One Friday on Lawrence Avenue

I grew up in a different world known as the ’50s and ’60s. Men still wore fedoras and women still wore white gloves to church. There was a Green Stamps redemption center downtown, the original cash-back credit scheme. I attended the centralized elementary school from the first year it opened.

One Friday on Lawrence Avenue

The day begins with WPDM’s daily sign-on song:
“I once had a girlfriend, but each time I kissed her
the St. Lawrence River said, ‘keep movin’, mister.’”

My father shaves with an electric razor, his narrow tie
looped loose around his neck. After the farm report,
news of the region and the world, comes Swap Shop.

Mom lays out bowls, cereal, and milk in the kitchen,
brown-bags sandwiches, carrot sticks in waxed paper,
and two-ounce boxes of sweetened California raisins.

My brother and sister sit at the kitchen table already
but the elementary school day starts an hour later,
so I stay in bed, awaiting my turn in the bathroom.

School lies just down the street, but this year, aside
from class books I lug a ‘cello case, although a winter
dodging snowballs will soon cure me of orchestra.

Who remembers now what they actually taught us?
I remember recess best, or the lunch room, or
hanging out on the athletic field before and after school.

Outside by the monkey bars Larry and I fold up
paper army hats. I put five stars on mine, knowing
how a five-star general, like Ike, outranks everybody.

That doesn’t stop Larry from putting stars on every
square inch of his hat, proclaiming himself to be
a 99-star general. I suspect that Larry is an idiot.

I tell him my vote is for Kennedy, because PT-109.
He says his dad said Kennedy’s a Catholic. The Pope,
who wears a dress and a funny hat, would run things.

The lunch room is a weird ‘50s hybrid, an “auditeria,”
with risers, a stage, and theater curtain at one end
and doors into the kitchen and dish room opposite.

Lunch for brown baggers costs two cents, paying for
a thick glass half pint of milk with a cardboard stopper.
The rest pay a quarter for Salisbury steak with fixings.

Larry chews his sandwich into a flipped bird shape and
waves it at the teachers’ table. Wally wads a whole
PB&J on white in his mouth, then pops it out on tongue.

Gary Calhoun laughs so hard a chicken noodle soup 
noodle comes out his nose. I gather milk straws and
feathered toothpicks to blowgun into the ceiling tiles.

After lunch I watch out the window as cows from 
the farm next door turn grass into tomorrow’s milk.
Eventually school buses queue up along the circle.

I walk home to an empty house: my brother’s off
to JV track practice and my sister is twirling baton.
Mom works late on Friday at Montgomery Ward.

Mrs. Stevens from upstairs keeps one eye out
until someone else gets home, my father, often,
back from his sales territory for Remington Rand.

He makes instant coffee, lights a pipe of Cherry Blend,
and pushes back in the recliner with the daily paper.
I preheat the oven and pop in a casserole of leftovers.

After dinner, it’s still light enough to play guns, or
Kick the Can, but today it’s going to be the TV.
Route 66 follows Rawhide, then Jackie Gleason.

And since Mom is just getting home, a special treat,
Twilight Zone, which runs past my usual bedtime.
My brother scares me sleepless recounting old episodes.

I lie awake under moonshine through Venetian blinds
as dogs bark at mysterious intruders passing by and
the night trains roll through, heading into the future.

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Universum

Flammarion engraving, artist unknown. Colorized version by .Raven, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

I have long used a hand-colored detail of the so-called Flammarion engraving as a visual identifier for my website and for my nascent publishing company, Liberty Street Books. But I have never before written an ekphrastic poem using the piece. Mischief managed.

Universum

The face of the sun and the face of the moon, stars hung
like lanterns from the rafters of the night, these we know.
The homely village beside still water, the fields and hills,
everyday furnishings of everyday life, these we know.

But then, perchance in dreams, or on our knees at the edge
of who we are, the world lets slip her veil and we are shown
wheels within wheels, the many-layered onion of chaos,
transfixed by flames and clouds and rainbows of eternity.

