Jean and Lew Turco in an Oswego Opera production of Carmen, 1980s
Shaking the Family Tree, A Remembrance, by Lewis Turco, West Lafayette, IN: www.BordigheraPress.org, VIA Folio 15, 1998, ISBN 188441916X, trade paperback.
Jean and Lew Turco in an Oswego Opera production of Carmen, 1980s
Shaking the Family Tree, A Remembrance, by Lewis Turco, West Lafayette, IN: www.BordigheraPress.org, VIA Folio 15, 1998, ISBN 188441916X, trade paperback.
LETTERS TO THE DEAD
In Memory of Luigi and May, John and Bertha
Here is our Hero, opening his eyes.
The daylight rises like a welling tide
And floats him out of slumber into time.
Two eggs and toast; coffee in a cup
Of thermal plastic; the thermostat turned up.
Slowly blood and temperature rise.
Shower and shave, and then his socks and pants
Crawl up his flesh to lock his shirt-tail in,
Though waking is his habit, and the sun
Clothes him like armor forged against those dreams
He's left among the linens — so it seems,
Or so he hopes. At least he has a chance
To down the darkness, drown it in the dawn.
For he is of an age when sleep comes hard,
But when it comes there trails behind its edge
A specter host, a horde of attic shades
Risen from the Nether Regions' glades
To walk again upon a morning lawn.
He'd buried them upstairs in trunks and cartons,
Their eyelids weighted down with trash and lace,
Mathoms and mementos: every face
Lies in its album while the hornet croons
Among the rafters summer afternoons
Or as, in spring, the maples fill with martins,
With greening leaves that fall to earth in fall —
But worst in winter. Then the photographs
Give up the ghost to cold, the petty griefs
Of dust as chill as snow. Their images
Arise, and then descend like salvages
Of musty seasons to our Hero's hall.
They walk the paisley carpet as the night
Fills with the moon. They pause before his door.
They enter, cast their shadows on the floor,
Loom over him. Then, one by one, they slide
Into his sleep — he recollects the stride
Of one, another's stance, their darkness bright
As candles guttering. The dreamer's lake
Has swallowed him — nevertheless, he sees,
His lids like film. The phantoms do not speak,
Nor does he speak to them, but words in spate
Sluice through his mind. He tries to close the gate
To capture them. He struggles to awake....
Here is our Hero, born to second sight.
The daylight rises like a welling tide
And floats him out of slumber into time...,
Two eggs and toast; coffee in a cup
Of thermal plastic; the thermostat turned up.
He takes a pad and pen and starts to write.
Two Epistles to Children Drowned:
LETTER TO A DROWNED BOY
He wants to write a letter to the child,
The boy drowned on the beach when he was young,
A boy himself. The letter is overdue.
Dear Friend, he writes. I recall your body flung
To that Wisconsin beach. Your flesh was blue,
A pallid blue. The day was dark, but mild —
Or was it dark? If so, why would my mother
Have taken us to swim where you had drowned?
What kind of darkness was it, has it been
Since first I saw you there where you'd been downed
By death, the first death I had ever seen?
Why had she let me see you? Did my brother
See you also? I have never asked,
But he was there, seven when I was twelve.
The firemen pumped you out. Their motor churned,
But darkness stalked that beach and, in its stealth,
Stole the march on all of us. I turned
Into a mortal. I saw that life was masked,
And underneath the mask I saw the bone.
I saw your chest sucked inward, then forced out;
I saw the blot of water on the sand
Under the hose. I saw you were without
The thing that made you you. Time waved its wand
Over the water — we blinked, and you were gone.
I don't remember feeling. I was cold.
I must have forced myself to turn to stone.
I think the crowd was small — a weekday crowd —
but since then you and I have been alone.
The Pulmotor drones, but silences are loud;
You took my hand; I cannot break your hold.
Your stillnesses encroach a ripple more
Each hour upon my sands, this beach-head birth
Allotted us, that now erodes away
Until I feel dark water sucking earth
From underfoot. The motor sings. The day
Fills my lungs. My ears begin to roar.
LETTER TO A THREE-YEAR-OLD
Ontario was calm that afternoon,
Still as the photograph of a summer day.
The beach was a fall of stones sloping down
To the water's edge. It was no day to drown,
The sun in the sky like a hazy red balloon.
Your father had been watching you at play
In depths that reached your waist and touched his knees.
The other picnickers sat on the shore
Or waded lazily not far away,
Watching you and the other children play.
The sailboats on the lake moved by degrees
Almost too small to note. One might ignore,
On such an afternoon, the shadow on
The imperceptible swell — the scudding cloud
That threw its umbra there, casting color
Along the lakeside. One might well ignore
The picnickers, the children in the sun,
The hazy heat that settled like a shroud
Impalpably on the water. Then,
Without a word or sign, summer faltered.
The silence you became still echoes loud
Upon Ontario's stones, under the shroud
Of haze and scudding cirrus. We hear it often.
The quality of stillness has been altered.
LETTER TO A GRANDSIRE
Here I am at forty-five,
And you've been dead for years. When I was twelve
I came to visit you at great remove
From my home town. I caught you by the barn,
Committing an act of nature, but reproof
Was lost on you. You turned as though to warn
The empty stalls of danger. Tall and thin,
Thereafter you left the room when I came in —
You imitated smoke. I'd see you there
Beside the iron stove; you'd start, a look
Like prey upon your eyes, then disappear.
You never held a job or read a book
Your whole life long, I've heard my mother claim.
You sired nine before time quenched your flame —
Or, much more likely, grandma's. Six were sons.
They all grew up inside that shell of boards
You called a house. The sunny, windy seasons
Belabored it. The autumn fell in cords,
And you were sapped by spring, became a ghost
Who fled from grandsons, that unruly host
Sprung from your loins. You opened up your fly
And soaked the barn. You saw me watching you,
Then turned and faded off. Was it my eye,
My look of accusation? I guess you knew
That in your daughter's world, therefore in mine,
Such things did not occur. You were a swine
Cast before pearls. I blush as I remember,
Not your simple act, but my disdain.
Grandpa, I cherish that familiar member,
That glimpse of greatness, your prolific reign.
LETTER TO A BARITONE
Our Hero is remembering his friend
From second grade and high school. He recalls
The early days — on weekends they'd pretend
That they were pilots in The War. The walls
Fade out about him in his reverie,
Fade into the quartet's close harmony.
Dear Curt (he writes),
How long have you been dead?
I don't remember. Last weekend I went back
To visit our home town. A passing dread
Lies waiting when we double in our track,
But this time I picked up the telephone
And called our choral teacher. Pure cornpone,
I know, but hearing him I felt relieved —
He sounded as he used to. I had brunch
Next day at his house — hard to be believed,
But he was just the same. I'd played a hunch
and won this once. We spent a splendid day;
We quipped and talked, and then I walked away.
He had our pictures, Curt, down in his den
Upon his desk, and on the wall as well:
That barbershop cartoon that I'd forgotten,
Drawn by our tenor but signed by one and all.
He tried to give it to me; I demurred.
I couldn't take it, but I nearly heard
Those chords again, spellbinding when we blended
Into a single voice of chiming parts;
The ringing silence when the song was ended —
This pen pursues its way by fits and starts.
"How maudlin this would sound to anyone,"
I think at first; then, "Lord, we did have fun."
The ringing silence when the song was ended:
No doubt that's what we've heard since you've been gone.
Tony and Ed became what they intended,
And so did I. We work, we mow the lawn,
Drive the kids to the dentist, wives to the store,
But we never get together anymore.
LETTER TO A GARDENER
Uncle Alfred, skinny as a pole,
Deaf as any post, blind as a vole,
You felt your way through age along the rows
And hillocks of your garden, furbelows
And furrows. Maine potatoes were your eyes,
And corn, your ears to hear the grackles' cries.
You felt your way through age along the rows —
You laid the autumn straitly in windrows
After your harvest, green and gold and brown,
Peered out of Mason jars all over town.
Your labors rested with us winter-long;
Now I will pay you for them with a song.
After your harvest, green and gold and brown,
I helped to bear your burden, Alfred, down
At last to harvest home. It was as light
To me as sun by day or dew by night,
Uncle Alfred, skinny as a pole,
Deaf as any post, blind as a vole.
LETTER TO A HALL-OF-FAMER
Our Hero reminisces, half awake.
The radio is playing, and his cat,
Black as midnight, is making up to him.
He wants to write a letter for the sake
Of auld lang syne; however, he must trim,
First, thirty years and more from all those that
He has accrued. He must remember when
The summer morning broke across a street
Of elms and maples.
Mr. Walsh, he writes,
I couldn't have been more than nine or ten.
I slumbered soundly through such dreamless nights,
And rose up early, anxious to compete
With time, discover which of us should last
And which succumb. None of my friends had risen;
The street was mine — until I saw your pickup
Before the enigmatic shack we passed
Each day that we played ball. We used to kick up
Dust in the lot beside the shack. A dozen
Times when we had started home that summer,
We'd stopped before the dusty window panes,
Cupped our hands and tried to peer inside.
We thought we saw machines. We lived on rumor —
When we thought of it. Our interest died.
And then I saw your truck, all dents and stains,
Parked at the curb that dewy summer morning.
I found you bottling milk with your machines,
Racking bottles. You were a quiet man,
So tall that, as you loaded up, the awning
Brushed your head. So that's how they began,
Those early hours filled with brilliant greens
Along the bumpy roads outside of town
Where you were hailed as "Mr. Walsh" or "Ed"
By customers who met us at the door.
The milk was winter white — it wore a crown
Of cream beneath the cap. Those mornings wore
A luster. Your obituary said
That you were Big Ed Walsh, the Hall-of-Famer,
The White Sox great, best pitcher in the world
When giants roamed the diamond. I rode
A summer milk route with a forty-gamer
Who never hinted that he once bestrode
A famous mound and, like a titan, hurled
His smokeball past a batter. I've since gone
Driving through the hills to Cooperstown,
Mr. Walsh, down to the Hall of Fame
To see your plaque upon a wall of stone,
But you were not transfigured by your name —
All I recall is milk that wore a crown.
LETTER TO AN EDITOR
Our Hero conjures up his ancient friend,
The literary Weaver, editor
And correspondent, in his printery
Belowstairs in the house where East Cleveland
Becomes the Heights. He was the guarantor
Of evenings filled with printer's deviltry
And conversation — nights that otherwise
Would have been lost in smog and Erie mist.
Dear Loring, he implores, I've missed you well
These several years. I know that you despise
Shows of emotion. Forgive me. You don't exist,
So I must follow though I go through Hell.
I dream about your office down below;
The flywheel of your press turning around,
The fonts of type, the tubes of murky ink.
Upstairs your fabled wife treads to and fro —
Hart Crane's aunt, billowing like a mound
Of lace and lavender, attempts to think
Of one more bar of music to compose.
Turn off the press — it rumbles to a halt.
We sit and talk among those paneled walls —
Cleveland recedes and starts to decompose.
The strokes of fate are muffled in your vault,
And we can barely hear her siren calls.
I count it as a personal offense,
Loring, when someone dies, someone I know,
Particularly you. What did you get
Out of this retreat? It makes no sense.
How can I calculate the tab I owe
And pay you back? You've buried me in debt.
I must resort to dreams. I turn within
My winding sheets and wait for you to come
To stand beside my stead. You proffer me
A book you've set in leaden type, but on
Those pages there is emptiness. I thumb
The volume through. I read that you are gone.
Our Hero is exhausted, and his head
Is reeling from his labors. He glances to
The clock upon the wall. He sees the night
Is far advanced. He switches off the light
And sits in darkness feeling shades of blue —
He has been writing letters to the dead.
It's time, he thinks, to rise and go to bed.
He wonders whether he has laid to rest
Any of those ghosts who populate
His dreams — descend the attic stairs and wait
Beside his pillow. He understands their quest;
Therefore, he pens these letters to the dead.
