight years.” His politics, and my mother’s, were shaped by the Great Depression of the 1930s and the activist presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. After FDR, many people in my parents’ generation believed the Democrats were the party of the “little guy” while the Republicans for them became the party of “big business.” Dracut, being a rural culture before the ethnic families of Lowell bought homes with small yards and a couple of aged apple trees, Dracut had a lot of old-time Yankee families with roots in the mid-1600s. These people tended to go Republican for their views on individualism, rugged, I suppose. Is there a squishy individualism out there?

    Across the street from the Marion house was Fournier’s farm with chickens and a few milk-cows. The side yard of our lot bordered on a large field that led to a swamp ripe with muskrats and green leaper frogs. The land next to us had a long pile of loam about twelve-feet high covered with tall grass. For years, I thought of the loam pile as the King of the Mountain hill because that’s what we played there, shoving each other down to the bottom in ridiculous free-for-alls. Our house was a corner lot on an old route tying Lowell to Dracut. The sub-neighborhood was called New Boston Village, going back to the seventeenth century. The new Janice Avenue (we always said “Ave.”) ran out of pavement after three houses on each side. For a time the unfinished road was lit at night for safety with black oil pots that resembled cannon balls. The neighborhood would be built up by the mid-1960s, but there wasn’t a street light when my family moved into the little ranch. My mother, who did not have a driver’s license, thought she was at the end of the world.

     There were five of us in the family . . . [to be continued]

 This 1801 map of the Middlesex Canal in Massachusetts shows the town of Dracut in the top left quadrant. The city of Lowell isn’t shown because its founding dates from 1826. Across the northern border of Dracut is Pelham, New Hampshire. The Atlantic Ocean is about 40 miles to the east of Dracut. Boston Harbor is in the bottom right quadrant, about 35 miles southeast of Dracut. (Map image courtesy of WikiCommons)

This 1801 map of the Middlesex Canal in Massachusetts shows the town of Dracut in the top left quadrant. The city of Lowell isn’t shown because its founding dates from 1826. Across the northern border of Dracut is Pelham, New Hampshire. The Atlantic Ocean is about 40 miles to the east of Dracut. Boston Harbor is in the bottom right quadrant, about 35 miles southeast of Dracut. (Map image courtesy of WikiCommons)

John Kenneth Galbraith on John Steinbeck (1986)

Continuing with archival notes from talks, lectures, and readings, the following is my fragmented account of a talk by economist and ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith, long associated with Harvard University, from a John Steinbeck conference at then-University of Lowell (UMass Lowell now) on April 19, 1986. Galbraith, a leading public intellectual and iconic figure in political economy, had written 50 books by this time. A very tall man with gray hair and wide hips, he wore a gray suit and stood slightly bent at the waist. His manner was easy and he smiled a lot. In his early years at Harvard, he taught agricultural economics. The conference in O’Leary Library was organized by Steinbeck scholar Cliff Lewis, who taught American Studies at the university for many years. Bracketed ([ ]) comments are mine.



 Web image courtesy of ebay.com.uk

Web image courtesy of ebay.com.uk

John Kenneth Galbraith on John Steinbeck

[These opening notes may reflect introductory remarks by Prof. Lewis and not JKG’s comments. My notes are not clear about the source.] JS was involved in politics. He wrote speeches for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1944, he wrote a “manifesto” for domestic and foreign policy in FDR’s administration. JS believed that a person can’t succeed as an individual until establishing family and/or group ties. People are both individual and group animals. Humans contain a uniqueness/sameness paradox. Farmers in Oklahoma and Ukraine are similar. We are members of a national community and global family, both independent and interdependent. A person’s strength comes from responsibility. Individual responsibility/mutual responsibility. It’s important to know people as individual units rather than to define them as nationals of one type.

JKG comments begin here:

“Steinbeck was more than an artist. He was a world citizen.

