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.


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.”


'St. Lucia Landing' (excerpt 5)

St. Lucia Landing (excerpt 5)


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


First cruise ship today

slips past the point:

blue-bordered sheet

of white notepaper

being tucked into a

forest-green envelope



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


Big blown plume

of cumulus like massive

exhaust from the back

of a formula race car

blasting off the line

at Azure Straight-away


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


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.


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

Web image courtesy of

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.


'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.


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. 





Paris Glass


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


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


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


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.


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.


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.


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


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


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


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. 


'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.”

'What the River Brings'

Well, it's election day in Massachusetts, but some things transcend the workings of government. Veins of purple loosestrife run in ditches along the back roads as the school year reopens, and last week I went to a UFO Festival nearby in Exeter, N.H. If I needed reasons to bring this poem on stage, those two are good enough. The river alluded to is the Merrimack. The poem is included in my book What Is the City?


What the River Brings

Among purple loosestrife spiking the river’s stone grill,

Marie and I made out a figure, gray, face up.

With chipped features and blank base, the cast

Suggested a park or church yard. Exposed

When the river retreated, this weight must have come

Tumbling, immersed in the spring crest, muddy surge

Frightening all on the banks. Days later,

We returned and found nothing. Flying saucer,

Hairy snowmen—bones that don’t connect,

Dreams in a tense not invented.


ufo alien.jpeg

'Scouring Train'

I had a lot of different jobs, many of them for short stretches. The worst conditions I worked in were at a mill in New England where my father graded wool for decades. His job was a learned skill, a trade, but the wool scouring operation required other kinds of work. The summer I was 18 years old, I learned what hard, mind-numbing work can be. I didn't last long in that job. Later, I was fortunate enough to spend most of my career in air-conditioned offices with amiable colleagues in government agencies, federal and state, working on heritage and education programs. In Lowell, Mass., the American Textile History Museum for a time had a scouring train on display, a nasty piece of business when it was turned on. For Labor Day 2018, I submit the following. The poem appears in my book What Is the City? (2006), which is out of print -- used copies are available on the web. 


Scouring Train

No adjective for the heat.

My olive-green T-shirt blackens

Before work starts on the scouring train

In the cellar of this mill.

I'm the keeper of the vats,

Three linked in a fifty-foot machine,

My train between two more.

A chute drops raw wool

Into harsh detergent soup,

Bubbling the shit out of it,

Then a big claw rakes acrid slop

From vat one to the next

Until the whole mess hits the dryers.

Like an underground sentry,

I march up and down a yard-wide walk,

Using a hoe to unclog grates

Beneath each vat where steaming 

Liquid strains into a waste-way.

There are regular red alerts --

When a section plugs, muck flows over,

And scalding soapy stew boils up,

I run down to scoop out crap.

The stink of cooked sheep dung, bleach, oil, and sweat

Makes me plan to burn my jeans at home.

With no fans, no relief,

And the sight of my twenty-year-man teacher,

I know there's no tomorrow. 


This is a modern version of a scouring train in a wool factory, but it's the same general cleaning method. Web photo courtesy of   

This is a modern version of a scouring train in a wool factory, but it's the same general cleaning method. Web photo courtesy of


Two Poems: 'Nabs' and 'Boiled Potatoes'

These two poems are from my unpublished manuscript American Art, completed in early 2018. The book is organized around the concept of galleries the way a museum has rooms or galleries with artworks on display. 



Each time I open a package of hazard-orange crackers,

I think first of my mother, Doris, who called them “Nabs,”

And then of myself as a college freshman between classes,

Feeding a vending machine. My wife says food that color

Must be toxic. Now, it’s mother-in-law Mary with snacks

Fit for a brown bag, day pack, or school lunch box:

My sorry choice, wrapped in cellophane weeks ago,

Loud like Longhorn Cheddar, glazed with peanut butter.

I chomp on what I shouldn’t want, stubborn as my dad,

Who refused to see a dentist till he didn’t need his teeth.