Who would believe it? What words contain such vastness?
Only stare agape while the vision runs until the vision fades
back into an ordinary eye, a quotidian journey, and silence.

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Praising Trillium

Photo: James St. Johns, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

I’ve been reviewing nearly 20 years of Listening Post newsletters I wrote for North Country Public Radio and keep coming across excerpts of prose that easily convert to poetry. Here’s a poem extracted from a post about one of my naturalist obsessions, our native wild lily, the trillium.

Trillium

Not gaudy and sociable like the daffodil,
which permits itself to be herded chock-a-block
into beds, trillium are modest and retiring.

Thriving in the most anemic of soil,
they hide their beauty under partial shade.
They keep a discreet distance from one another,
lightly salted along the woodland trails.

Far from the profligate perfume of lilac,
trillium cast no more aroma than cold spring water.

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Living in the Immaterial World

This falls into the category of things I had forgotten that I had written. The genre might be called pre-postmodern Luddite rant.

Down the iHole

First it ate the wall phone and the wires
then all the clocks and all their ticking.
It sucked in the printing presses and
the logging trucks that kept them fed.
The tape recorder and the answering machine,
the typewriters which are no more. The radio,
movie theaters and TVs, even the remote–
the telegraph and post office have 
both fallen in.

It ate the library and the bookstore,
the living room bookcases, the stereo
and the record store, all nine feet of my vinyl.
The cartographer, the atlas, and the gazette–
all tamped down in. The social clubs, the stadium,
the notebook and the pen, large stuff and small stuff,
all stuffed in.

The camera, the photo album, the wallet and
the little black book. All the computers and monitors,
keyboards, cables and mice. The calculator and
the shopping cart. The weatherman is inside it,
and the anchorman. All the board games, casinos,
puzzles, toys. The fitness center, the coach, the tutor,
the translator. All the stuffing has been removed
from all my stuff, leaving just this hard handful
buzzing in my pocket.

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Easter Rising

Coltsfoot. Photo: The Cosmonaut, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

I’m a little behind the season with this. I kept going back to it, revising, revising revisions, dropping stanzas, rewriting the closing more than once. Now bluets, daffodils, and hyacinths are blooming too, in the churchyard and around the village. But this is about the very first of the little resurrections.

Easter Rising

Nothing in bloom but a few snowdrops and coltsfoot:
the first along a sunny wall in the yard and the latter
on the river trail that runs from the graveyard into town.
Though neither is native to this sparse North Country
upland, it’s easy to see why settlers planted them here.

When winter drags on then slumps into mud season,
itself a pallid purgatory, who can wait for trillium,
for apple blossoms, for lilacs that still are weeks away?
In the language of flowers, the snowdrop spells hope. 
And they are said to counteract poison. Can you feel it?

Bluet, daffodil, hyacinth, iris, tulip, day lily, tiger lily.
It’s not so much their blooming as knowing that they
will bloom, each in turn — an Easter faith each spring 
renews, thawing out the stony heart of winter — saved, 
as Mary Oliver once said, “by the beauty of the world.”

Roots stir the dirt, groping down toward water, stems
break duff, groping up toward light. After the leaves, buds
that bloom, blow, and seed. What is this if not salvation?
Whether it be angel or heron so high above the foothills,
the sun, buttery as coltsfoot, has created a new morning.

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Dead Mailbox Daydream

How an English major fixes a mailbox. Photo: Dale Hobson

It’s such a relief, when coming back to town after a couple days away, to find the house still atop the cellar hole, with no trees come through the roof or any evidence of fire damage, that it takes a while to notice that some miscreant drove onto the yard, flattened the mailbox, and then drove away. Who does such a thing and why, I wonder…

Dead Mailbox Daydream

First thing I noticed was the tire tracks in the grass
and then the flattened and shattered mailbox there,
door flopped open like the lolling tongue of roadkill.
To be clear, this was never an object in the prime of life.
It had fallen apart before and was rehabilitated (by me)
with 100 feet of clothesline and some granny knots.