“He is a large figure in agriculture. The farm worker was the forgotten person until Steinbeck published The Grapes of Wrath. They were Americans, Oklahoma farm workers, WASPs [white Anglo-Saxon Protestants].”

JKG met JS on a holiday on St. John in the Virgin Islands. JS didn’t like talking about his work as a writer. Preferred talking about other things. JS was a controlled but appreciative drinker. He called the time to have a drink at the end of the day, “Milking Time.” JKG calls it, “The Liberal Hour.”

JKG and JS became good friends. JS was “the last of the great letter writers.”

With a large group of artists and intellectuals, JS attended the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy. JS told a reporter that he had been named “Secretary of Morals and Consumer Education.”

JKG read from a letter to him from JS in 1961. [I’m not sure if the following quotes are from the letter or statements by JKG, but I offer them as part of the record of the day. My sense is that these are by JS.] “Without talk there is no thought . . . Our difficulties come from failure to inspect . . . it seems that nothing is so ear to a human as error . . . when we took skyrockets away from children and gave them to generals, we were naive . . . people love their chains and begin to think of them as wings . . . government cannot permit itself the luxury of humor . . .”

JKG talked about his time as Ambassador to India and said JS wanted to be Ambassador to Oz. JS was very well received by the writers’ union in the Soviet Union. JKG said the perfect diplomat stands firm on key points and gives away non-essentials.

JS urged that we “beat swords into typewriters and ballpoint pens.”

 John Kenneth Galbraith (web screen shot, PBS)

John Kenneth Galbraith (web screen shot, PBS)




Seamus Heaney on Poetry and Time

Seamus Heaney read his poems at UMass Lowell on Friday, February 5, 1982. He wasn’t “Famous Seamus” in those days, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, but he was a rising literary star. During that period he was teaching part of the year at Harvard University, so organizers at the university and in the Irish-American community had an opportunity to bring him to the campus. The photo below shows a framed copy of a Lowell Sun newspaper article by Estelle Shanley about the reading. Included in the frame is an original print by photographer Jim Cryan who along with the Sun’s Mike Pigeon documented the event. Cryan’s portrait is on the left. Jim gave the print to artist Susan Kapuscinski Gaylord, who generously passed it on to me a few years ago. Although I attended the reading, I wrote almost nothing about it in my journal. The day after, I made this note:

“Poetry’s covenant is with the past and future,” Seamus Heaney said last night while reading at the university. Poetry is not tied to the present.

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'The War Place (12.) 9/11'

Today is September 11. The attack in 2001 by religious extremists, radical muslims, on four planes flying over America set in motion a staggering series of actions by retaliating armies of the world, supporters of the attackers on several continents, refugees fleeing violence, and more. Bin Laden’s virtual hand grenade blew up like a nuclear weapon. The New York Times today has a startling op-ed column by a U.S. soldier who signed up to punish Bin Laden’s sympathizers but found a different reality. I’ve never seen this confirmed, but I wonder if the attackers who terrorized and killed the people on those flights in 2001 had chosen the date because it matched up with the emergency phone number in the U.S., 9-1-1? Is that just a coincidence? The carnage felt very close to many of us in the Merrimack Valley because two planes had departed from Boston, and even closer for people like me with strong ties to Dracut, Massachusetts, home of the pilot and farmer John Ogonowski who was among those murdered on 9/11.

For a long time, the event was beyond writing about for me. I found a way in to what had happened after working on a sculptural tribute for seven victims linked to UMass Lowell that was designed by art students and built on campus. John was a graduate of the school. My friend Jack Neary, a playwright and actor, wrote a compelling remembrance of John as a high school friend in Lowell that showed another way in to the tragedy. Around 2009, I began composing a long, multi-part poem about the prevalence of war in American history. Called “The War Place,” the poem looks at the major conflicts that most of us can name. I knew that 9/11 had to be included in the line of wars. The long poem gave me a form in which to write, and the following piece is the result. This and a few other sections from “The War Place” are in my book Union River (2017).