Boiled Potatoes

“Start the potatoes at five-thirty,” my father would tell me

At ten past five when he left our house to drive downtown

To pick up Mum at the women’s clothing store. Tonight,

I’m home with our dog while my wife is at Mass. General

Hospital seeing her mother’s new knee. She took our boy

To Boston on his first train ride, telling me to start boiling

The potatoes at five-thirty because she would be back at

Six with her dad and aunt for supper, which we eat together

On hospital days. There’s thunder in the late day breeze.

Mum used to say, “When the leaves turn over, rain is due.”

Writers Talking on TV (1989)

Writers Talking on TV (1989)

The following notes are from two PBS TV programs hosted by journalist Bill Moyers, both from the series The Power of the Word, and another PBS interview program. 

(9/29) Featured poets: Joy Harjo, Mary TallMountain, and Garrett Hongo.

Mary was in her mid-50s when she published her first poems. She spent much of her life in revolt against attempts to take her out of her world.

Garrett says we carry culture. His grandfather told him to learn English and tell stories. His father was laconic, silent, sometimes ashamed of his Hawaiian pidgin English. Garrett says, "You need the poem to remember. You realize that you don't remember. You can return to the place or you can return to the place in the poem."

The spirit of poetry is compassion, the spirit of pity in the universe.

Joy says her writing is guided by the voice of an old Creek Indian within her, being her muse. She feels this presence. She says, "My poems are travels into other spaces. Time is not linear, no beginning or end. It's not just this world but layers of worlds, the landscape of timelessness."

Moyers says she's making a record of worlds that converge. Joy reads her poem "She Had Some Horses."

(10/9) Featured poets: Gerald Stern and Li-Young Lee.

Moyers says both of these poets believe the poet's job is to remember. Memory is the only way home. Poets are endlessly arguing with the dead. The injunction to remember occurs more than 100 times in the Old Testament while "Thou Shalt Not Kill" occurs only once.

When writing, all the writer's attention is focused on the inner voice. 

(9/89) Featured writer: Carlos Fuentes

Carlos: "My novels were born in the chasm between imagination and reality. . . . Without risk there is no art, no literature."

Mexican author Fuentes, a writer and diplomat who grew up in Washington, D.C., is the son of a diplomat. His mother forced Catholic education on him. He rebelled against the Church and bourgeois life. 

He writes about the persistence of Indian culture, a 30,000-year-old culture. Indian gods emerge from subways. Magic Realism. Rain god comes alive and drowns its art collector. He says Mexico is a magical country. Skeletons, secret herbs, mystical mix of Christian and Indian myths. His Terra Nostra is a dense Joycean apocalyptic dream. He has a fascination with the surreal. 

In Mexico, he wrote film scripts in the early 1960s with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He talks about verbal memory (the writer) vs. visual memory (the filmmaker).

Talks about the desire to prolong love beyond death. How to imagine the couple beyond death is the great theme of the erotic. Imagine stories to defeat biological fact of death. Fuentes' constants: eroticism and politics; bedroom and public square; the couple and the crowd.

For Fuentes, politics and art are inseparable. Some critics call him a romantic revolutionary who is intoxicated by insurrection. Carlos was in Havana when Fidel Castro took control of Cuba. On the chaos in France in 1968, he calls it a revolt against peace and quiet. The U.S. barred Fuentes from the USA during the 1960s. He saw the Soviet Union crush the Czech revolt in 1968 and says don't let the choice be between a banana republic and a balalaika republic [my emphasis].


'H for Huckleberry'

H for Huckleberry

". . . instead of engineering for all America, he was the captain of a huckleberry party."