He knows that everything was never said
Among them while they thrived; he further knows
That somehow he must say it, or his debt
Will grow until, entangled in its net,
He drowns within the depths of what he owes.
He gathers up his letters to the dead,
Shuffles them in darkness. But, instead
Of getting up and going to his room,
He hefts them in his hand. The slender sheaf
Feels as though composed of moss and leaf.
Then, thinking that he smells a grave perfume,
His eyes close on his letters to the dead.
He dreams his words are waiting to be read.
They lie upon the earth, begin to brown
And crumble into loam. Out of their mold
A herb begins to grow. Its leaves unfold
To drink the night. A bud swells at its crown;
Balm blossoms from the letters to the dead.
When he awakens, an incarnate red
Transfuses the horizon: it is dawn.
The letters, scattered on his morning table,
Show palely forth from under umbral sable —
The shades still linger; they will not be gone —
He must resume his letters to the dead.
Listen to Lewis Turco read his poem The Obsession.
Last night I dreamed my father died again,
A decade and a year after he dreamed
Of death himself, pitched forward into night.
His world of waking flickered out and died —
An image on a screen. He is the father
Now of fitful dreams that last and last.
I dreamed again my father died at last.
He stood before me in his flesh again.
I greeted him. I said, "How are you, father?"
But he looked frailer than last time I'd dreamed
We were together, older than when he'd died —
I saw upon his face the look of night.
I dreamed my father died again last night.
He stood before a mirror. He looked his last
Into the glass and kissed it. He saw he'd died.
I put my arms about him once again
To help support him as he fell. I dreamed
I held the final heartburst of my father.
I died again last night: I dreamed my father
Kissed himself in glass, kissed me goodnight
In doing so. But what was it I dreamed
In fact? An injury that seems to last
Without abatement, opening again
And yet again in dream? Who was it died
Again last night? I dreamed my father died,
But it was not he — it was not my father,
Only an image flickering again
Upon the screen of dream out of the night.
How long can this cold image of him last?
Whose is it, his or mine? Who dreams he dreamed?
My father died. Again last night I dreamed
I felt his struggling heart still as he died
Beneath my failing hands. And when at last
He weighed me down, then I laid down my father,
Covered him with silence and with night.
I could not bear it should he come again —
I died again last night, my father dreamed.
REFLECTIONS IN AN ATTIC ROOM
A Sonnet Redoubled
As if one needed to begin to write;
As though one had to have a pen at hand,
Paper smoothening to the touch of night,
Light sifting across the page like wind and sand.
This is the scrivener's fallacy, the hour
Abraded by sand and wind, by willful words:
They scrape at vision, they scarify and scour —
The urn becomes a scattering of shards;
The wind, a voice freed of its hollow shell
Noting nothings echoing in the bone
Bleaching among the dunes of time that swell:
They shift, remembering they once were stone.
Sit stony-eyed; watch the words curl and come
Still-born to life between the joint and thumb.
Dear Father: You are dead. What's there to say?
Yet I'll go on to say it, as you know,
Or may not, as the case may be. Just so,
Our monologues continue on their way,
Two streams of silence rising out of clay,
Passing each other in the essential flow
Of stars and atoms. Watch them rise and go,
Falling in vortices of night and day:
The grass grows green, the suns and planets turn
Upon a field of sable. Brine turns to blood,
I turn to you as day turns into night,
As flesh turns in to earth. I cannot spurn
The flame you gave to me upon the flood
As if one needed to begin. To write
Is useless. "Poetry makes Nothing happen,"
As Auden said. It happens anyhow,
Rising upon the eternal tide of Now,
Engulfing everything — the field, the aspen,
Herb, rock and furrow. So we sigh, grasp pen,
Ink and paper, then we sit down to plow
Another row of letters. We endow
The meadow with another seed to open.
And when it does, what will the blossom be?
Another flower in a sea of flowers?
A blooming and a withering of the land
That once was ocean, that once more shall be sea
Rising to blood again to invest these hours
As though one had to have a pen in hand?
Here in an attic study rising to
A peak in the winter dark, one thinks at times
Of love; one thinks of synonyms and rhymes
That come as close as words are wont to do
To what it once was like when the flesh was new
And closed with flesh in torrid zones and climes.
What was it like? Whose were those pantomimes
Between the sheets that got the rave reviews?
Those sheets — those wrinkled sheets: they press in close
Upon recall. The books that line these shelves
Are filled with love songs yellowing and trite:
Verbena pressed between the leaves verbose.
Our sheets untwine, leaving to our selves
Paper smoothening to the touch of night.
The attic listens to the scratching pen.
Outdoors, the wind has sunk. The snow is deep,
The neighbors in their steads are fast asleep,
Dreaming of when they will awake again.
Nothing is happening, nor will it when
They lift their lids to look into the deep
Trance of wakening. The ink will keep
The stillness that inhabits books and men,
Will keep it and disgorge it as the leaf
Turns, veined and sere, and then begins to brown
Under the rooftree, beneath the moving hand.
The words accumulate, become a sheaf
Of seasons as the silence filters down,
Light sifting across the page like wind and sand.
Imagine this: a battering at the door;
The voice of anguish pleading, "Give us curds,
Crusts, crumbs of meaning — pray you, give us words!
We need the Secret Name, and so much more —
A sense of purpose from your ample store
Of synonyms and antonyms! Rewards
Undreamt await if you extend towards
Your fellow man a portion of your lore!"
But the knocker lies against the stolid wood,
The panel does not echo. The empty hall
Contains but peeling paper and a sour
Smell of waiting. It must be understood
There is no understanding, only gall:
This is the scrivener's fallacy. The hour
Is late. The atmosphere is thick. The earth
Is running down. The fishes in the sea
Are drowned in silt. Each blade of grass, each tree
Is blighted. There has been a monstrous birth,
And plenitude has been transformed to dearth —
The Magi slouch away from Galilee.
"The pen is mightier than the sword," but see
It beaten into shares of slender worth:
It settles in its rut and plows its row.
The poisonous sun and parching raindrops slough
From brow and temple. Emaciated birds,
Before the wrinkled seed can sprout and grow,
Seize it for ivied towers wearing down,
Abraded by sand and wind, by willful words.
Go, little book, and bear thy wordy freight
Away from me as fast as e'er thou may —
I'm sick to death of everything you say.
I wrote you out in sundry hours late
When I long since ought to have hit the hay —
But did I seek sweet dreaming? Did I sate
The wingéd Pegasus on an early date,
In a timely moment? Nay, I say you, neigh!
I entertained the nightmare in my room.
I watched that grim old nag bend to devour
The grain of bitterness, the oats of doom,
The silage of depression. Little, sour
Book, I loathe thy messages of gloom —
They scrape at vision, they scarify and scour.
Build me more stately vessels, O my Soul!
I have a pot to piss in, sure enough,
But I've a fancy for more fancy stuff:
Amphorae full of oils, a wassail bowl,
Kraters of flowers. Ceramics is my goal:
A funerary urn, built good and tough,
Of alabaster so that, when I slough
This clay, my ash won't end up in a hole.
But what is this? I look into my heart
And find a crock chock-full of feeble words;
A thunder-jug beladen with a fart;
Stained paper, and a nest of nestling turds —
And as I watch, the paper falls apart;
The urn becomes a scattering of shards.
I wrote a book called Curses and Laments.
There was, it seems, a modicum of scents
In such an exercise, but only that:
A modicum, for it relieves frustration,
But changes nothing else in God's creation.
You pucker up and whistle in your hat;
You break a little wind when you're intense —
I wrote a book called Curses and Laments.
You take a certain pleasure in the smell
Of fire and brimstone. They can go to Hell,
Those bastards that have muscled you around.
Leave them a curse and then go underground
To breathe the air where you have loosed to dwell
A wind, a voice freed of its hollow shell.
What will we talk about beneath the stone?
"I have a little dust stuck in my eye."
"Today the worms are restless. I can feel
Them turning." "Pardon me, I have a cold —
I cannot stop my coughin'." "Thought I'd die
Of laughter when my nasty neighbor went
Out in the rain and caught her death." "I saw
Pale Ryder the other day — he's looking old
And out of sorts." "I wait for the telephone
To ring, but my children never seem to call.
Perhaps it's out of order — the reaper-man
Doesn't service the equipment he has sold."
Perhaps it's much like life — we'll merely lie
Noting nothings echoing. In bone-
Yards poets slowly accumulate.
I sometimes wonder if, on Judgment Day,
We'll all rise up in glory to afflate,
Converse, and each recite his latest lai.
Can rime be so perverse? In Plato's State
We'd all be banished — even the great Good Gray
Poet. But where in God's name could we go —
To that grand Writers' Conference Below?
But even there we would, it seems to me,
Be welcomed none too warmly to pause or dwell.
There'd be the Devil to pay, inevitably,
For there are limits to tolerance in Hell.
If we are left alone with our poetry
Bleaching among the dunes of time, that's well.
So Limbo's won and Paradise is lost.
My attic room is filling up with smoke:
I sit and talk with Geoffrey, Will — a host
Of my confreres. We pass the time with joke
And bawdry. There is little else to do —
The centuries lie heavy as a yoke
Upon the roof; the crackling of the glue
In all our bindings shatters this still air.
Our words and verse go whistling up the flue.
We pilgrims to Perdition sit and stare
Into the silence of sere marrow-bone.
I proffer the hemlock cup — they do not dare
Accept, for if they drank I'd be alone.
They shift, remembering they once were stone.
And in my pipe smoke I can just discern
The outlines of a sonnet redoublé,
A skeleton of what is my concern:
The meaning of it all. My smoke is gray.
I ponder carefully these artful rounds
And think about the things I have to say —
I try some lines aloud. The noise redounds
To my House of Fame, and meters ricochet
From the sloping walls to die upon my ears.
Where are the hare of soul, the baying hounds
Of the Apocalypse? Where are the tears
Condensed from feelings language seldom sounds?
My room is silent; my pen is chill and dumb.
Sit stony-eyed with words that curl and come.
Now it is almost done, this foolish thing
That I have penned. The lines have nearly jelled,
And I must ask if I have felt compelled
To write, or merely willed myself to sing
This song that few will ever care to read.
And was I born, or was I merely made,
Concocted of myself — the man of trade,
Not the Bard God conjured out of need
To cure the universe? I do not care.
To be a poet of whatever sort
Will help to pass this journey to the Court
Of Ultimate Decisions. This is fare
I pay and eat — these lines that fall and come
Stillborn to life between the joint and thumb.
LETTER TO MOTHER
Dear Mother, writes Our Hero, You won't dread
My writing you this letter to the dead —
Not even if you read it. You'd not recall
A word a moment later. You've built a wall
Between the world and you, a wall of glass
Opaque as pearl, through which no moments pass.
You lie in one position all day long,
Oblivious to silence as to song.
You'd like to die, but you have been betrayed
By your own body. Death has been delayed
Because the flesh is not yet ready to
Give up the ghost — it will not take its cue
And ring the curtain down upon this play
That has no climax — the scene just seeps away.
Imperceptibly the footlights dim,
The heroine held hostage by the whim
Of fate and accident — not even age
Will help you in your exit from the stage.
There is no need for me here to rehearse
The acts in your decline. It seemed perverse
At first, and then I thought you must be ill,
But you were not. It was an act of will,
Wasn't it, Mother? You just gave up, gave in,
Threw up your hands — you lost the wish to win.
But who or what is it you've really killed?
Much of your past, and part of mine is stilled,
Lost to one-half of our common memory.
Time's siling hands have scoured it like emery
From your mind, and I am not your son
In some essential way, I'm not the one
I was when you remembered who I was,
But someone less. This is what dying does:
It murders the survivors, cell by cell,
Until we too fall victim to the fell
And fragile flesh. We owe it to each other
Not to give in until we have to, Mother.
THE DEAD LETTER OFFICE
Our Hero has been writing to the dead
Because they have been coming to his room
During his sleep and cumbering his dreams.