The War Place (12.) 9/11

On a rise on the south bank just below the rocky grill of the riverbed, students at his college carved into stone his name and six others from the school to remember John, who grew up to be a pilot and a farmer, who shared his land with Asian refugees who had resettled in the inner precincts of Lowell and who wanted to grow vegetables as they did in Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos, a region from which John had flown home hurt soldiers in the closing years of the Vietnam War; John the preservationist, who saved open space in Dracut, called Agumtoocook by native people for its vast forest; John, who on September 11, 2001, lifted his passengers into a “severe clear” sky, nothing but blue on the route west; John, who guided American Airlines Flight 11 out of Boston’s Logan Airport, where so many of us have flown away with faith in the promise of technology, management, and civilized behavior; John, who carried his travelers into boundless air on a day when he had as usual driven in early from Marsh Hill to captain his plane across country, that day like any other in the late summer, not officially fall even though schools were in session; that day like no other by the end of the morning, by the end of the paper rain and ash-cloud, by the end of the twisted steel and burnt ground, by the end of John’s life —- on that day from which we have not fully recovered the bounce that has always made people elsewhere admire our sure belief that Americans can figure out a problem and invent the next dazzle —- a day that moved John’s neighbors and even strangers to drive slowly up the winding hill road that leads to his farm, where they heaped flowers, handmade signs, candles, sympathy cards in front of the wide white gate leading to the farm, piled high the cut flowers, placed in silence —- and past the white gate up the driveway a giant crane held an American flag that looked as big as the flag that covers the left field wall at Fenway Park on opening day —- and past the crane and flag was the farmhouse of John’s family, his wife and daughters, who needed him to come back so he would sit next to them at the table in the house one more time.

Two California Poems

In 1983-84, I studied in the Master of Fine Arts Program in Writing at the University of California, Irvine, and lived in Dana Point, on the coast between Laguna Beach and San Clemente. I liked that Dana Point is named for Richard Henry Dana, who sailed from Massachusetts to the Pacific in the 1830s and later wrote Two Years Before the Mast. I allude to his voyage in the "Whale Grace" poem. I often write about places I've lived or visited. The concept of "place" --- what it is, how it shapes us, why it matters --- occupies me even as I go down other writing roads. This California experience gave me several poems.

The time in Dana Point was my second extended stay in the state. For six months in 1967, at thirteen years old, I lived with my parents in Stockton, where my father had been working seasonally as a wool grader for a wool producers co-op (sheep ranchers) in the San Joaquin Valley. My mother was unhappy out west, feeling isolated, so the family returned to the New England she loved.

While UC Irvine is a top writing program, part of the draw for me was that I had relatives and friends in Southern California. I had not gone away to college for undergraduate studies and was restless, looking for a change of direction and location. Beyond these reasons was something more fundamental, however. Because I had concentrated on political science and history in college, I was insecure about myself as a writer. I knew what I didn't know. For some time I'd wondered if an MFA program would make me a better writer and strengthen the literary foundation I had built for myself largely through personal study and practice. The time in Irvine was critical to my continued development as a writer --- and I gained several lifelong friends. In addition to the poetry workshop with close reading of new poems and the literature courses, I taught first year composition as a teaching assistant. As much as anything else I did on campus, teaching students how to write clean sentences and sound paragraphs helped my own writing. I left the program after a year for a job opportunity that was too good to pass up.

 

Strawberry Fields

Local maps call it “Winter Hill.” We said, “the woods.”

To see it now, I would have to cut across private lawns.

Near Sweeney’s Pond, in fields once owned by actual Yankees

Or Polish farmers, chipmunks sped over rock walls under vast maples.

One day, luck led us to a raspberry patch, wild fruit tangled in juniper,

Hardly a jar full, which is what came back to me upon learning

What I’d seen between the Irvine Auto Center and Laguna Beach signs,

Where the 5 splits to the 405—rush-hour sun blasts the plastic tarps,

Making a silver spread of lanes set massively for strawberries.