-- Ralph Waldo Emerson on Henry David Thoreau


The same week that Rosemary and I visited Walden Pond for the water and sights, The London Review of Books marked Henry's 200th birthday by looking at 20 new books about him and a national museum exhibition. Near the welcome center on state reservation land stands a replica of the writer's handmade cabin that he built in the woods. The original location calls the pilgrim from Concord or Tokyo who pauses for quiet minutes and may toss a tribute stone on the pile there. Under a hazy sky we placed canvas chairs on the narrow pebbly beach and set out towels and our books. Single swimmers made elegant lines in the middle of the pond. Pairs of kayakers in yellow vests traced the shore. Every few minutes another huckleberry-party captain led a small group of people up one of the trails into the surrounding tall pines, firs, and the oak trees whose helmeted acorns distribute themselves on hard-packed paths. This month, walkers see painted signs on stakes that add up to a kids' alphabet of all things Thoreau, like "B" for the honey-makers that fill a niche in a system once overseen by the town's "self-appointed inspector of snowstorms." Lightning strikes and pickerel conventions no doubt were also among his supervisory responsibilities. There was so much to see and do and account for. 






'Memory Bank'

Memory Bank

I'm waiting in the car for my wife to come out of the bank. For the next fifteen minutes, from every direction people criss-cross the parking lot, waving at the white-haired cop who keeps traffic moving and cars from bumping one another. On the roof there's an electronic sign with the time and temperature alternating. If I didn't know this place is about money and saw the mix of women and men of different ages, as well as some kids, I might wonder what's happening. Nobody appears to take anything into the building; nobody looks as if he or she is carrying anything substantial out of the building. A few persons exit with pieces of paper in their hands, putting slips in their pockets. Several step back out eating pastry. With my car window down, I hear what is being said in Greek, Khmer, Portuguese, French, and Spanish by people walking past me. I'm pretty sure they speak English, too. If I didn't know better, this could be a language school, citizenship office, or a ticket counter for ethnic events. Maybe these folks are trying to keep their native tongues, every Saturday going inside to say a few sentences to language teachers who reply "Good work" or "Practice more." It could be they are having their memories recorded or perhaps their dreams documented. Inside, they report what they recall about the old country and their journey to America. I could be all wrong. Maybe instead they describe a repeating nightmare, even reveal an explicit fantasy. A few of them show notebooks with scribbles kept on the bedside table. A clerk in the building catalogs the information and files it in a personal folder for future reference and later academic research. It's some kind of local Cultural Depository here at the corner of Central and Middlesex streets. Inside, security cameras capture them talking in low voices to the staff before helping themselves to free jelly donuts and hot coffee. 



'The Wizard of Herbs'

The Wizard of Herbs

How about that character in the Carolina boonies?

"Healer," they call him, keeps the locals doctored-up.

The Moon Shot was a conspiracy, government circus trick

By evil scientists, the whole thing filmed in Taos, he claims.

Don't think he isn't serious, living in a flipped-over dumpster

Outside of town, surrounded by potent vegetation.


(2018, revised)


'Burying Island Log'

At the end of August in 1977 I spent five days on a 30-acre island in Taunton Bay on the Maine coast not far from Ellsworth and Bar Harbor. My friend Steve Perrin from the Andover, Mass., writers' workshop, a poet and writer, photographer, teacher, and all around capable guy in his forties, had invited me to stay on the island, which was owned by his family going back decades. He was in the midst of building a small cabin, and gave me a chance to be a carpenter's assistant for part of each day. Otherwise, I was free to roam around and see what I could see from morning until night. I kept a record of the experience and wrote drafts of a few poems, but mostly I explored the land and edges of the bay. Steve drew a map of the general area to orient me, which is reproduced below. A red X marks the island. I'm almost sure I left my car in Andover, and we drove to Maine together. I was 23 years old. The version of the log below has been edited for length and corrected where necessary. 

Burying Island Log, Taunton Bay, Coast of Maine (Aug. 29 - Sept. 2, 1977)

8/30. Hancock, Maine. Arrived at 4 p.m. yesterday, after stopping in Ellsworth for supplies. First view of the island: BIG. 30 acres. Quarter mile from shore. The cormorants, primitive-looking birds, pterodactyl-like, slap madly off the water in a great clatter to get altitude. The island has ospreys, seagulls, and one time had a bald eagle nesting. Blue herons are all about the island, one of three known Maine heronries, says Steve. Tall spruce with nests are defoliated. The birds stay all summer and are gone now. Last night, a loner, Joe Heron, patient as ever, stood on the rocks, squawking and  waiting hours for a fish. 