They never speak, however, and it seems
That if he hopes to send them back to Doom
He must write missives which must then be read.
But how can he be sure they will be read?
He addresses them c/o Office of the Dead,
Stamps them all and sends them to their doom.
But have they been delivered, or is there room
For a sure and certain doubt? He sighs. It seems
There's nothing for it but to resort to dreams.
He goes to bed and enters into dreams.
He stands before a building made of red
Incendiary brick lost in the seams
Of cobbled streets. Office of the Dead
Is lettered on the door in runes of rheum
And flaking paint, as though the Day of Doom
Had cracked upon these boards. "Is this the doom
Of writing, then?" Our Hero asks, "of dreams?"
For he has forced the door, stands in a room
Hollow as any novel he has read,
Empty as any poem, and as dead.
There are no letters here, or so it seems
At first — but then an envelope that seems
To have been spared for solitary doom
Catches his eye — it is not for the dead;
It is addressed to him. Our Hero dreams
He opens it and reads. What he has read
He understands...but only in that room.
When he awakens in his own bedroom,
He cannot think of what it was he seems
To have understood in the epistle that he read
There in the cobbled streets where he sought the doom
Of letters full of silence, the sound of dreams
Echoing in the Office of the Dead.
These two interlocking series of poems, "Letters to the Dead" and "Reflections in an Attic Room" are from The Gathering of the Elders and Other Poems by “Wesli Court,” a.k.a. Lewis Turco, Scottsdale, AZ: www.StarCloudPress.com, 2010, ISBN 978-1-932842-43-2, trade paperback, 115 pp; copyright © 2019 and all rights reserved by Lewis Turco; may not be reprinted in whole or in part by anyone, anywhere, without the written consent of the author.
Bottom row: Sandra Kettelhut, Georgia Bradley, Frederick Flatow, Pierre Bennerup; second row: Unknown, Philip Ashton, Judith Nott, Arthur Von Au; third row: Bobby Robins, Dorothy Pearson, Paul Wiese; top row: Lewis Turco, Marie Delemarre, Dorcas Kimball.
PIERRE OF SUNNY BORDER
It was a Halloween party at Pierre's home in Kensington in the fall of 1950 that gave me the material for my first great literary success. I had gotten to know Pierre when he and his family lived on South Vine Street in Meriden, Connecticut. He attended Meriden High School during our sophomore year, 1949-50, but even then his father owned the Sunny Border Nursery a few miles down the Chamberlain Highway, which is where Pierre and his family moved before our junior year.
During the intervening summer, however, I got to know the nursery well, for I sometimes worked there with Pierre and Bent, a narrow immigrant Dane who was one of two or three full-time employees. I recall Bent as a simple, silent man whose unvarying lunch, on those steaming hot days in the barn and the fields, was a Hershey Bar sandwich.
Pierre's father was a Dane as well, but his mother was a full-blooded French woman. I liked them both. The father struck me as being the epitome of Danishness: slender, not talkative, but not unapproachable, either. He had blue eyes and light brown hair; he was intelligent and efficient. The mother, on the other hand, was sweet and excitable. She spoke in a rapid, heavily-accented English, and she seemed always in a flutter over something or other.
Lillian, Pierre's sister, was two or three years older than we and she was ravishingly beautiful, I thought. She turned me into a bashful and awkward preadolescent whenever she appeared, a feature of her presence that filled me with chagrin.
Pierre and I used to go out into the dark fields in the simmering evenings and play juvenile games like hide-and-seek. Another thing we liked to do was to sneak up on the cars of petting teen-agers parked along the dirt road that skirted the nursery. One dark night we slunk through the fringe of woods to within a few yards of such a car, close enough to eavesdrop on the conversation of the couple who occupied the front seat. The girl was saying, "What are you doing? Leave my buttons alone. Stop it!"
The boy replied, "Button, button, who's got the button?"
She kept protesting, but not very seriously, and he kept repeating his phrase until Pierre and I couldn't stand it anymore. My hand was resting on a large stone, so I lifted it, arose, heaved it and shouted, "Button, button, who's got the friggin' button?" The stone went crashing through the trees and so did Pierre and I, in the opposite direction, snirtling and giggling.
I was to turn sixteen on the second of May of 1950, and I had determined to buy a car, a 1940 Chevrolet, from one of my older co-workers at Kresge's Five and Ten Cent Store, where I had spent part of the school year as busboy at the fountain. I had been saving my money, and, in order to eke out these sums to reach the $350.00 I needed, I had decided to sell my tropical fish and equipment which stood on tables in the sunporch of the parsonage where I lived with my minister father and missionary mother.
I shared the room with my father, who had a private sanctum behind some bookcases there. I would sometimes spend an evening dreaming into the murky light seeping out of the thick glass of a tank full of angel fish or gouramis, the night outdoors lapping at the windows like dark water. To passers-by perhaps I looked like an aquarian myself. I could hear my father nearby working on the sermons he would deliver on Sunday in the pulpit of the white-clapboarded First Italian Baptist Church that stood next door. A green, glass-shaded lamp on one of the bookcases dropped its liquid glow onto his head and mine, though we couldn't see each other. The light seemed filtered through decaying vegetation. Later, when I left home, I would dream of that room.
In the dream I would be seated before the aquaria. It would be night. The fish would be swimming in their dark waters, and as I watched, they would swim up into the air of the room and maneuver about me. There was no boundary between surface and fathom. I would look into the largest aquarium, trace the leaves of the rust-colored sword plant to its root, and there I would see my father's skull half-buried in the gravel, the stalk of the plant growing out of his eyesocket. It wasn't a pleasant dream, nor was it a nightmare. The emotions I felt were those of nostalgia and ruefulness, of some sort of vague longing and regret. Still, I didn't enjoy the dream's recurrence, and at last I exorcised it unwittingly by writing a poem about it.
To prepare for my purchasing the car Pierre would sometimes let me practice driving the stick-shift truck that belonged to the nursery. I remember our sitting on the front seat the first time, Pierre beside me, and his telling me, "Now, shift into low, and let out the clutch at the same time that you press down on the accelerator." The resulting series of lurches and bumps tossed the truck along the dirt road and our bodies into the air of the cab and from side to side.
"Slow! Slow! Let it out slow!" Pierre yelled, gasping. At last we came to rest. Eventually, after many hazards were passed, I learned how to shift.
My birthday came; another friend, Curt, the baritone in our high school barbershop quartet, The Sportlanders, let me borrow his mother's car to take the road test in — I don't recall why the Chevy wasn't available that day. Curt's car was a '46 Ford with lots more oomph than mine had. The moment I slid in to take the examination was actually the first time I'd been behind the car's wheel, and its responses were so much greater than expected that I had to apologize to the driving inspector and explain why I was roaring backward into my parallel-parking slot and burning rubber when I took off. To my amazement, and to Curt's, I passed the test on first try. That same week I bought the Chevy, the only automobile my family had while I lived at home, and I was born into freedom even though the engine burned nearly as much oil as it did gas.
It must have been that same summer of 1950 when Pierre and his family moved permanently out to Kensington from Meriden, but that didn't sever the ties he had with his friends. By no means. He was around almost as much after the move as he had been before it, for he owned a car as well. There were many, many days when I traveled to Kensington, alone or with a load of Fantaseers — our high school "science-fiction reading club," or Pierre came to Meriden. Pierre was one of the original Fantaseers which, with its women's auxiliary, the Reesatnafs, made up the famous Fantatnafs. It was the Fantatnafs who filled the Sunny Border Nurseries barn that Halloween.
Paul hung on the rafters and made noises like a monkey while he scratched under his arms. I tasted black coffee with sugar for the first time that night, drinking it with fresh doughnuts made by Pierre's mother, and became an addict. We sang songs and bobbed for apples, swilled cider, played games, ate candy, and raised Hob.
Halloween was on a Tuesday that year, so the next day was a school day. I spent it writhing in bed, however, for I had the most tremendous bellyache. "You ate too much candy last night," my mother said. "Let me give you an enema." It was her standard cure for stomach troubles.
"It's not an ordinary stomach ache," I said. "Please, take me to the doctor." It was an amazing thing for me to request, but for some reason she'd have no part of it. I'd merely overeaten.
On the other hand, I'd have no part of an enema. By mid-afternoon my father was beginning to think that perhaps I had something more than merely a gut gripe after all. At last he helped me out to a taxi. I was nearly doubled in half.
When the doctor saw me he prodded me a bit on the right side and I groaned in anguish. He looked at my father and said, "Acute appendicitis. He'll have to be operated on immediately." I can recollect the look of astonishment and anger — at my mother, probably — in Daddy's eyes. And so I was rushed off to the hospital.
When I came out of the anesthetic I was sicker than when I'd gone under it. I vomited green bile, and with every heave my new stitches strained and an agony of excruciating pain bloomed in my abdomen, but at long last things calmed down and I no longer wished to die.
In those days one had to remain in hospital for a week after an appendectomy, and one wasn't allowed to walk for two or three days, so I was given a wheelchair. At once I was a traffic menace to my floor. I sailed down the halls at a great rate, turning in and out of doors, around corners, visiting everyone, nearly knocking a doctor down on one occasion, but he stepped aside at the last moment as I rounded a bend and cried, "Whoa! Sorry." No one seemed to get angry with me. I asked all the young nurses to marry me.
My chastened mother came to visit every day with my rueful father. The Fantaseers and the Reesatnafs came to see me after school. Eventually I was allowed to go home. When I got back to class I discovered that Doc Michele, our junior-year English teacher, had given the class an assignment to write an essay on a personal experience. I had plenty of material, so I sat down at my father's old Underwood Standard typewriter in the sunporch behind the bookcases, and I hunted-and-pecked off a piece I titled "Appendix Excitis."
Life went on. I commissioned Pierre, an artist whose medium, in those days, was oils, to paint me a scene of horror, the details of which I specified, for I was nothing if not addicted to tales of terror and the supernatural as well as science fiction. I recall that one feature of the painting was a disgusting pool of slime out of which a clawed arm was reaching toward the corpse of a hanged man that dangled above the tarn. I hung it on the wall of my bedroom and was thoroughly delighted with it. My mother hated it and threatened all kinds of destruction, which I didn't take seriously. She wouldn't dare touch anything of mine.
At least, she wouldn't while I was at home, but time passed and I graduated from high school. Pierre did as well, from Kensington High, and he attended Princeton where he became an English major which surprised me, for I thought he had some talent as an artist. I am writing this in September of 1991, and yesterday I had a request from a publisher to send some family photographs to use as illustrations in a forthcoming collection of my poems. I found one picture, from the early 1960s, not that I wanted to send but to contemplate. It is of my dear old friend and mentor, the late Loring Williams. He is sitting on a couch in our apartment in Cleveland. My two-year-old daughter Melora is standing next to him on the couch. Her mouth is open — she is talking, he is listening. Above his head, hanging on the wall, I notice today, are two pictures. One is a stylized picture of "Blue Dogs" by the tenor in the Sportlanders, Tony, who went to Pratt institute and became an advertising executive. The other is a roofscape in sunlit white by Pierre. I haven't seen that picture in years, but I'm sure we still have it hidden away somewhere, and I still like it.
One day a decade or so earlier I had come back from the Navy on leave or liberty, and I noticed that Pierre's depiction of the hanging man was missing from its wonted space on my wall. I asked my mother what had happened to it, and she replied that she'd carried out her threat and thrown it away. At first I couldn't believe she'd done so, and I searched through the house, but I never found it. I know it was a stupid painting, but I would like to have it, and I never forgave my mother for the only act of censorship she ever carried out against her son's taste in art or literature.