And later, one of our contractors, once he had finished
laughing, put it back right with screws, nuts, and bolts.
Though its best days were long behind it, that still was
no excuse for summary execution, for going hit and run.
As I pull a hardware store replacement from the back
seat of my car, I begin to picture that final fatal moment:

A drunk behind the wheel of one of those trucks puffed
up on steroids, you know, with the thumping bass beats,
a pair of truck nuts a-dangle from the ball hitch, diesel,
of course, with vertical stacks and a rack of extra lights.
While chair-dancing to a lame country pop tune, he knocks
over a five-hour energy drink, swerving right into my yard.

Digging the hole for the new mailbox I picture his karma,
after seas rise and diesel costs a $100 a gallon, swapping
the grandiose relic for a rusty bicycle with a broken chain.
Or perhaps he fills the cab two feet deep in dirt to make
a cold frame, eking out his diet with early fresh produce,
or he swaps it for a guitar so he can play lame country pop.

On the other hand, I could be totally wrong, showing bias.
So I think again, as I pound the post into loosened soil.
It could have been some old fart taking the back road home
from the reservation smokeshop, who ate two gummies
in the parking lot while sitting in his restored ’67 Valiant.
It could have been coming on hard as he ran the s-curves.

He could have been hallucinating a half dozen spectral deer
in the road and chose to kill my mailbox as the lesser evil.
He could have stopped to clear his head unsuccessfully,
waiting for the waves of visual rushes to abate, but then
the sky began to fill with UFOs from horizon to horizon
and he fled in fear. I forgive him. It could happen to anyone.

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Wanting the Storm to Break

Michael, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I was feeling agitated the other night. It was an old familiar feeling of confinement, constraint, that 30 years of sobriety has not erased. But later, when I began to hear the storm in the distance, I realized it was low barometric pressure and ozone coming together with memory to push all my buttons.

Wanting the Storm to Break

In the falling dusk the red maple leaf buds dim to violet,
the greening grass grays and the pines blacken. The sky
is iron end to end, fading down, fading down toward night.

The woodpecker that pounded all day has finally wearied.
Squirrels that ran up/down/up rest quiet now, nose in tail.
Only I at my window and the hawk in the fir still keep watch.

It takes no genius to know the sharp-shinned hawk’s mind —
ever red with appetite, pitiless and free — but what of me?
Once the last light fails, the window makes a muddy mirror.

“If you don’t think too good, don’t think too much,” I’ve said —
from experience, too. Would that I could take my own advice.
Long ago, when this mood was on me, I’d wander lamp-lit streets,

head downtown where liquor poured to pounding rock & roll, 
or drive half the night, hoping someone’s light would be lit, or
sit in the dark below the roaring dam, red with appetite and free,

if for a moment only. I’ve had the American kind of luck in life —
to be free from need, but rarely free from wanting. Wanting
more, though I can’t say what, wanting whatever it is you got.

And now the air has gone electrical and I smell the oncoming rain.
There is thunder in the distance, drawing near, and flashing light. 
If it storms wild enough, long enough, I might lose myself to sleep.

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Cinders

Over time, most people begin to revise the past a little, romanticize it, pretty it up. I may do so myself when I come to the later 1960s, but my memories of the ’50s and early ’60s seem to come through without a rosy glow. But I do wonder how much of history one can credit, once the events have passed out of the direct memory of the living.

Cinders

When we moved in, this village burned coal. The landslide
roar of a full ton of anthracite pouring down a steel ramp
into the coal bin is burned in my brain. The molten
heat on my face when feeding the furnace and shaking
down the ash, the sulfuric reek of it that stained the air
from October through April still is burned in my brain.

Our driveway was built of coal ash, a couple feet
longer every year, and more ash piled by the back fence.
At school, the track was a full quarter-mile of cinders.
And all that smoke — snow gone gray by end of day,
clean curtains gray by end of week, salmon sandstone
and red brick blackened; windows opaque with soot.