When we came over from the mainland at low tide eelgrass nicked the sides of our boat and lapped the bottom. The bay water was so calm I heard the oar drip water before it dipped down again. 

The moon surfaced and lifted eastward. We could almost follow the rise of the amber moon, a large yellow stone, eyeball, spotlight path-ing the bay, a full melon-moon that went up on a string and hovered, framed by a pair of dark gray cloud-banks. Through binoculars, we picked out continents on its face, maybe the Sea of Tranquility where the Eagle landed in 1969, and white-blue mountain features. 

perrin map.jpeg


Next day.

Steve's cabin-in-progress looks east. Close by is a stone structure built by his father in 1940-41 where we camp out on this trip. There's another house on the other end of the island occupied by a cousin of Steve's, also a writer. She was sunbathing when we arrived and asked us to wait above the beach. 

On a mussel bank, a bald eagle fights with two crows over food. Swarms of eelgrass could be mermaid and mermen hair, lilting on the surface, oscillating below.

The east side cliff is speckled with clam chips, white shards of a shattered bone plate. Native people dug clams and ate them on the sandy cliff. Diggers have found arrow heads, spear points, and tools. Five thousand years ago, the Red Mound People lived on the shore of the bay. The civilization vanished without much of a trace, the private dramas of individuals in a civilization gone by. Local historians believe there are burial grounds in the area. The island name is a three-pronged fork: Burying Island, Berrying Island, and Berring Island. Clammers and blueberry pickers come to the island. 

On the northwest end of the island a bubbling fresh water stream runs all year, close to the beach, the fresh and salt water within fifty yards. 

Horseshoe crabs empty/stars move 30 degrees in a month/dogs sleep in the sun/wood snaps in the forest/ducks dive to fish/terns skim the bay/downed branches feed a fire/the house gets built/squirrels chatter-cheater/spruce can't root into the glacier-scraped surface/moss hides hornet nests/sand fleas keep the seaweed beach a-jitter 

9/1. This morning worked on the cabin, sawing, hammering roof boards. Tongue-and-groove boards on the walls. At 9 a.m., crossed to the town so Steve could call his wife, then returned to work until noon. After that, wandering, reading, meditating. We've had two marvelous star-watching nights. Another huge moon last night. In the dark, crabs water-walk near shore, clawing at the light. Andromeda. Cassiopeia. The Chair. The Swan. Northern Cross. Northern Lights. Aurora Borealis. Dolphin Constellation. Bright Arcturus, 36-light years away. Vega, another bright one, and the name of a cheap car, Chevy.

Looking up has been good for me because I need to calm down and stop thinking about being adrift in heart-land. I'm not better yet after a bad break and need to change my mind. Night is the worst time. 

Once you reach a certain awareness about life you can feel anxiety from what you see that you think others may not see. You can get extra enjoyment as well. A good carpenter cares, is a craftsman, and therefore a poorly made thing can give him or her anxiety whereas the guy who doesn't give a damn for quality isn't bothered. A finely made tool will feel satisfying to a crafts-person, an artist, in a measure far superior to the kick any hacker might get from handling the same tool. 

9/2. Up at 8:30 a.m. Wash and then eat toast with peanut butter and raspberry jam. After breakfast, I fetch water, filling two galvanized steel pails from the spring, and walk back with dead weight water yanking my arms from their sockets. Sun will be patchy today. Last night, no stars, no moon, fog on the bay. We stared at the fireplace flames from rockers and talked about books and birds, classical music on the radio from a Bangor station.

The heron stands/like a sinister old goat,/a crook in an overcoat,/chin tucked in,/legs stem-thin,/skinny neck, collar up close,/to a frown and hooked nose,/stuck in the mud/in a standing doze.


