poetry

Living with life’s ups and downs

Birch_4

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, October 20, 2019.

My rake tugs at wet leaves beneath the birch tree in my backyard, making me think of the worn volume of Robert Frost poems that my friend Jim gave me after his father died.

“It was in Dad’s bookcase,” he said, handing me the slender paperback. “I want you to have it.”

My friend’s gesture didn’t surprise me; he was bighearted and knew I was a word guy. But the genre of the book caught me off guard. I would have pegged Jim’s dad as a reader of history and how-to guides, not poetry.

Like many students, I first encountered Frost in high school English when I was assigned to read “Birches” freshman year. To my ear, the words were no match for Bruce Springsteen lyrics. Later, as an English major in college, I was consumed by the classical allusions of Eliot and Yeats, and the riddles of Wallace Stevens. I smugly concluded that Frost’s work was inferior because, to my mind, it was less challenging. Jim’s gift gave me my comeuppance.

I began to read “Birches” the way I believe every poet wants his or her verse to be read: repeatedly. During dozens of journeys through the poem’s 59 lines, Frost’s wisdom emerged.

The speaker in the poem recalls climbing his father’s birch trees as a boy. Holding onto the top-most section of the snow-white trunks, he would fling himself outward feet first to bend the trees and rid them of their stiffness: “So was I once myself a swinger of birches / And so I dream of going back to be.”

What prompts this wish? The speaker is weary of considerations: “I’d like to get away from earth awhile / And then come back to it and begin over.” Who can’t relate to his desire for a reprieve from life’s difficulties?

As a high-school freshman, my appreciation of Frost’s insight into the human condition was slight. Weariness wasn’t part of my 14-year-old world; my biggest concern was who my basketball team was playing next. I may have read Frost’s words, but I didn’t feel them.

Jim lived right across the street from me on River Avenue in Providence. Thanks to his parents’ diligence, their house was the tidiest on the block: shingles and shutters freshly painted, American flag flying from the front porch. I often saw his father in the driveway tending to his green Plymouth Fury. It gleamed in the morning sunlight.

When I visited Jim’s house, his mother was quick to ply me with brownies or a meatball sandwich. His dad was usually sitting in his living room chair, reading. He’d politely look up and say hello before returning to his newspaper or book. His stoic presence commanded my respect.

It wasn’t until years later that I began to suss out why Jim’s father was so reticent. As a Marine during World War II, he was part of a battallion that stormed Iwo Jima. At the end of his life, he told Jim what he had experienced on that island beach – things that were, until then, unspeakable.

In “Birches,” the speaker seeks a tree’s upper branches when “life is too much like a pathless wood.” His escape, however, is temporary; the birch eventually bends under his weight and sets him on the ground again. Frost offers this epiphany: “Earth’s the right place for love / I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.”

I’m thankful for my friend’s gift – for the second chance it provided to discover a poet’s wisdom and the more complete picture it gave me of Jim’s father. Maybe I was wrong. Perhaps, in its own way, the modest Frost paperback really was a how-to book – about living with life’s ups and downs and finding reason, even on our toughest days, to land on the side of love.

It’s something I’m pretty sure Jim’s dad knew long before I did.

 

Helping me hear my mother’s voice

22

Above, the author, right, with his mother and brothers in December 1965.

As published in The Providence Journal, January 21, 2018.

Imperative verbs — that’s what I remember about my mother’s writing, at least from my early years. Before and after school, her kitchen-table notes delivered directives. “Don’t forget your lunch” was probably the most common one, followed by “Working until 5:30 — feed the dog and look after your brother.”

When I studied in Ireland as a college junior, Mom’s writing became more expansive. Her letters brought news of family gatherings, her store on Atwells Avenue, recent deaths. Here are excerpts from a note dated October 28, 1980: “Vinny’s getting married on November 23. It will be a small affair at The Golden Lantern. I’m sorry you’ll miss it.… Business isn’t bad – we’re paying the bills.… I wrote you that I had taken Georgie to the vet. Well, John, I’m afraid there wasn’t much that could be done.”

I loved getting Mom’s letters in Dublin, but they didn’t give me the sense that she liked to write. Her penmanship looked rushed. Between the lines, she seemed to be saying, “Oh, if we could just talk over coffee, that would be better.”

So it surprised me when, at age 71, my mother began writing reflections on her life – rich, evocative pieces that shared stories I had never heard before.

One recalled her dash home from Nelson Street School in Providence during the Hurricane of 1938: “Gravel underfoot jumped to life, stinging the back of my legs.” Another revealed Mom’s trademark cheekiness: “Being the youngest of the four girls at my house, my vocation in life was to get out of there.” Recollections from her early teens referenced a sister’s boyfriends: “Every one was movie-star material to me.” A sketch about my younger brother recounted the morning he left for the Coast Guard: “All pre-dinner cocktail highs from the celebration the night before were diluted by now.”

And then there was “The Blanket.” “I guess it’s a poem,” Mom said modestly, handing me the page. “A memory, really.”

My mother’s poem-memory brought me back to when our family lived downstairs from my maternal grandparents in a double-decker on River Avenue. I was in kindergarten at the time and didn’t realize that my grandmother was ill; I just knew Mama waved to my older brother and me from her kitchen window as we played football in the backyard. Nor was I aware that, as my baby brother slept in his crib, my parents’ marriage was quietly unraveling. What I did know is that I liked to watch “Get Smart” with Mom and Dad on Saturday nights because the show made them laugh together.

“The Blanket” let me see this world anew. It recalled a pink-and-white bedspread that my mother had received as a gift. The poem, in part, reads:

 

Guests, calling to visit, led me to lay

the blanket on my mother’s sickbed.