At night I listened for the rumble of the ready flight,
the B-52 with its nuclear cargo ever primed to fly over 
the Pole. It ran circles all night long from the SAC base
on Lake Champlain. And at school we ducked and covered,
assumed a similar bomber kept kids in Russia from sleep.
I pictured their village, too, wrapped in its own fug of coal.

There was lead in the house paint then, mercury in the ash,
DDT in the dirt and the water and the chicken drumsticks.
Half the men in town had PTSD from WW1, or 2, or Korea,
though they had no name for what was wrong. They drank
and smoked at the hotel bar and worked themselves into
heart attacks for overtime pay in the pot room at Alcoa.

That world, that village has blown away like the coal haze
on a fresh west wind. The old cellars have been remodeled
into rec rooms, laundries, man caves. Grass has grown over
the ash piles as decades of rain have leached out the toxins
and leaf litter has rotted down to soil. Smokestacks are gone,
as are the jobs that kept them smoking, and the old folks, too.

Memory, these cinders of the past, are all that remain
of them. And when we who remember have passed —
what? The tales of trench warfare and of bootleggers
will join the lore of loggers and river drivers, quarrymen
and midwives, charcoal burners and farriers, nurses
and wheelwrights, who bled into histories seldom-read.

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As April Comes

Snowdrops. Photo: Susanne Nilsson, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

The hinge of the season is an interesting time. Not the one, not the other, but blending both. Its own thing, really, were we not so ingrained in our dualisms. April only seems a cruel month if you have no memory of January.

As April Comes

As April comes, winter wrestles spring again,
winning one day, losing the next, losing more
and more often as the southwest wind gusts in,
drives rain, liquefies the stinking soil, hooking up
jumper cables to the life which bides sleeping.

And inside me, where life has also lain sleeping,
I hear the wakeup call of the roaring night wind.
Its electricity in my brain shakes me from sleep.
I emerge from blankets like a bear from its lair
and stumble-foot to the kitchen to make coffee.

Water stands now in those hollows of the yard
that yesterday held snow. Good; good. Too long
has this world been frozen. A bit of greening
by the south-facing wall, which tomorrow (should
weather hold) might pop a spray of snowdrops.

A day, for once, for walking ’round the village:
going to the church for tai chi, going to the stores
for food and resupply, chatting with friends
not seen for months, moving on to the diner 
for gossip, burger, fries — a day for the library.

A day, perhaps, for driving nowhere in particular,
just because the roads are clear and because 
the winter coat, the hat, gloves, scarf, and boots
can stay behind in the hallway back at home. 
A day of lightness, warmth, and ease. Yes, please.

As winter ends, but before it really ends, it’s sort of 
Rip Van Winkle, sort of dubya-tee-eff. Tomorrow might
be “Remember me?”– back to drifts, shivers, shovels,
back to hunker down. But that’s what makes today
so sweet. It’s freeze and thaw that makes the sap run.

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Beyond our Power

Storm and Moon over the Black Sea. Photo: Alex Panoiu, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

While I have never seen the creator behind creation, and have no information to impart about what it all means and how it all ends, I feel that creative force whenever I look upon the beauties of creation. And never more so than when times are at their worst.

Beyond our Power

Driving the wounded woods across the county
I see cumulus clouds pile up through blue, floating
like a wedding cake above the shambles of winter.

Later, as the equinox sunset burns in the west
lurid as “the fire next time,” I can hardly 
keep my eyes from it as I pull into the village.

There, in the recital hall, a trio — clarinet, cello, 
piano — plays Brahms. If they can conjure up such 
beauty and still not weep, what excuse have I?

Though all four Horsemen now ride roughshod,
still, creation refuses to be anything less 
than beautiful. Explain this to me if you can:

How the death of millions dims not a single star, how
the moon floats untouched above the sea off Odessa,
just as if there was some power beyond our power.

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