Pierre worked for several years in New York and then when his father died he came back to Connecticut and took over the nursery. He is still there, so far as I know, but we've not seen each other or had contact with one another for a quarter-century. My wife Jean and I seldom get back to Meriden anymore, but one of those times many years ago I heard, perhaps from my brother Gene who followed my tracks into the hallowed halls of Meriden High which now no longer exists, that for years Doc Michele read "Appendix Excitis" to her English classes. It was, I understand, the only essay by a former student that she ever read to any of them. She never told me she was doing it, but I must say I couldn't have been more pleased when I heard what she'd been up to, for I respected her immensely. I wish I still owned a copy of that ancient paper, but I must not have made a carbon as I usually did. I'd really like to see what all the excitement was about. And I wish I still had Pierre’s genre painting.
From Fantaseers: A Book of Memories, by Lewis Turco, Scottsdale, AZ: StarCloudPress.com, 2005, 196 pp., ISBN 1-932842-15-2, paper. Available from Amazon. Copyright © and all rights reserved 2005 by Lewis Turco. May not be reproduced anywhere at any time without the written permission of the author.
A WEEK IN RETIREMENT
You wake up in the morning, and there it is --
Another morning. If you live through it
(And probably you will) the afternoon
Will be there waiting for you. What to do?
It gets discouraging. Day after day
The same old thing. Almost. Maybe the pain
In your right ankle moves to afflict your wrist.
Maybe not. Maybe they both will hurt, or
Maybe neither; it matters very little.
You won't recall the day from any other.
And here's another morning falling through
A crack in time. What did I do yesterday?
Went to the Wiscasset gym, worked out
On a machine or two, came home with Jean
And stole a nap. Woke up and worked on this.
Spent time, or wasted it, I ought to say,
Watching Antiques Roadshow, Pawn Stars, Pickers,
Played with Claudette, our cat -- ah! Golden Years!
And went to bed. Claudette came, too, of course,
To keep me company in my recliner --
I can't lie on my back or it will break.
I drove to Hallowell to see my barber
Julie yesterday and saw instead
Roland, her father-in-law, the Yankee clipper
Who used to cut my hair before he moved
Out to Arizona -- now he's back
Again to my great delight! I asked him why.
He said, "Out there they asked me if I missed
The State of Maine, and I'd reply, 'Only
My customers,' but my wife most surely did.
So here we are again. We never sold
Our house. We've fixed it up, and now she's set
If I should take a dive." "You're looking great!"
"And how's yourself?" He asked. We're of an age.
We spent a while complaining. I went home
Looking great and feeling much the same.
Then, in the evening, Jean and I went back
Up to Augusta to collect our daughter's girls,
Phoebe and Jessie, while Melora taught
Her evening class. We took them out to dinner
At the Olive Garden -- a lovely time
Was had by all. I guess once in a while
The "Golden Years" are okay after all.
I was treated yesterday with great
Abandon: Jean went out to shop and lunch
With two of her henchwomen. Afterward
They did some other things, I guess. I went
And exercised alone. When I got home
I ate a plate of orts and read a bit,
Got bored, of course, jumped in my car
And went to have it serviced. On my way
Jean phoned to say that she was home, and where
Was I? I told her. Afterward I went
And bought a bunch of Valentines for all
The family and then went back to have
A third meal from our Sunday chicken. Yum.
Today I'll make a pot of sauce. I made
An omelet for us this morning, and
We'll have to shop before tomorrow's storm,
Supposed to be the biggest of the season.
Yawn. I guess I'll have to check to see
Whether I can start the generator.
I'm tempted to end this line with, "See you later,"
But of course I won't.
The generator wouldn't start. I pulled
The cord so hard I lifted the engine off
The ground partway. We called our handyman
Who came, but he and his helper had no luck
Either, even after they bought a plug.
None of us could raise a spark or cough.
The day was halfway done before I phoned
Around to see if I could find a new
Machine with battery ignition. None
Anywhere, and there was only one
Of the ordinary type -- that one I bought.
Bob Collins got it running by suppertime.
This morning our huge nor'easter is upon us.
At least the day was anything but boring
And now we're hunkered down, the three of us --
Claudette McFang the cat in hibernation,
Jean and me, so let the damned snow fall,
Set the wind to whining in the pines
Down by the Bog Brook winding through the yard.
Claudette and I awoke to look outdoors
And see the wind whipping past the window,
Snow coming down in curtains, piling up
In drifts that block the doors -- but that's okay;
Who wants to go outdoors in any case?
Of course, we still have power, since we bought
A generator we won't likely need
Now the blizzard's winding down a bit.
We won't be going anywhere today
At any rate or how or anyway.
The storm has blown itself clear out to sea,
And here's the morning sun come out to see
Our road's been plowed, our driveway has been, too,
Beneath a sky-dome colored summer blue.
This sun day is most certainly a winner
By any standard for a day of winter.
Melora and her gang will come for dinner
As usual before tomorrow comes
With weather once again: some sleet, some snow,
And boredom clutched in both its frigid fists.
-- Lewis Turco
Originally published in Per Contra.
With an Introduction
By Lewis Turco
This is a book about neighbors written by a neighbor. John T. Sullivan, Jr., was born in 1947 in Oswego, New York. He graduated in 1964 from Bishop Cunningham high school; one year later my family and I moved to town where I began to teach at the State University of New York College at Oswego.
John went on growing into his shoes while I began settling in at the College. After receiving his degrees at Syracuse University John married his wonderful wife, Charlotte, and began his family. When two of his three daughters were in high school our son, Christopher, dated the youngest, Julie, and John was elected Mayor of Oswego in 1988.
This introduction is not the first time John has asked me to write something – the first time he did he asked me to write an inauguration poem, which I was happy to do. I recited it at his ceremony. The One-hundred signed copies printed on parchment paper were distributed as keepsakes of the Inaugural, “…which,” John wrote me, “still hopefully adorn the walls of many Oswegonians to this day (which at least mine is, and it is numbered 1)!” The poem was also published on paper in a broadside that was circulated widely:
It lies in the curves of the lakeshore.
Across Ontario the last of the sun breathes light
out of the horizon, turning the clouds shades
of red to the west. The water darkens,
splits over the stones where the spiders live,
where the gulls alight to conceive of evening.
Hardwoods rise on country roads, their limbs
casting tall shadows into the silence deepening
among the tumescent milkweed and the cattails.
A twist of goldenrod runs into fields,
to the apple orchard fence where ravens
give voice to the dark quality of waiting.
The cries of geese are incipient
out of the north, over the great water, the turning
of another season. The thrust of wings, the high
call of flight before the changing wind, will
fall soon to Oswego's waters, send frog
and salmon deep, beyond ranges of color
that fades now as the light falls onto Ontario,
and a dream of summer settles along
the stone coast road like a fleet of waterbirds.
Subsequently, Mayor Sullivan proclaimed me honorary Poet Laureate of the City of Oswego. Needless to say, I was deeply honored to be asked to contribute in this way, but John soon followed up by asking me to do a harder job: correct and revise the City of Oswego Charter as Secretary of the city Charter Revision Commission. I won’t go into the particulars of all the grammatical, punctuational, and typographical errors one had to address, but they were legion.
John Sullivan was by far the best and most active mayor the City of Oswego has had while I have been a resident. He was instrumental in cleaning up the Lake Ontario waterfront which was a shambles when my family moved into town. Wright’s Landing, the River Walk, the Town Hall center all were spruced up and turned into beautiful and livable environmental attractions.
Not least of these innovations was Harborfest, one of Charlotte’s pet projects. It was not many seasons before this festival was attracting enormous crowds to town during the summer, and it is still doing so. But all great mayoralties must come to an end.
John went on to become Executive Chairman of the State Democratic Party from 1995 to 1998; he was one of the founders of the Democratic Rural Conference. He served as Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Watertown office from 2003 to 2007, and then he accepted a position as Deputy Inspector General and counsel for legislative matters with the state Medicaid Inspector General’s office, relocating to the Albany area where he lived in Saratoga Springs.
During all this time John Sullivan never lost touch with his Oswego roots. He visited town often, gave programs frequently (my wife Jean and I attended one at the town library in the spring of 2015). Just after the mayoral election in the fall of the same year John’s picture appeared in The Palladium Times with the new Republican mayor, twenty-five- year-old Billy Barlowe! (Sometimes one suspects that John might carry this being a good neighbor a bit too far.) (Just kidding.)
John kept in touch also by writing essays and articles, including the profiles in this book for various and sundry periodicals in the Albany area and elsewhere, but particularly for Oswego’s daily newspaper, The Palladium-Times. I don’t need to say more because those who enter these pages, even if they are strangers, will soon feel as though they know the City of Oswego down to its roots and have themselves become neighbors of my dear friend, John T. Sullivan, Jr.
December 19, 2015 in American History, Americana, Announcements, Books, Commentary, Current Affairs, Essays, Eulogies, History, Introduction, Memoirs, Memorials, Nonfiction, Poems, Quantitative syllabic verse, Reminiscences | Permalink | Comments (0)
By Lewis Turco
From Portland Monthly, December 2015, p. 93
On occasion I’ve been asked how I came to be involved in bookselling, but I have actually been involved with books on various levels all of my life. My parents were a Baptist minister and a Methodist missionary. Though we had no money during the Depression, when I was born, our home was full of books of all sorts. My mother read to me from the cradle, and I soon learned to read for myself. Nor was writing a mysterious act, because every week for as long as I can remember I watched my father hunched over his typewriter hunting out and pecking at his weekly sermons.
I began to collect books myself as soon as I could read, and I enjoyed reading so much that I very early decided that I wanted to be a writer, to my parents’ sorrow, for they wanted me to be a preacher. I was soon myself bent over that old manual typewriter like my father, hunting and pecking out short stories. In junior high I wrote articles and poems for the school paper, and just before I entered high school, when I was fifteen in 1949, one of my short stories won a prize in a summertime high school fiction contest. It was published by the sponsor, a local newspaper in Meriden, Connecticut, where I grew up. I had been a paperboy since I was in the fifth grade, and in high school I was clippings librarian (called the “morgue clerk”) and cub reporter for The Morning Record.
My 7th-grade shop teacher of Lincoln Junior High School, John Houdlette, a native Mainer born, like his wife, in Dresden Mills, had a daughter named Jean whom I had noticed early on. Later, at Meriden High, we were classmates, and we were members of the same crowd. Some of the boys in that crowd started a science-fiction reading club called The Fantaseers which supported a one-bookcase library at my house — in 2004 I published a book titled Fantaseers, A Book of Memories; there is a photo of the Fantaseers’ library in it. By the time we graduated, of course, all those books were left behind and became part of my own collection. By the time Jean and I were married in 1956 after my Navy stint, I had books everywhere and no place to put them, so I brought a lot of them up to Jean’s family place in Dresden, Maine, adding them to the large collection that was already there. They were like snow: over the years they accumulated in drifts.
In 1960 I began teaching English literature and creative writing at Fenn College, now Cleveland State University, and over the years since then I’ve written a great many book manuscripts, fifty-six of which have appeared in print. However, it was a late colleague of mine at the State University of New York College at Oswego, where I directed the Program in Writing Arts and taught for 31 years, who got me started as a bookseller. His name was David Winslow. He had a Ph.D. in folklore, but he had had several other careers as well, including selling antiques and books. He taught me what I know about books as a commodity when he and I, on weekends mostly, became what are known as “book scouts.” We would sell the books we found upstate to downstate New York book dealers. And, of course, I also sold some of the books I had been accumulating.
One day David called me up to say that there was a big sale of stuff in Hannibal, not far from Oswego. He said that they’d advertised books, but when we got there all we found of books was a box of paperbacks under one table. Dave sneered and walked away to look at other things, but I went through the paperbacks and found one, a first edition paperback original titled My Hope for America by Lyndon Baines Johnson. I bought it for ten cents.
When we got back to the car Dave saw that I’d bought something, asked to see it, and then began to rag me about it. All I’d paid for it was a dime, but he acted as though I’d thrown away a fortune. By the time we got back to my house I was furious and had decided that I would wreak my revenge.
