Sometime around 1850, Thoreau walked to Walden. There, among his other thoughts, were worries about what America was becoming, as the railroad was built beside his beloved pond. One hundred years later, and thirty miles north, Jack Kerouac worried about the America his immigrant father thought was crumbling under the weight of new immigrants, from other places, arriving to work in the mills.
Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell presents pure Kerouac, in Kerouac’s hometown, Lowell, Massachusetts. The script is by Sean Daniels, based on Kerouac’s unfinished trilogy of novels. The cast is diverse; the setting is pre-WWII. Themes of family and gender differences, of walls and war, of childhood lost and of the small town neatness messed up by warring instincts, are all there again.
It’s worth a drive to Kerouac’s town, where the American industrial revolution was born, to hear his words, when he was a young man. The parking is free in the lot of the hulking Catholic church next to a mill building, across the street from the theater.
I’m Thankful That My Life Doth Not Deceive
I’m thankful that my life doth not deceive
Itself with a low loftiness, half height,
And think it soars when still it dip its way
Beneath the clouds on noiseless pinion
Like the crow or owl, but it doth know
The full extent of all its trivialness,
Compared with the splendid heights above.
See how it waits to watch the mail come in
While ’hind its back the sun goes out perchance.
And yet their lumbering cart brings me no word,
Not one scrawled leaf such as my neighbors get
To cheer them with the slight events forsooth,
Faint ups and downs of their far distant friends—
And now ’tis passed. What next? See the long train
Of teams wreathed in dust, their atmosphere;
Shall I attend until the last is passed?
Else why these ears that hear the leader’s bells
Or eyes that link me in procession?
But hark! the drowsy day has done its task,
Far in yon hazy field where stands a barn,
Unanxious hens improve the sultry hour
And with contented voice now brag their deed—
A new laid egg—Now let the day decline—
They’ll lay another by tomorrow’s sun.
-Henry David Thoreau 1817-1862
There are thoughts that come to the door screen summer nights,
lured by a light kept on by
some childhood fear. They bump against it, or cling.
Darkness frees them.
There is love comes late, in darkness, and gives reason.
Body speckled, sweet as a pear.
the heart bears its weight.
At dusk, deep in the summer woods, a silence.
Something that was here, expected
to continue being here,
I see the line in my palm etched by fate and not yet
snipped. The afterlife,
what is it
if not a further body desire turns toward?
No clear edge to the universe, now the scientists tell us.
They describe an intense
fuzziness instead. World spins into other worlds as incandescent
as what arises from cocoons
ripening on the underskin of leaves and stars.
In his book, Buzz, The Nature and Necessity of Bees, Thor Hanson tells how much bees have meant to the plantet and its varieties of life. We would not be here without them.
In a literary comment, he tells how Sylvia Plath learned about bees from her father, Otto Emil Plath, whom Hanson calls “North America’s greatest bumblee expert.”
Hanson writes: “[Plath] is surely the only major literary figure to use the word ‘hibernaculum’ in a poem, correctly referring to the shallow burrow where a pregnant queen bumblebee spends the winter. Months before she committed suicide, Sylvia took up bee keeping, and she wrote a series of bee poems.
Electra on Azalea
The day you died I went into the dirt,
Into the lightless hibernaculum
Where bees, striped black and gold, sleep out the blizzard
Like hieratic stones, and the ground is hard.
It was good for twenty years, that wintering –
As if you never existed, as if I came
God-fathered into the world from my mother’s belly:
Her wide bed wore the stain of divinity.
I had nothing to do with guilt or anything
When I wormed back under my mother’s heart.
Small as a doll in my dress of innocence
I lay dreaming your epic, image by image.
Nobody died or withered on that stage.
Everything took place in a durable whiteness.
The day I woke, I woke on Churchyard Hill.
I found your name, I found your bones and all
Enlisted in a cramped necropolis
your speckled stone skewed by an iron fence.
In this charity ward, this poorhouse, where the dead
Crowd foot to foot, head to head, no flower
Breaks the soil. This is Azalea path.
A field of burdock opens to the south.
Six feet of yellow gravel cover you.
The artificial red sage does not stir
In the basket of plastic evergreens they put
At the headstone next to yours, nor does it rot,
Although the rains dissolve a bloody dye:
The ersatz petals drip, and they drip red.
Another kind of redness bothers me:
The day your slack sail drank my sister’s breath
The flat sea purpled like that evil cloth
My mother unrolled at your last homecoming.
I borrow the silts of an old tragedy.
The truth is, one late October, at my birth-cry
A scorpion stung its head, an ill-starred thing;
My mother dreamed you face down in the sea.
The stony actors poise and pause for breath.
I brought my love to bear, and then you died.
It was the gangrene ate you to the bone
My mother said: you died like any man.
How shall I age into that state of mind?
I am the ghost of an infamous suicide,
My own blue razor rusting at my throat.
O pardon the one who knocks for pardon at
Your gate, father – your hound-bitch, daughter, friend.
It was my love that did us both to death.
The Garden of Eden, Erastus Salisbury Field, 1860, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
When Eve walked
among the animals and named them-
nightingale, red-shouldered hawk,
fiddler crab, fallow deer-
I wonder if she ever wanted
them to speak back, looked into
their wide wonderful eyes and
whispered. Name me, name me.