Friday afternoon. Very still day. Blank sky. Even the rain is a quiet rain. The dogs, Molson and Dolson, follow me to the point each time I trek down to see the tide, sky, birds, weather, whatever. Molson is just like Toto from Kansas, chases yip yap after red squirrels. This is the Year of the Squirrel on the island. There have been years of the rabbit, hornet, deer, and fox. Each passes and gives way to another, sometimes returning as the season's theme. Sounds drift over from Route 1, truck gearing up hills, hammering in town, lobster boat motors with men checking traps or pots. The other night from the cliff we saw the Bar Harbor hills, car lights going up Cadillac Mountain. Mt. Desert Island's name is from the French "desert," meaning deserted, not pronounced "desert" like the Sahara, but rather "dessert" around here. 

Rain patters on the roof, tips through leaves, every now and then increases. Soon, we'll put shutters on the stone cottage and pack to head back. I heard that kelp is full of trace minerals from the sea, and if you hack it up and swallow the slimy guts-colored weed it'll make your hair grow. 

Note: Two poems emerged from the Burying Island notes and turned out to be keepers, both published in literary magazines and later collected in my books. The image of the moon like a large yellow stone surfaced in another poem. During the Seventies I traveled to Maine about 20 times to visit one friend in particular who had gone north to start over in a geodesic dome on land in a forest. He wound up in a small lakeside house near Ellsworth and started a business in glass installation and repair. My latest book, Union River, includes a series of poems set in Maine that were begun and sometimes completed in those days. Here are the two Burying Island compositions.

Burying Island

Marking tide levels, Steve bucks home routines.

Above the rockweed cove he built a cabin,

An all-weather den ferried piecemeal in his dory

And hauled up a cliff on his back. Spruce root sideways.

In shallow soil, trees are straw to nor'easters.

He picks up splintered sea-snails gulls drop onto rocks.

Clam chips speckle a sandbank where the Mound People ate fish.

Sand fleas jitter the seaweed beach at noon.

Cormorants clatter into flight, wings slapping madly off water.

Bright eelgrass oscillates at high tide. Moss pads a rough ledge

Where a head with quartz eyes stares like an Easter Island giant.

At night, Bar Harbor hills, a hump serpent on the coast,

Show a necklace of traffic, part of the turnpike herd,

Still roaring out of the tollbooths like thoroughbreds.


Maine Heron

A blue heron waits an hour,

Shows patient power

In a one-man soup line,

Disregards time

In favor of a single mind --

The key to catching fish.

The heron squawks,

Shoves off with awkward grace,

Gawking into flight,

Pole legs folding,

Kite wings holding,

Then uncranking

Like awnings,

Whacking light wind

Past feathers like

Blue-gray saw-toothed fringe.

The heron stands like a sinister old goat,

A crook in an overcoat --

Chin tucked in,

Legs stem-thin,

Skinny neck, collar up close

To a frown and long nose --

Stuck in the mud in a standing doze.


'Holy Picture: Remembering Tony C.'

I was out early walking our dog, Ringo, the Boston Terrier, and thinking about the Red Sox, who have lost five of the last seven games but remain in first place with a big lead. I don't know why, but my thoughts turned to Tony Conigliaro, maybe because Boston baseball in August is freighted with the dark memory of him being struck in the head by a pitched ball on August 18, 1967. As a kid, I was all about Tony C. I even painted a small number 25 in white on the sides of my hockey skates. Years ago I wrote a short essay about him and published it first in a weekly newspaper in Dracut, Mass., called The Merrimack Journal. Recently, the essay appeared a couple of times on the blog in Lowell. Here it is. 