My mother had been good with handicrafts, and she had taught me how to bind a book. In college I had bound my paperback textbooks so that they’d last longer, and as an adult I had taken to binding paperbacks and restoring old books as a hobby, so I took the Johnson book, quarter-bound it in cloth and leather, put it in a package with an old leather-bound hymnal, and sent it with return postage to former President Lyndon Johnson. In an enclosed letter I asked him if he would be willing to sign my book in exchange for the hymnal, which I hoped he would accept as a gift.
Not a great while after that I got the book back. President Johnson had signed a Presidential bookplate for me, and he included a letter on official stationery telling me that he was delighted with the hymnal, which he was going to place in the L. B. J. Presidential Library in Texas. I pasted the bookplate onto the inside-front cover of My Hope for America, and I tipped his letter into the volume. Then I called David and asked him to come over to the house so that I could show him a book I had picked up for ten cents at a lousy sale in Hannibal. Later on, I sold the book for a lot of money on one of our downstate book trips.
On another of those trips Dave took me to a book dealer in Johnstown, New York, where I was shown an old book that had no cover page, and it was missing some other pages as well. At the time I was collecting books and doing research for a book manuscript I would soon write titled Satan’s Scourge: A History of the Age of Witchcraft in England and New England 1580-1697. I thought I knew what the book was that the dealer had shown me, despite its lack of a title page, so I bought it for $25.00. When I got it home I looked it up and sure enough, it was a first edition copy of A True and Faithful Relation of What Passed for Many Years Between Dr. John Dee and Some Spirits, etc., edited, with a Preface, by Meric. Casaubon, and published in London in1659.
Dr. Dee was Royal Mathematician to Queen Elizabeth I, but he was also interested in spiritual matters. The book I had found is one of the most famous occult books in the English language, a record of the conversations William Kelly, Dr. Dee’s con-man pal, had with Madimi and many other celestial beings, as he dictated them to the good Doctor who could see and hear nothing in the crystal Kelly used. Kelly came to a bad end. My wife and I saw Dr. Dee’s crystal ball — it was egg-shaped, really — in the British Museum while we were in England in 1993.
I wrote to the Cornell University Library, which has a great occult collection, and asked them to send me photocopies of the missing pages of the book. I then restored it and hand-bound it in studded, leather-covered wooden boards in 1971. Many years later, after I had finished my own book, begun the Mathom Bookshop in Dresden, and gone on-line, I sold that book to someone in Australia for $1000.00.
During our summers in Maine I would go out on book-finding trips, sometimes alone, sometimes with Jean, and sometimes her sister Nathalie would come along. One of the places we would go to find books was Frank McQuaid’s Book Barn in Edgecomb. He had been a World War II bomber pilot, and I had been a sailor during and after the Korean War. We held similar political views, so often he and I would sit around gabbing, and then he began to take me out on some of his book-buying rounds as well. Not all of them, of course, but when I went out on my own, especially to the Montsweag Flea Market, I would discover that, no matter how early I got up, Frank would always have gotten there ahead of me and scooped up all the good books. It became quite frustrating for me.
One Saturday or Sunday morning during the summer I arrived at Montsweag to find that Frank was still there, but well ahead of me. So I dragged along in his wake, looking at the stuff he’d rejected. There’s an old saying in the book trade: Not everyone can be an expert in everything. His specialties didn’t include modern first editions in particular, and I was interested in those, of course. I stopped at a stall to look at a few books and discovered a first edition of Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach that Frank had missed. It was in good condition with a dustjacket, so I bought it for a dollar or under and later sold it for a few hundred dollars. The best part of that deal, though, was knowing I had beaten Frank McQuaid at his own game that once, anyway.
Another person who roped me into the bookselling business was Charlie Davis, still a legendary character in Oswego, New York, and in the worlds of folklore and jazz as well. He turned from music to business to poetry and fiction writing and editing. He established his own publishing company, The Mathom Publishing Company, in 1977, two years before The Mathom Bookshop of Dresden, Maine, was founded.
For many years Davis had been a partner in a local business firm, Brown-Davis Furniture, and when he decided to return to college in the mid-1970s he was half-retired. Retirement for Charlie simply meant expanding his horizons — not that they had been previously very limited. One might say he now had more time to devote to his vocations. Two of these had always been music and verse composition. He began by taking a course in poetry writing with Roger Dickinson-Brown, then a member of the staff of my Program in Writing Arts at SUNY Oswego.
Davis had grown up in Indiana. His father had been a close friend of a neighbor, James Whitcomb Riley, the "Hoosier Poet," and Charlie early came under Riley's benevolent influence. Later on, Charlie graduated from Notre Dame University and, upon his graduation, organized a group of musicians during the hey-day of the Big Bands — he wrote about it in his book, published by Mathom, That Band from Indiana — and was very successful on the swing and hot jazz circuits. Those of you who watched Ken Burns’ history of jazz on PBS may have noticed a marquee at the Brooklyn Theatre that read, “Charlie Davis and His Joy Gang,” which shared the billing with a young singer named Ethel Merman. Charlie’s band singer was another young person named Dick Powell. One of his compositions of the period was "Copenhagen," a jazz classic that has been performed by nearly all the famous swing and jazz artists since it was introduced. The composer drew royalties from it twice a year until his death in his nineties.
The first course Davis took at my college was titled "The Nature of Poetry." It was a beginner's course, but stringent and technical. In it the student must write verse exercises in every prosody, schema, and genre imaginable.
Davis did well for Dickinson-Brown,* and he began to involve himself in the extensive literary scene on campus. He gave readings with other students, and his work was always popular because it was..."quaint" is the only word to describe it. The Riley influence was clear, at least to the faculty if not to the students, who had never heard of the Hoosier Poet.
When Davis asked to take the second course in the sequence of three undergraduate poetry courses in the Program he was asked whether he had ever completed a B. A. He replied that he had a Ph. B. in business administration from Notre Dame, and he was denied permission to take the course, but he was told that he could enroll in the graduate seminar titled "Conference Course in Writing Poetry," which he did. I taught it. He was told that the project of the course involved writing a long poem, something he had never done, and he was (atypically for the class) given a proscription: he was not to write a single rhymed couplet. Instead, he was going to do something difficult. Difficult for him, that is.
"But what?" he asked, baffled.
"Well, have you ever heard of William Carlos Williams?"
"No, should I have?"
"Yes, since he's a famous contemporary of yours. Your first assignment is to read Williams' Paterson."
Davis did so. No sooner had he digested the book than he began to write...And So the Irish Built a Church, a story about Oswego written, like Paterson, in prose and verse, with diary entries, newspaper clippings, songs, and what-have-you (it is impossible for the reader to identify what Davis invented and what he researched), tossed together in a seemingly random, but for all that, nevertheless, highly wrought melange of lore and character and incident. Davis got so carried away that he even composed a pseudo-nineteenth century musical piece and copied it out on aged paper suitably charred to look as though it had been saved from the conflagration that had consumed the original church.
The other members of the class were no less busy than Charlie Davis, and as the semester developed it became obvious that this was a remarkable group of students doing fine things. The Davis piece was not the first work to be published from that class, but he was without doubt writing the longest work — it turned out to be 120 pages in length — and the most popular. Everyone was interested in reading the next installment though Charlie, doing something totally new and experimental for him (except where he managed to sneak in a rhymed song against orders), could not believe his classmates were not dissembling when they applauded him.
Since its publication in book form, people who know W. C. Williams claim that ...And So the Irish... is more readable than its model. Since Paterson is a modern classic, this opinion is heretical. The main criticism of the Davis opus may be that it begins to a degree shakily. Riley is recognizable in the sentiment, and Williams in the form: the two do not mix well early on. But as the book progresses, Riley and Williams disappear and Davis rises above his sources to become one of the most engaging literary personalities of the late 20th century, just as the man himself was larger than life.
Well, when Charlie had finished, he told me he was too old to start sending his book around to publishers and wait for them to accept it. He thought he would do it himself. So he gave himself, with my kibitzing, a short course in book publishing. When The Irish appeared it soon sold out, and Charlie decided to start his final career as a publisher. He asked me for a name for the press. I suggested “Mathom.” He asked what that meant. I told him it was a word out of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings that described the sort of things that filled the burrow homes of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins: things that one had no earthly use for, but that one simply couldn’t bear to throw away. Charlie thought that accurately described the sorts of things he and I would publish (without asking, he assigned me as Editor-in-Chief of Mathom).
Two years later, in 1979, I established my summer project, the Mathom Bookshop of Dresden, Maine, which would be the major outlet for the books we published. In 1996 I retired from teaching and turned my attention full time (more or less) to the bookshop. Two of the last books Mathom published in Oswego were Charlie Davis’ The Lake Trout and Legend Society’s Cookbook, 1980, and the story of Charlie’s career as a musical director, That Band from Indiana, 1982. One of the two latest is my book of poetry The Green Maces of Autumn, Voices in an Old Maine House, which was issued in 2002. It is a series of monologues by the people who live in the 1754 house built by Sylvester Gardiner on the property where my wife’s family has lived for a century or two, and where the Mathom Bookshop was located in the barn.
However, I opened my shop in the tractor garage of the farm on Blinn Hill Road and began to sell some of the books I’d accumulated. I started out with one short shelf of books, and I put a handmade sign out on the road. Pretty soon I added a shelf, and then another and another, and then I was building permanent bookshelves. One day the Maine State D.O.T. stopped by to tell me I needed to register my business with the sales tax office, and my signs had to conform to rules and regulations. Things were beginning to get expensive.
While I was in the garage I sold my books cheaply. Customers would stop by, and when they’d bought what they wanted they’d tell my wife that I was charging too little for my collection. In 1995 I decided to salvage the barn. I put a new floor into the northwest corner where it had collapsed, then built a room on it with shelves, lighting, a phone and other amenities. The next thing I had to do was move my books from the garage into the new bookshop, and while I was doing that, I decided to clean out my junk books and re-price everything.
One of the books I ran across while I was doing this was a beat-up loose-leaf black cloth notebook bound in half red leather and holding a set of printed pamphlets, 390 pp. in all, constituting a course in Business Law taught at M.I.T. during the school year 1895-96. The pamphlets were in very good shape, but the binder was well worn and the spine was crumbling. It belonged to “C. B. Paine,” who apparently took the course during his “2nd year,” according to an ink notation on the rear pastedown. In the garage I’d had a sticker price on this item of ten cents.
There were two semesters’ worth of printed pamphlets in the binder, held in upside down by short cords. The name of the teacher was on none of the first semester pamphlets, but on those of the second semester I found the name of the instructor: Louis D. Brandeis, later to become Justice of the United States Supreme Court. His specialty was business law, and, indeed, he was teaching at M.I.T. in the pertinent years.
Obviously, I was no longer going to sell the binder and its contentsfor ten cents! But what price was I going to put on it? 1995 was the year when the Mathom Bookshop went on line, so I warmed up the computer, looked in Bookfinder.com and everywhere else I could think of, but could find no trace of another copy anywhere in the world. All I could do was shrug my shoulders and put an arbitrary price on the Brandeis item. I thought $800.00 sounded pretty good. As soon as Business Law appeared on line a Washington attorney snapped it up. I suspect I could have gotten a bit more than $800.00 for it, but at least my second price was better than my first!
It was never hard to find books to sell. In fact, they found me. People were always calling me up to ask if I bought books, and of course I bought many more books than I sold, so my stock increased exponentially. One day, after I’d moved from the garage into the renovated barn, I arrived there to discover one of my neighbors had left piles of boxes filled with her collection of cookbooks in front of the barn door. I was fortunate that it hadn’t rained. She didn’t want payment, she just wanted to get rid of her books.
Another day during the winter I received a phone call from a young man in Richmond who said he had a Jeep full of books to sell. I went over to look at them. It was a pretty ordinary lot. I said I’d buy them for two hundred dollars if he’d deliver them to the bookshop. He agreed.