Wrapped soil shines like the mirror glass in bank towers

A few exits north of cattle and farm workers down from

The freeway, assembling pipe-grids for sure rain.

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Early draft of "Strawberry Fields" in December, 1983. 

 Farm workers installing irrigation system on a strawberry field covered with plastic tarpaulins ( Los Angeles Times  news photo)

Farm workers installing irrigation system on a strawberry field covered with plastic tarpaulins (Los Angeles Times news photo)

Whale Grace

A jawbone frames the laboratory door.

Each winter, California grays plunge and run,

And laden watch-boats head out to spot a fluke,

A spray, any sign in the blue. This taking account,

This need to see, runs in us like the urge pushing

Giants south to calving lagoons. The totem

Is painted, carved, printed in the Orange County

Marine Institute, where bones of a whole

Creature float over murmuring aquariums,

The ribs arching even the town this festive week

While the big mammals, as they have for ages,

Slide by the chaparral bluffs from which men

Once scaled cowhides down to the beach for

Traders whose Boston ships worked this coast.

 Dana Point scene looking south toward San Clemente (watercolor notebook sketch, 1984).

Dana Point scene looking south toward San Clemente (watercolor notebook sketch, 1984).

'Paris Glass'

Last fall, my wife, Rosemary, and I visited France for ten days, starting in Paris and then traveling north on the Seine River through Normandy. I had not been to Paris, so all the sights and sounds and aromas filled me to the brim. The day before we boarded the ship, I poured my fresh impressions into a notebook, which I later used to make this poem. The form flowed from distinct moments that had piled up in my notes. Why did I use "glass" in the title? I like the sound of the two words together and the simplicity. Also, one of the most striking sensory impressions I had was the magnificent stained glass in churches around the city. Glass allows us to see through if it's clear, so the poem is a way of looking at what I'd taken in. I'm happy with the title because it's unexpected, I think. I reach for that to make a composition a bit special. 

 

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Paris Glass

1.

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

2. 

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

3.

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

4.

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

5. 

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

6. 

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

7.

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

8.

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

9.

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

10.

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

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'Cabbies at the Train'

I heard this story in the waiting room of the train station in Lowell, Mass., where two cab drivers were talking while they waited for the Boston train to pull in. 

 

Cabbies at the Train

“I had a guy, picked him up at Shaughnessy Terrace,

Asked to go to Papa Gino’s in Burlington to see a guy—

So, I take him, and when we get there he says,

‘The guy inside’ll cash my check so I can pay you.’

'Oh, beautiful,' I say, and follow him in—

He says, ‘What are you doing?’

'I’m making sure you pay me.'

He says I'll come right out, which he does.

‘He won’t cash the check.’

Guy now owes me thirty-four bucks.

I figure he made his sale inside and wants to go home.

‘Take me to my mother’s in Lowell. She’ll pay you.’

Okay, back to the city, another thirty-four bucks.

Now he owes me sixty-eight bucks.

Get to his mother’s house where it’s total chaos.

She’s yelling at me, ‘No money, no money!’

Kids are screaming. She’s hollering at the guy.

He tells me, ‘Take me to my friend’s in the Highlands.

He owes me money that I can get tonight.’

So we go. He’s up to owing me seventy-five bucks.

He gets out near Cupples Square, says, ‘It’s right here.’

I stop and watch him go to a doorway—and then he runs off!

Voom! I pull out and chase him with the cab.

He cuts across a parking lot, and I stop and jump out

Right after calling the police on my radio.

I catch him and proceed to beat the piss out of him

Until the cruiser pulls up with lights flashing and siren.

Cops said they were sorry, but couldn’t do much for me

Since he owed me less than a hundred-fifty bucks.

I heard in New Hampshire you can get a guy pinched

If he even beats you out of five bucks.”