Holy Picture

IF A 19-YEAR-OLD FROM SWAMPSCOTT and St. Mary’s High in Lynn could make the Red Sox, then a kid in Dracut could dream. I was ten when Tony Conigliaro homered the first time he got up to bat at Fenway Park in 1964. It was as if one of The Beatles had put on a Boston uniform. I had discovered baseball four years before. My father taught me how to catch and hit in our back yard. My older brother David took up where my dad left off. He let me tag along for games in Gendreau’s Field, a patchy meadow near our house, where I took a pitch in the head one time because I didn’t know enough to duck. In those days we’d wrap a ball in black electrical tape to keep the string from unraveling after the cover had let go under the beating of a thousand clouts. My brother had Ted Williams and the early Yaz. My half-generation had Tony C. and Triple-Crown Yaz. When my chums and I played Home Run Derby, someone would always say, “I’m Tony C.” He won the American League home run title in 1965, being the youngest champ ever. “Conig” even cut a rock ‘n’ roll record. Soon he was hanging out with Joe Namath and dating blonde nightclub singers.

That was about the same time that I received the sacrament of Confirmation at St. Therese’s Church. To prepare for this rite of passage, a young Catholic selects a confirmation name, preferably that of a saint who can be a life model and spiritual guide. Parents and godparents announce your Christian name at Baptism. Confirmation signals full membership in the church. You pick your own name the second time around. I chose “Anthony,” and the nuns thought I meant the saint.

A few years ago, I paid $8.00 for an old Conig card at a baseball memorabilia show. The card is a Topps, 1965. Along the way I lost the one I’d pulled out of a ten-cent pack at the Hovey Square Variety. My old Red Sox had gone the way of Beatles cards of the same period, all those holy pictures tossed out in a fit of adolescence. There comes a moment when it’s shameful to have heroes. The card-show guy said Tony C. sold well across the country. It’s my favorite Conigliaro card—he’s in three-quarter profile in his crisp white home uniform, and looks as if he’s staring a hole in a batter from his post in right field. There’s a small gold trophy in the bottom right corner for being named a Topps 1964 All-Star Rookie.

One summer in the mid-Sixties, I bought a Conigliaro-autograph model bat at Stuart’s department store in Lowell. My father drove me to the store on a Saturday morning, then rushed me home to play ball in the farmer's field my friends and I had taken over at the top of Janice Avenue. The regulars were there, joined that morning by a greasy punk from Crosby Road. He was fifteen going on twenty-five: duck’s-ass hairstyle, pack of Winstons rolled up in the sleeve of his white t-shirt, and pegged black chinos. He always wore pointy dress shoes, which made him slip all over the grass. He never brought a glove either. That day my team took the field first. I was at shortstop. The hood came up to the plate, a butt stuck in his mouth. He had my shiny bat with the white handle and brown barrel. When he hit the ball, I heard a loud crack and felt sick. I knew immediately that he had hit the ball on the bat’s label, which everyone else knew not to do. We were so conscious of that, especially with a new bat—”Turn the label away from the pitch. Don’t hit it on the grain.” How many times did we hear that? I should have made him buy me a new bat. He said it was a mistake. I fumed. When I got home, I nailed and taped the bat, but it was dead.

In 1967, I was living with my family in California during Boston’s Impossible Dream summer, when Tony C. took the fastball from Jack Hamilton in the side of his face. The Sports Illustrated photo of him in the hospital was gruesome, the closed left eye purplish black and swollen. He didn’t play for a year-and-a-half. But by 1970, he was so far back that he hit 36 homers and knocked in 116 runs. Still, the Sox traded him that winter.

In high school baseball, I wore number 25 for four years on JV and Varsity, but it didn’t make me a power hitter. As a college student, I saw one of his second-comeback home runs at Fenway, a patented Green Monster job. Years later, he collapsed in his brother’s car on the way to an interview for a job at a Boston TV station. He was being considered for the color commentary position on the Red Sox broadcasting team. By the time he reached the emergency room he had brain damage. After years of round the clock care, Tony Conigliaro died on February 24, 1990. He was a thrilling hitter with a big swing. I didn’t expect anything from him except a homer every time he stepped into the batter’s box. I tracked down that old baseball card because the cracked bat is long gone.