It took me weeks to go through the books, decide which ones I’d donate to the Dresden Library book sale, as I did every year, and which ones I’d keep and catalog. One of the first books I looked at, a large tabletop production, annoyed me greatly. The author was someone named Slim Aarons, and it was titled A Wonderful Time: An Intimate Portrait of the Good Life, published in 1974. It was all about how great it was to be rich in those times. The volume was in very good shape with a dust jacket, but it so offended me that I threw it up on top of an old appliance standing there in the barn and left it for last.
Finally, when I had finished dealing with all the other books, I looked up the Aarons book on the web to see if it was listed and what it was worth. I found that, indeed, it was listed, and that I had by far the best copy of it in the world. My copy was perfect with a perfect dust jacket; all others had some flaw or imperfection. And each of the available copies, of which there were few, was worth hundreds of dollars. I was amazed. Why would anybody want to buy such an idiotic book? However, no sooner had I put it into my on-line catalogue than a rare books dealer in New York City bought it for what was apparently my favorite price to charge, $800.00. If a dealer was willing to pay that much for it, imagine what he was going to sell it for, because dealers usually buy a book for between a quarter and a third of its retail value, unless they can get it for less.
By the way, I have recently finished reading a book by one of my favorite authors, Umberto Eco. Titled The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, it is about an Italian rare books dealer who has had a stroke and, when he comes out of it, he remembers nothing of his actual life, only the books he has read over the years since he was a child. I recommend it to anyone at all interested in books: comic books, dime novels, collecting books, World War II … in fact, I simply recommend it to anyone who loves reading a good book.
All my life I have enjoyed collecting and reading books, and selling them, too, but I was making no real profit from my retirement business despite the occasional windfall. In fact, my rising overhead was getting to the point where I could hardly break even anymore, so the Mathom Bookshop closed its doors officially on the last day of December, 2006. I began selling off some of my stock, mostly duplicates, in small auctions, but the first auction of some of my really good remaining books took place at the Thomaston Place Auction Galleries of Thomaston, Maine, and on-line on Saturday, June 30th, 2007.
It was a beautiful early summer day. The sun was bright, Route One was beginning to fill up with traffic, but when we pulled into the parking lot of the auction house we saw very few cars. “I was afraid of this,” I told Jean. “Who’s going to attend an auction on a day like this one?”
Inside I thought I’d see some fellow members of the Maine Antiquarian Booksellers Association, but I recognized no one. That was alarming. Then I saw in the catalogue that most of the books in the auction were books on architecture, and those were the ones the people present were after. Sure enough, some of my best books went for pennies on the dollar while others weren’t bid on at all. “Not a very literary crowd, I guess, eh?” I said to one of the auctioneers on my way out to join Jean in the car where she had earlier retreated to avoid the depressing sale.
The books sat in the barn until a raccoon got in and tore the place up. Then I discovered that a bookdealer from Waterville had been knocking on the door quite often, looking for me, but we had moved up the road to another dwelling on our property. He found me one day, and I sold all the books to him before the local wildlife had another chance to do damage. Since then, I’ve had nothing much to do with books but read them, write them, and sell them. My epic, The Hero Enkidu came out this year, 2015.
*The day before a version of this essay was published in Portland Monthly one of Roger Dickinson-Brown's former students at SUNY Oswego sent me this email message:
"Dear Lew -
"Roger's youngest daughter Elizabeth recently moved to NYC so this morning I had breakfast with her. She told me the details of what she knew about Roger's death. She said that he disappeared one day in April. The previous weekend the entire family all had a fine family dinner drinking, laughing, having fun together. Roger was not found for 3 days. He had checked into a hotel, taken a lethal dose of morphine & died. The police found him & his car with the keys in the car.
"I am writing this to you in case you had never heard this. This was the first I heard of this. Elizabeth told me it was fine to tell other people, they are not hiding the truth. She said that it was a bit of a scandal in the small village they lived in but not for very long.
"We both cried throughout the entire breakfast.
SUNY Oswego over the course of thirty-one years I collaborated with two printmakers; the second, George O’Connell, died this past spring, and I celebrated his life with an entry on this blog.
The first printmaker with whom I worked, however, was Thom. Seawell who died on Friday, August 28th, just before midnight. He and I collaborated on three poem-prints, and on a book, The Inhabitant, which was built on his very large print, “The House.” It hangs in my living-room here in Dresden, Maine, and it is a fold-out in the original edition of The Inhabitant, Poems by Lewis Turco, Prints by Thom. Seawell, Northampton: Despa Press, 1970. It was published in two editions, cloth and paper, both long out-of-print, but all the poems are collected in Fearful Pleasures: The Complete Poems of Lewis Turco 1959-2007. Here are two images by Seawell from the book, the cover and "Detail from 'The House: Kitchen,"
Listen to Lewis Turco read his poem "The Kitchen."
In the kitchen the dishwasher is eating the dishes. The Inhabitant listens
to the current of digestion — porcelain being ground, silver wearing
thin, the hum and bite of the machine.
His wife does not hear it — she is humming, not listening. But the
Inhabitant is aware of movement in the cupboards, of the veriest
motion — the cast-iron skillet undergoing metamorphosis, perhaps,
becoming its name: the wives' spider spinning beneath the counter,
weaving and managing, waiting for the doors to open.
Each cup has its voice, each saucer its ear, and the thin chant planes
between the shelves, touching the timbres of glass and crystal as it
passes. The gentleman listens, is touched to the bone by this
plainsong — he feels his response in the marrow's keening.
But the women do not — neither the elder nor the child — sense the music
their things make. Their lips move, a column of air rises like steam,
and there is something in a minor key sliding along the wall,
touching the face of a plastic clock, disturbing the linen calendar
beside the condiments.
It is as though, the Inhabitant reflects, the women are spinning. It is as
though, while he waits, they weave bindings among the rooms; as
though the strands of tune were elements of a sisterhood of dishes,
the ladies, the spider in the cabinet, even of the dishwasher, done
now with its grinding, which contributes a new sound — a continuo
of satiety — to the gray motet the kitchen is singing.
-- Lewis Turco
Bordighera has published four of my books over the years:
The Hero Enkidu: An Epic by Lewis Turco, New York: Bordighera Press (www.BordigheraPress.org ), VIA Folios 107, 2015, 101 pp. ISBN 978-1-59954-098-6. trade paperback.
Shaking the Family Tree, A Remembrance, by Lewis Turco, West Lafayette, IN: www.BordigheraPress.org, VIA Folio 15, 1998. Trade paperback, ISBN 188441916X, trade paperback.
A Book of Fears / Un Libro di Fobie, by Lewis Turco, Italian translations by Joseph Alessia, Winner, First Annual Bordighera Bilingual Poetry Prize of the Sonia Raiziss-Giop Foundation. West Lafayette, IN: www.BordigheraPress.org, 1998, 58 pp., ISBN 1884419194, cloth. (O-P); ISBN 1884419208, paper. (All poems are collected in Fearful Pleasures: The Complete Poems of Lewis Turco 1959-2007, Scottsdale, AZ: www.StarCloudPress.com, 2007. 978-1-932842-19-7, cloth; ISBN 978-1-932842-20-3, paper. Also available in a Kindle edition.
AT HOME: A POEMOIR
Even if I had wanted to go to college after I graduated from Meriden (CT) High School in 1952, at that point in my life I couldn’t afford it. Furthermore, I was tired of going to school and having other people tell me what I had to study. I was eligible for the draft (the Korean War was going on), and, although I could have put in less time if I had joined the Army, I didn’t want to spend any time at all crawling around in the mud, so I joined the Navy.
This turned out to be a wonderful idea because the Navy taught me how to touch-type, made me a Yeoman – a clerk – rather than a deck hand, shipped me around the country and then, aboard the aircraft carrier Hornet, around the world, quite literally. My friends all were attending college, but I was engaged in the Grand Tour.
In port Yeomen have lots to do, but at sea there is little to keep them busy, so I spent an amazing amount of time taking correspondence courses in fiction writing and journalism, in reading poetry and 100 classic books (there was a fine library aboard), and teaching myself all about the craft of verse writing. I began sending my work out to the little magazines, and I began to publish in 1953, one year after high school.
In 1956 I was released from active duty and just before I entered the University of Connecticut as a sophomore (I had done enough work in the service to have earned advanced placement), I had my first poem accepted by a major literary magazine, The Sewanee Review, which published it in 1959, the year I graduated from UConn, began graduate study there and then, first, spent part of the summer at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, New York, and subsequently went to finish my graduate school work in the Writers’ Workshop of the University of Iowa. This was the poem:
Listen to Lewis Turco read his poem “At Home”:
I. None have come with silver,
none have come
with loud huzzahs to plight my flame
or paint my eyes
with fame’s delight.
Nor are there many who
to nod my being or to wave my fact
along a voiceless street,
much less descend my slope and meet me there
where bottoms end.
For who are you, my faceless,
who are you
that they should come?
II. In the mirror there is glass,
and behind the glass
lies a river of mercury, frozen
against the bathroom wall.
Between the glass and the quicksilver
no longer quick, there is nothing:
no flesh, no frame, no bone
hung with eye, lip, hair.
There is no beard,
not even a bristle.
Outside the bathroom window there is morning,
and a bristling tree
scraping the wind.
III. Within this house are a thousand things
singing with use, swearing
a thousand vows quietly
that someone lives here, someone wears
that sock, warps
that chair, twists that knob —
but the phone rings, the phone
is ringing, shrilling the house apart,
halting the walls that press forward while
no one answers, no one answers,
no one goes to the phone
cursng to answer.
IV. I live here.
My face is not in the mirror,
my foot is not in the sock, my hand
does not haul the phone to my ear,
and my voice
carries no weight from my lips
to the telephone, to the wires
that hum along the roadways out
into the world that does not wait
for any sound I might make.
I am not to be found,
though I live here.
V. Among the wool, among
the hung frames and the dusty shoes,
the desk lumpy with papers and the lamps
gone black with burning,
let them come to find me, let them come,
if they will, to unbury me,
with or without silver, plus
or minus praise,
happy with folly or squinting
Only let them come: the mirror
is in need of a beard, the phone
wants a voice.
And a sock is not a sock without a foot
to belly it, and a shoe
to harry it to holes.
From The Sewanee Review, lxvii:4, 1959.
By Lewis Turco
Peter Ross Perkins and I met in 1953 in New York City after I was transferred from Bainbridge, MD, to serve aboard the U. S. S. Hornet (CVA12), the eighth ship to bear that name. As the CV12, she had been launched 10 months after the seventh Hornet had been sunk in World War II, but she, too, had seen much action in the War. Now, she had been recalled from retirement to be redesigned and refitted in what the Bureau of Naval Personnel called “The Oriskany Conversion,” to serve during and after the Korean War. She was to be launched in all her renewed glory from the Brooklyn Naval Shipyard.
Peter, who was three years older and a native Mainer, had attended Deering High School in Portland where he played for three years in the school band with, among others, his friend Priscilla Riley – later Priscilla Smith, wife of David Smith, Dean of Hampshire College in Massachusetts. Priscilla, a lifelong musician, describes their acquaintance thus:
I knew Peter well through our association for three years in the excellent Deering High School Band. Peter was our tympanist and I was one of the four baritone players. He was a year ahead of me in school and a very bright student. One of the things I most admired about him was his proficiency, even as a high school student, in French. I remember him walking me home one night from an event where I tried to talk French with him, and realized how naturally it came to him and what a struggle it was for me. I believe I last saw him at a summer Kotschmar organ recital at City Hall, but that was ages ago.
I hsd been born in Buffalo, NY, but brought up in Meriden, CT, where my immigrant father was minister of the First Italian Baptist Church. I had joined the Navy directly out of Meriden High School in 1952. After Peter graduated from Deering High he had attended Bowdoin College in Brunswick, ME, but after three years he had dropped out and joined the Service the same year I did.
I was one of the yeoman clerks in the Gunnery Division office of the Hornet. Peter was a member of the Division as well, but a Fire Control specialist (“fire” as in “ready, aim”}. I don’t recall the particular day we got to know one another, but we were fast friends before the ship was re-commissioned.