O Yeares! And Age! Farewell! Behold I go, Where I do know Infinitie to dwell. And these mine eyes shall see All times, how they Are lost i'th' Sea Of vast Eternitie. Where never moon shall sway The Starres; but she, And night, shall be. Drown'd in one endlesse Day -Robert Herrick
You can dream in a small town, especially when the town claims no attractions and offers no tourist charm.
You cannot sing a sweet, sober love song about a homely place. So you growl it, like Shane MacGowen, and the love pours out from the band and from the crowd. It’s their kind of place. No expectations, no aspirations, just a place in the world that might hold you, without judgment, when no other place will have you. You don’t have to go far west from the suburban town where I live before you arrive at shabby, lovely, dirty old towns.
Now Are the Rough Things Smooth
by Mary Oliver
Now are the rough things smooth, and the smooth
things stand in flickering slats, facing the slow tarnish
of sun-fall. Summer is over. And therefore the
green is not green anymore but yellow, beige, russet,
rust: all the darknesses are beginning to settle in. And
therefore why pray to permanence, why not pray to
impermanence, to change, to – whatever comes next.
Willingness is next to godliness. Once I watched a
swallow playing with a feather, high in the blue air.
The swallow wanted to fly and frolic; the feather just
wanted to float. Many times the swallow dropped the
feather, which drifted away, then went diving and
careening after it. There are so many things to do in
this world, and so many things to be done. Right now
I’m glad to be agile and insistent. But, later! Then, I’ll
be happy to give up the quick burst, oh darling and
important world, and just float away.
Happy the man, whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air,
In his own ground.
Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread,
Whose flocks supply him with attire,
Whose trees in summer yield him shade,
In winter fire.
Blest, who can unconcernedly find
Hours, days, and years slide soft away,
In health of body, peace of mind,
Quiet by day,
Sound sleep by night; study and ease,
Together mixed; sweet recreation;
And innocence, which most does please,
Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;
Thus unlamented let me die;
Steal from the world, and not a stone
Tell where I lie.
from The Music of What Happens, by Helen Vendler: [Easter Morning] is a treasure of American poetry, combining the blankest of losses with the fullest of visions. It is a poem that should be published alone, in a three-page book by itself; it is so complete it repels company. p. 329f
Easter Morning by A. R. Ammons
I have a life that did not become,
that turned aside and stopped,
I hold it in me like a pregnancy or
as on my lap a child
not to grow old but dwell on
it is to his grave I most
frequently return and return
to ask what is wrong, what was
wrong, to see it all by
the light of a different necessity
but the grave will not heal
and the child,
stirring, must share my grave
with me, an old man having
gotten by on what was left
when I go back to my home country in these
fresh far-away days, it’s convenient to visit
everybody, aunts and uncles, those who used to say,
look how he’s shooting up, and the
trinket aunts who always had a little
something in their pocketbooks, cinnamon bark
or a penny or nickel, and uncles who
were the rumored fathers of cousins
who whispered of them as of great, if
troubled, presences, and school
teachers, just about everybody older
(and some younger) collected in one place
waiting, particularly, but not for
me, mother and father there, too, and others
close, close as burrowing
under skin, all in the graveyard
assembled, done for, the world they
used to wield, have trouble and joy
the child in me that could not become
was not ready for others to go,
to go on into change, blessings and
horrors, but stands there by the road
where the mishap occurred, crying out for
help, come and fix this or we
can’t get by, but the great ones who
were to return, they could not or did
not hear and went on in a flurry and
now, I say in the graveyard, here
lies the flurry, now it can’t come
back with help or helpful asides, now
we all buy the bitter
incompletions, pick up the knots of
horror, silently raving, and go on
crashing into empty ends not
completions, not rondures the fullness
has come into and spent itself from
I stand on the stump
of a child, whether myself
or my little brother who died, and
yell as far as I can, I cannot leave this place, for
for me it is the dearest and the worst,
it is life nearest to life which is
life lost: it is my place where
I must stand and fail,
calling attention with tears
to the branches not lofting
boughs into space, to the barren
air that holds the world that was my world
though the incompletions
(& completions) burn out
standing in the flash high-burn
momentary structure of ash, still it
is a picture-book, letter-perfect
Easter morning: I have been for a
walk: the wind is tranquil: the brook
works without flashing in an abundant
tranquility: the birds are lively with
voice: I saw something I had
never seen before: two great birds,
maybe eagles, blackwinged, whitenecked
and –headed, came from the south oaring
the great wings steadily; they went
directly over me, high up, and kept on
due north: but then one bird,
the one behind, veered a little to the
left and the other bird kept on seeming
not to notice for a minute: the first
began to circle as if looking for
something, coasting, resting its wings
on the down side of some of the circles:
the other bird came back and they both
circled, looking perhaps for a draft;
they turned a few more times, possibly
rising—at least, clearly resting—
then flew on falling into distance till
they broke across the local bush and
trees: it was a sight of bountiful
majesty and integrity: the having
patterns and routes, breaking
from them to explore other patterns or
better ways to routes, and then the
return: a dance sacred as the sap in
the trees, permanent in its descriptions
as the ripples round the brook’s
ripplestone: fresh as this particular
flood of burn breaking across us now
from the sun.
A barn shall harbor heaven,
A stall become a shrine.
-Richard Wilbur 1921-2017