 

Its newness would certainly warn

the transporter being sent to take

my mother away

that she wasn’t ready yet!

 

Whose eyes would watch from the

second-floor window as the four-year-old

football hero ran for the touchdown pass?

 

Where would I find the approval she

gave me, in the midst of my own

chaos, I pressed my new baby into her arms?

 

In “How to Write a Memoir,” William Zinsser states: “There are many good reasons for writing that have nothing to do with being published. Writing is a powerful search mechanism, and one of its satisfactions is to come to terms with your life narrative.” He calls memoir “a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition.”

My mother left behind a stack of photo albums, which include fading prints of her as a cheerleader at Mount Pleasant High School, a young mom in an East Side apartment, and a proud entrepreneur on Federal Hill.

But it’s her late-life writings that I treasure the most. In those black-and-white word snapshots, I hear her voice – human and funny and wise.

When 268 Words Made Presidential Poetry

Created at wordle.net

Created at wordle.net

 

When my children were younger, I had a ritual on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday: I would play a recording of Sam Waterston reciting the Gettysburg Address for them before they left for school. As Lincoln’s words competed with Cheerios and orange juice for their attention, I hoped my kids would come to love those words as I do – for what they say and, especially, for how they say it.

There are only 268 words in the address – a mere ten sentences – but what profound poetry they make! As an English major in college, I was surprised to find the speech in my Norton Anthology of American Literature, right there with works by Emerson and Hawthorne, Whitman and Poe. Lincoln, the writer? But that was my tip-off. For the first time, I read the Gettysburg Address as a piece of literature, and have been re-reading it ever since.

The words are Lincoln’s own. No speechwriter submitted drafts to him or fine-tuned the phrasing on the train to Gettysburg the day before. The main speaker at the cemetery dedication was Edward Everett, former U.S. Secretary of State and Governor of Massachusetts. Lincoln followed. There is no photo of him delivering his “remarks,” as they were called, because they were so brief. My favorite line in the speech is “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” Thanks, in part, to Lincoln’s words, we do not forget.

Witnesses reported that Everett’s speech, much longer than Lincoln’s, was better received. But shortly afterward, the noted orator wrote to the president: “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

In those two minutes, Lincoln proved what Shakespeare had written in Hamlet two and a half centuries before: “Brevity is the soul of wit.”

How A Father’s Letter Led To The Writing Life

I replace the spongy step on the front porch because it may give way and land Steve the mailman in the hospital. I don’t enjoy the work – I’m not handy – so I recruit my brother (who is) to help me. We fix the step and get the desired result: no broken bones.

I write to get results, too. But unlike fixing steps, writing I enjoy. For me, writing is its own reward.

I also write because it’s my job. I’m a copywriter. Every day, I go to work and use words to sell stuff for clients such as Washington Trust, South County Hospital, Schneider Electric, and the Greater Providence YMCA.

Like many English majors, I had dreams of becoming a writer of fiction or poetry. When I took the copywriting position at an ad agency, a fellow would-be poet accused me of selling out. But the job was a godsend. It made we write every day. “Writing is a craft, not an art,” William Zinsser points out in his great book, On Writing Well. “Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time.”

How true. There is always a gap between what I want to say and how my first draft says it. T. S. Eliot tells us that “words strain, crack and sometimes break, under the burden, under the tension, slip, slide, perish, decay with imprecision.” A line from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is more direct: “It is impossible to say just what I mean!” But I keep trying.

Because when writers do bridge the gap between writing and reality – when they write so truthfully that we taste the food (Ernest Hemingway) or laugh with abandon (Peter Farrelly) or have our eyes sting with empathy (William Trevor) – we feel the connection, made possible by words.

My parents separated when I was nine years old. I saw no warning signs – no kitchen table arguments, no slammed doors. But one night I walked downstairs to the basement and found my father sitting at a desk, writing. He didn’t hear me. And then his hand lashed out at the ashtray on the desk, hurtling it to the tile floor where it exploded. I went back upstairs.

The next day my father was gone and I found out what he had been writing – letters to my brothers and me. Mine began:

Three pages of gentle words, solace, and assurances followed. In the sea of my sadness, my father’s letter was the raft. And that’s when I fell under the spell of words beautifully expressed and deeply felt.

The writing life beckoned.

When 268 Words Made Presidential Poetry

Gettysburg Address word cloud created at wordle.net

When my children were younger, I had a ritual on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday: I would play a recording of Sam Waterston reciting the Gettysburg Address for them before they left for school. As Lincoln’s words competed with Cheerios and orange juice for their attention, I hoped my kids would come to love those words as I do – for what they say and, especially, for how they say it.

There are only 268 words in the address – a mere ten sentences – but what profound poetry they make! As an English major in college, I was surprised to find the speech in my Norton Anthology of American Literature, right there with works by Emerson and Hawthorne, Whitman and Poe. Lincoln, the writer? But that was my tip-off. For the first time, I read the Gettysburg Address as a piece of literature, and have been re-reading it ever since.

The words are Lincoln’s own. No speechwriter submitted drafts to him or fine-tuned the phrasing on the train to Gettysburg the day before. The main speaker at the cemetery dedication was Edward Everett, former U.S. Secretary of State and Governor of Massachusetts. Lincoln followed. There is no photo of him delivering his “remarks,” as they were called, because they were so brief. My favorite line in the speech is “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” Thanks, in part, to Lincoln’s words, we do not forget.

Witnesses reported that Everett’s speech, much longer than Lincoln’s, was better received. But shortly afterward, the noted orator wrote to the president: “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

In those two minutes, Lincoln proved what Shakespeare had written in Hamlet two and a half centuries before: “Brevity is the soul of wit.”

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