The Hornet was at last finished, and the crew moved aboard from temporary quarters ashore; eventually the ship was launched and we went on sea trials which were followed by a shakedown cruise to the Caribbean.
When we arrived at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba P;eter was left out of an adventure I alone, out the the whole crew, experienced. I spent a day with one Rev. Withey, who came down to Guantanamo Naval Base on orders from my father! The base chaplain got me off the ship for an entire day at the end of January, 1954. I spent it with Dr. Withey, two other ministers who had come down with him, and with the chaplain.. I had, and still have, no idea how my dad managed to manage this feat. The preachers and I went into Havana, which no one else was allowed to do from the Hornet because Castro and Che Guevara were raising Hobbs in the hills.
In the morning, while I was waiting at the base library for the ministers to arrive (I had been dropped off before the ship sailed for fleet exercises) I read "The Song of Songs" and was transported: the scenery was much like the Middle East, I imagined. Afterward I lay down and stared at the fish swimming off the pier: a thousand brilliant colors. It was as though I were gazing into a gigantic, more brilliant versionof the aquaria I used to maintain in the sun porch of the parsonage on Windsor Avenue in Meriden.
Then came the day we visited Haiti on the sixth of February, 1954. We steamed into the harbor between vast, eroded hills and verdurous shoreside farmlands. I spent the day on Shore Patrol duty with Peter in Port au Prince. Neither of us had ever done anything like this before, nor had any training for it, but our job was to wear SP armbands and wander around town checking into bars and other establishments frequented by sailors, to make sure that there were no untoward incidents taking place. Peter’s facility with French came in handy that day. We were lucky, though – nothing much happened. The marketplace seemed like a page out of a pirate story. We were offered articles made of mahogany, teakwood, and alligator skin.
Much of the city of Port au Prince had not changed a whole lot from the days of Henry Morgan, apparently. Much of it was squalid and unspeakably filthy. All of this merely emphasized the gulf between the truly modern portion of the town where the foreign population lived and did business: tall buildings of progressive architecture, exotic night-clubs and hotels, and spic-and-span living districts. Many American tourists were on hand to greet us. Peter and I spent another day wandering around Ciudad Trujillo on the other side of the island, in the Dominican Republic. It seemed to be a bit more civilized.
When our shakedown was done, we returned to Brooklyn to await the beginning of our showcase World Cruise. The U.S.S. Hornet sailed around the 13th of May from Newport News, Virginia. Lisbon, Portugal, was to be the first stop, then Naples, Italy. In Lisbon Peter and I and a couple of other sailors went out on the town and were sitting at a booth in a bar after a full day of sightseeing, talking — as best we could — with a little Portugese boy. We gave him some Navy memento or other. A young man at the bar with a couple of friends called him over and took it from him, looked it over. We thought he was trying to rip the boy off, so we began to mutter things like, "You take the skinny guy and I'll get the fat one." Then I glared at one of the young men. pointed at him, then at the boy, and said, "You, no! The boy, yes!" He replied in perfect English, "Yes, I understand, it belongs to the boy." He spoke English better than we did.
So we struck up a conversation with the young men, and then we went out on the town together. They took us down narrow cobblestoned alleys where lovers were making out in ancient doorways. We went into several fado houses, listened to fado songs, ate olives, and drank wine -- the “fado” was the national pop song of Portugal, rather like our blues, but quite different rhythmically. It was a beautiful evening. We all swore to keep in touch with one another, exchanging addresses. Before we said goodnight and farewell we promised to write each other. Of course, we never did, though I tried once, if I recall correctly.
At the end of May we put into Naples harbor. While we were in port a train tour to Rome was arranged, and we saw the classic places: St. Peter's Basilica, the Coliseum, the Forum, and we walked around town buying gifts for the folks back home — I bought a pipe carved in the shape of Romulus and Remus suckling the wolf; carved underneath it was the legend, "R-Roma." It took me a while to get the pun.
Back in Naples Peter and I tried to walk to Mount Vesuvius, with small luck, for it never seemed to get closer. We finally managed to get to Pompeii by taking a train. Unfortunately, by the time we arrived the exhibits were closed, so we dropped into a trattoria and had a big spaghetti meal and about a half-gallon of chianti. By the time we got back to the ship we — especially I — were in rather rough shape.
When the cruise continued we passed Stromboli, Sicily, and Italy through the Straits of Messina, and pressed on through the Suez Canal. We saw the Pyramids in the distance, sand spreading to the horizon, and paused briefly at Port Said before sailing on to Colombo in what was then called Ceylon and now Sri Lanka. While we were making our way through the Red Sea Peter and I saw, while we were standing at the rail, an immense fish lying at the surface of the water beside our ship. It was a whale shark. It looked big even beside an aircraft carrier.
On a tour to Kandy, our bus stopped at a waterhole where a mahout was giving his charge a drink and letting it cool off by spraying water over its back. He offered us rides, but we were wearing whites, so Peter and I demurred, but some of the sailors accepted. The elephant reached out its trunk, grasped them in a coil, and put them up on its back for a brief ride. They continued the tour looking something like black-and-white barber poles.
The sun was hot and bright when the Hornet dropped anchor in Singapore Harbor. The city lay like a crescent off our port beam; myriad islands and ships flying many flags speckled the waters to the horizon. For many of us this was the first time we had seen junks. They were a strange sight as their weather-beaten hulls and mat sails wove in and out among Chinese freighters, Dutch liners, South American and island trading ships, and tankers from the United States making for the open sea or berths in the harbor.
Peter and I took the tour to Johore Bahru on the Malayan mainland and saw much of Singapore through the windows of a bus. We passed native market places and modern department stores, mosques in the traditional Arabian manner and a tremendous Church of England; blond and auburn-haired Englishwomen and swarthy Asiatic girls, all of whom looked perfect to the eyes of sailors who had been at sea for a while.
Johore Bahru is connected to the island of Singapore by a causeway. As we passed from Singapore into its sister city, we left the Occident and entered the Orient. The Sultan's palace was huge and golden as we passed it on our way to the Sultan's Mosque. Its grounds were extensive. Small elephants and chickens seemed to be the sole inhabitants of its gardens and woods.
When we left the mosque, our bus took us back through the gardens and roads that twisted through the outskirts of a zoo. Half the day was gone. Finally, back in Singapore, after we had eaten, we again sallied out into the streets and alleys of Singapore. Night was falling. Around us the stone buildings and monuments took on the grey tinge of evening. In the harbor, lights were lit aboard the ships and varicolored flags were furled. The water became dusky, and the ripples stirred up the ever-moving junks; bumboats glinted in the sunlight reflected from the clouds. Silhouettes of ships became black, and then indistinct, fading at last into the darkness. Then we heard the bells of our liberty launch. Our day in Singapore was ended.
When the Hornet crossed the Equator everyone was given a subpoena. I don’t recall how Peter’s read, but “Charge 4” of the subpoena I was given to appear at the Court of Neptunus Rex was, "Scribbling poetic doggerel on Navy time." All our hair was shaved off as part of the initiation, and the seadogs made us crawl through parachutes stuffed with offal. We were spanked with paddles as we ran a gauntlet, given a vile concoction to eat, et cetera, and we graduated from Pollywog status to that of Shellback.
We continued our voyage to the South Pacific and were in Subic Bay, the Philippines, for a day, then we operated around Corregidor and wound up in Manila Bay. One day as Peter and I were going ashore to Cavite City in a forty-foot motor launch, Peter shouted, "Look!" and pointed astern. I craned around and saw a waterspout heading across the harbor toward us. One of the boatswain's mates aboard flung open the hood of the engine amidships, stuck his head in, and removed the governor. The launch was going so fast that it began planing, but the spout was gaining. Suddenly, it hit the protruding mast of one of the sunken World War II ships that were in the harbor, tore it off, and disappeared in a whiff. Peter and I and everyone else aboard breathed a great sigh of relief, and the coxswain slowed us down. We got ashore with no further incident.
By the 26th of July the fleet was searching the Indo-China Sea for the wreckage of a British airliner the Chinese had shot down on the 23rd. At General Quarters Peter was below-decks spinning his gun control dials, or whatever it was they did down there, and I was on the Gunnery Bridge standing watch at Gunnery Plot, a transparent plexiglass board behind which I stood with earphones on. I was in contact with CIC which gave me the coordinates of our airplanes and any "bogies." Planes from our carrier and the Philippine Sea were suddenly jumped by two bogies. Our planes engaged, and over my phones I heard, "Scratch two bogies!" I peered around the edge of the board and asked LCDR Edwards, "What means scratch two bogies?'" He said, "They shot 'em down!" I was stunned.
The next day, the 27th of July, I was up on the gunnery bridge of the island again watching air ops when I experience a truly powerful feeling that one plane would crash, I watched a jet come in for a perfect landing, stop, fold its wings, and taxi toward the port side of the ship to be spotted forward on the flight deck. With great relief I turned to look at the next plane coming in. Suddenly, I heard a rending sound. I turned to look back at the first plane -- its jets hadn’t cut out! They kept pushing it forward (afterwards I could see the skid-marks curving across the flight deck). I saw it teetering on the edge of the ship, its fore-gear momentarily resting on a radar housing. I saw the radar operator standing in the middle of the flight deck screaming into his headset microphone, but the wires to the headset were dangling, torn out of the panel in the radar shack he had suddenly abandoned. The plane tilted nose down, parallel to the side of the ship — I saw its tail sticking straight up — then it disappeared out of my range of vision.
Peter and I learned later what happened next: the plane hit the water nose-first, then fell over on its cockpit, trapping the pilot, and sank immediately. The pilot, LTJG Thomas Moir Gardiner, disappeared forever. Appalled, I resolved never to watch air ops again.
We resumed our regular duty, which was to patrol the Straits of Formosa – now Taiwan – while the Chinese were bombarding the islands of Quemoy and Matsu which were in Nationalist Chinese hands, like Taiwan, not a part of Communist China. The duty was routine, but for some reason we were never to visit Nationalist China itself. We had to make do with Japan where we went for repairs, maintenance, and R&R, and with Hong Kong, China.
Peter and I found that Japan’s seasons felt like those in the U. S., except that there was an edge to them, because there was something piquant about the scents of the air and the evergreens. Tokyo was an amazing place to visit, especially The Ginza, which was a lot more like America than much of America was. I found a set of little ivory carved birds for my fiancée, Jean Houdlette, back in Meriden. We weren’t in Yokosuka Harbor for long, however, only a couple of weeks.
But what a town Hong Kong was! The Hornet hauled into the harbor and dropped anchor. Mary Soo, “Garbage Mary,” was there with her girls to collect our offal before the anchor had time to get well-soaked. I suppose the garbage was used to feed pigs on Chinese farms. The sampans and bumboats were omnipresent. Maybe the water taxis were lop-sided and couldn’t do more than a knot, but they got Peter and me and many another ashore, and they got us back aboard loaded like barges with “Real ‘No-Squeak’ Young” boots, Taj Mahal suits and trousers, bamboo furniture, little carved chests and what-all.
Ashore we jostled along through crowds of Chinese, Indians, British troops, American tourists; beleaguered and badgered by rickshaw boys and sidewalk vendors; awed by women in the slinky slit skirts. Hong Kong: King Kong of the Chinese coast. But it loomed even larger in our eyes for a simple reason: it was nearly our last stop. Before we got to Hawaii, though, we had to cross half the Pacific Ocean.
When we got there in December Waikiki Beach by night was a crescent of white sand ending at Diamond Head. The Royal Hawaiian Hotel was the main feature of the beach, set among its palms. We saw the sunken battleships at Pearl Harbor and took part in a ceremony honoring those killed in the Japanese sneak attack of December 7th, 1941 — it was an anomaly to recall how we and our old enemies (not so old, at that) were getting along at the moment.
A couple of decades later I would visit Hawaii again, as a representative of the faculty of the State University of New York at Oswego, and Waikiki would be all but unrecognizable. The pink Royal Palms was still there, but it was insignificant among the wall of skyscraper hotels that surrounded it and blocked the beach off from the public beyond, and Diamond Head was still plainly visible, but now it looked down upon rooftops, not sand.
On our way across the rest of the Pacific we ran into an immense typhoon. I don’t know about Peter, but I got seasick only twice in my Navy career — once was while we were on sea trials, and the next while we were riding out this monster blow. The storm was the most incredible sight. When General Quarters sounded I went racing up the tower to my station at Gunnery Control, and as I did so the escalator stairs beneath my feet fell away and I was floating in mid-air. I kept my balance somehow and came out on the Gunnery Bridge to see the great ship poised on the lip of a simply gargantuan wave, heading down.
We dived like a porpoise, and when we hit the trough we started up the hill again, but not before the wave crested and broke...halfway along the flight deck! I had seen this happen in gales to destroyers and destroyer escorts which, it seemed to me, were more than half submarines, but I'd never thought to see it happening to an aircraft carrier. Somehow, we rode out the storm, but our hangar-deck doors were a wreck by the time we hit port in Oakland, California.
At that point Peter and I decided to build a large hi-fidelity set in the ship’s carpentry shop. We asked and received permission to do so, and several of us went ashore to a lumber yard to buy what we needed. When we returned to the Hornet we ascended the gangway and approached the Officer-of-the-Deck with a 4x8-foot rectangle of plywood balanced on our heads. All four of our sailor caps were placed directly over our heads on the plywood, and we saluted with our right hands to its edge as we asked permission to come aboard.
The hi-fi set was, indeed, built, and not long afterward, while our ship was in San Diego, I received orders to be transferred to the Bureau of Naval Personnel in Arlington, VA, where I would spend my last year of service working on the Navy’s Shore Duty List, a fabled position in the fleet. I had the set shipped home, and then I followed it, but not before I had introduced Peter and some of my other shipmates to one of my cousins, Josephine Sardella, a former Navy nurse, who lived in San Diego. A bunch of us went to her apartment and had a fine Italian meal of spaghetti and meatballs, the first one Peter and I had had since the one in Pompeii.
The week before I was to be shipped cross-country Peter and I were up on the hangar deck of the Hornet. I was listening to him practice pieces on the ship’s organ which he played for Sunday services. I had sung all my life, so I began to sing along with him as he played “A Mighty Fortress.” Peter said, “Let’s try it up here,” and he pitched it quite a bit higher. I have a big voice, so I began to belt out the hymn. We had attracted a small audience. When we were finished the Chaplain stepped forward to approach me. “Would you be willing to sing at services this coming Sunday?” I begged off. “I’m being transferred this week,” I said. We were both disappointed, but Peter would make it up to me later. While I worked my last year in the DC area, Peter remained aboard the Hornet. They traveled up the coast to Bremerton, WA, and had a canted flight deck installed. I lost touch with him for a while.
On June 16th, 1956, a week or so before I was discharged, Jean and I were married by my father at 2:00 p.m. in her church, the First Congregational of Meriden. All our high school friends were there and my brother Gene was Best Man. My new in-laws were native Mainers who still had family property in Dresden Mills. My father-in-law, John Houdlette, had been my 7th-grade shop teacher at Lincoln Junior High School where I remembered seeing Jean on the first day of classes in 1947. She was my classmate at Meriden High also, though we didn’t begin to date until I’d joined the Navy.
Jean had just graduated from the University of Connecticut in the spring of 1956. I returned to DC mainly to be separated from the service. When I returned to Meriden I built houses with my father-in-law during the summer before I myself entered UConn as a sophomore: I had taken courses and tests from the Navy and USAFI to earn a year’s college credits. I had also spent most of a yeoman’s idle time at sea reading books from the ship’s library, teaching myself how to write professionally, and beginning to publish in the literary magazines of the period. By the time I got to college I had published more than some of my teachers, which caused a problem or two
After our wedding reception Jean and I drove to the Cate Farm (Jean’s middle name is Cate) in Dresden Mills where we spent our brief honeymoon and where I did little except sneeze because I was allergic to the kapok mattresses in the house, which was quite primitive in other ways as well, including the water supply.
Peter returned to Portland and, in the fall, to Brunswick to finish his B. A. at Bowdoin. In 1966 he received an MA in French from Middlebury College where he was organist and carillonneur as a graduate student. Later he taught French for more than a decade at several New England schools, but he always maintained his interest in the organ.
Peter hadn’t attended our wedding – I don’t remember why not – but we saw him in Maine. Jean and I decided that Peter ought to meet our dear friend and classmate Marie. We loved them both and thought that they’d make a great couple. We arranged for them to get together and…disaster! Neither my wife nor I had ever witnessed two people who so detested one-another on sight. We spent an agonizing evening together and never tried anything like that again.
I graduated from UConn in mid-year 1959 and was a teaching assistant there for the spring semester before transferring to the Writers’ Workshop of the University of Iowa as a Fellow in poetry and Editorial Assistant to the Director, Paul Engle, in the fall. I was at Iowa for only a year because my wife became pregnant and I needed to get a job to support her and my imminent daughter, so I left without taking a degree.
My First Poems, however, was published in the summer of 1960 as a selection of The Book Club for Poetry by Golden Quill Press. By sheer coincidence I was offered my first academic position at Fenn College in Cleveland where one of the editors who had chosen my book, Loring Williams, lived and had a press.
I had met Loring at a writers’ conference while I was an undergraduate. Loring was a native of South Berwick, ME, and he was one of the founders of the State of Maine Writers’ Conference at Ocean Park, so he invited me there the summer my book came out to give a program and meet the other two editors, George Abbe and Clarence Farrar.
When I arrived in Ocean Park, I discovered that I was not unfamiliar with it, because it was not only the site of the Conference, but it was also the place where I had attended the Baptist-affiliated Royal Ambassadors Boys’ Camp for two years as a child…my father had been a leathercraft instructor there! From that point on Loring and I were in collaboration on many a project, including the Cleveland Poetry Center which I founded in 1962.
Of course, as a college instructor (I finished my Iowa degree in 1962) I had my summers free, and my family spent most of them from then on in Dresden Mills. I not only renewed my friendship with Peter Perkins, but we saw a lot of each other. It was during this period that Peter -- who was the organist of a church in Brunswick, I think it was, or perhaps Falmouth--, decided we would recreate the scene aboard the Hornet when the Chaplain had asked me to sing “A Mighty Fortress.” Peter invited me to come sing at his church on a Sunday, and I agreed.
Unfortunately, those kapok mattresses were still in the old farmhouse. When Jean and I got to Brunswick I asked Peter not to pitch the hymn high this time, but he forgot…or something. There was no way in the world I was going to hit those high notes he began playing, but I tried. It was the most dreadful solo anyone anywhere has ever heard. Nevertheless, afterward an old woman came up to me and told me how much she had enjoyed it. I confess I wanted to kill her, and Peter, too.
I got a small measure of revenge that summer when I went up attic, opened the window, and threw all the kapok and feather mattresses stored there out into the dooryard. It was a blizzard of feathers and stuff. The lawn was covered with what looked like snow that would never melt. I don’t remember how it was done, but somebody cleared up the mess and I sneezed no longer.
Besides the State of Maine Conference I began doing summer programs here and there in the neighborhood. One of these was the Lake Pemaquid Seminars that had been founded by Al McLain and his collaborator David Smith, Priscilla Riley Smith’s husband. They asked me to be a member of the summer faculty there, and I was happy to accept and get to know the McLains and Smiths. “The nice part for all of the faculty,” Priscilla recalls, “was that the families stayed there and were always welcome at lectures and classes. I have memories of Jean McLain and some of the others with our children at the Biscay Beach, esp. Ann (and Dave) Gruender from Ohio, and Ursula (and Gerhardt) Probst of Kentucky. There you have most of my memories, except your reading poems, especially, ‘Chorale of the Clock.’”
There is a Maine connection for the poem Priscilla remembers. Loring Williams was married to one of the aunts of Hart Crane, Alice Crane Williams. I used to go over to their home at least once a week as long as I lived in Cleveland, and on many of those occasions Loring and I would sit and listen to Alice tell stories about Hart, her other relatives, and her adventures as the composer of various musical pieces. One evening she mentioned a strange disease I had never heard of, “tic douloureux.” I couldn’t get it out of my head, so I had to exorcise it by writing the poem Priscilla recalls,
CHORALE OF THE CLOCK
"Tic douloureux," pronounced tik doo-loo-roo or tik da-ler-oo in standard and colloquial English respectively, is a very painfully diseased nerve
There was a woman on our block
(Tick, tock, the town cock crew)
And every dusk she wound the clock
With a large brass key she hid in a sock
Under the rug by the panel door.
Then she'd rinse her cup and sweep the floor,
Let out a sigh, the gray cat too —
Tock, tic douloureux.
And when the cat was gone, she'd lock
(Tick, tock, the town cock crew)
The doors, the windows, the cookie crock,
The casement of the grandfather clock.
Then she'd hide her key and go up to bed
To dream in the feathers of her bedstead,
Dark where the canopy nightbird flew —
Tock, tic douloureux.
Still, in her sleep she would mark the clock.
(Tick, tock, the town cock crew)
Every chime was a mortal shock:
A nerve in her cheek would jerk and knock;
Something or someone would begin to scream
As pain spread slowly across her dream,
And she'd start awake with the devil's ague —
Tock, tic douloureux.
All night long she would lie and rock
(Tick, tock, the town cock crew)
In a boat of shadows at Charon's dock
Hearing the shades on the far side mock,
Jeering and asking her why she stayed
So long away. "I am afraid,"
She said, "of the darkness and of you...."
Tock, tic douloureux.
"I fear the warden of my clock
(Tick, tock, the town cock crew)
May some night forget to test its lock;
The convict, discard her prison smock;
The emptiness of the time I serve
Burst the manacle of this nerve,
And the walls of my being prove untrue."
Tock, tic douloureux.
She sighed as she saw the nightbird rise;
The nerve quit jumping. She closed her eyes,
And then she lay quiet, still as the dew.
Tick. Tock. The town cock crew.
As the years passed Peter took first one position and then another, and at one point he opened a home decorations business in, as I recall, Yarmouth, ME, which Jean and I visited one day. His former wife Margaret continues to live in Yarmouth.
In the spring of 1969 Jean and I went to Bernardston, MA, to visit Peter and Margaret, who was to have a baby in the fall. When we heard nothing, and then when we got their Christmas card with no child’s name, we suspected something had gone wrong.
Not long afterward I stayed up all night reading The Golden Bough, went to bed around 7 a.m., and dreamt I was visiting Peter & Margaret alone. I was afraid to ask them about their baby. Then I heard a cry in the next room and Margaret excused herself to go take care of the child. I thought in my dream that Jean would be relieved to hear everything was all right. I woke around noon. At 2 p.m. the mail came. In it there was an announcement of the birth of Christina Beth Perkins on Feb. 17th.
Peter and Margaret had two children, a daughter, Christina, and a son, Douglas. Jean and I also had a daughter, Melora Ann, and a son, Christopher Cameron, but the two families never got together as a group. Peter dropped out of sight over the years, and not many moons ago Priscilla and I talked about him and we tried to find him, but I couldn’t get him by phone, and we began to assume the worst. Then I had a major operation in 2013 and David Smith died, so we both stopped searching.
At last, Priscilla wrote me the second week of January, 2015. “Although I could not make the picture in today's paper look like Peter, I know it is he and I am saddened that I was never able to be in touch with him. I was also surprised that he was at Village Crossings in the Cape, where I regularly visit my sister-in-law. I expect you will be inspired to remember him in verse. May he rest in peace with lots of beautiful organ music. Priscilla.”
"Horneteers" by Lewis Turco copyright © 2015, Portland Magazine, all rights reserved.