I am standing in the window of the tower at an artist’s colony in upstate New York, and I am looking down at the fountain behind the mansion because I can think of nothing to write today. That’s why I’m here, I’m supposed to be writing.
The man is walking toward the fountain, and the sky is blue. He stops at the wall and looks at the sculpture of two nude nymphs and a satyr that lies against the woods under the mountain.
In his pressed white jacket the man leaves the fountain, and the sky is still blue. The man stops beneath me on the lawn. He is waiting. The wall stops as well and surrounds the white sculpture of two nude nymphs and the satyr who lie beside the woods under the mountain. In the other rooms of the mansion people are writing things, and in the studios on the grounds artists are painting and sculptors are sculpting.
No one is left to look at the fountain, and the sky is less blue. One nymph stands and yawns in the white sculpture of two nudes and a smiling satyr lying beside the woods under the mountain. The first nymph stretches her arms above the fountain, and now the sky is clouding. The other trails her fingers in the green hue of the pool where the nymphs and satyr lie beside the woods beneath the mountain.
Above, I stand in the tower window watching. I should be sitting before my laptop tapping on the keys, listening to the patter of words falling onto the virtual page, but the mist of the water in the fountain is a curtain, and the sky is clouding.
The man in the jacket returns to the sculpture where the two nude nymphs and the satyr lie still beside the woods beneath the mountain. The mist of the water is a curtain, and the sky is cloudy. Now a girl trails her fingers in the aquamarine of the pool where the nymphs and the satyr lie beside the woods by the still mountain, where the man stands looking at the sculpture and at the girl as I stand watching rather than writing in the tower window.
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.
NEWBURYPORT, MA: On the evening of February 27, 2016, in Newburyport, Mass., Alfred Moskowitz passed away in his home on Charron Drive, where he had lived since late 1990.
Born in the Bronx, N.Y., to Rumanian immigrants David and Mary Moskowitz, Alfred was educated in New York public schools, served as an infantryman on the European front during WW II, returned home in 1945 to attend NYU on the G.I. Bill, and went on to teach Industrial Arts in the NYC public schools for 30 years.
In 1952, he married Rhina P. Moskowitz, with whom he had two sons, and brought up a third. He took a highly active part in the formation of the United Federation of Teachers, and in demonstrations for civil rights, desegregation of the schools, and other liberal social causes. In 1990, the couple moved to Newburyport, Mass., from New York City. For many years Alfred Moskowitz was an active member of the Newburyport Art Association, and of the News & Views Club of Newburyport, among other organizations.
He is survived by his wife, son and daughter-in-law, Philip and Lauren of Georgetown; son and daughter-in-law, Warren and Lori of Ipswich; foster-son, Gaston and daughter-in-law, Colleen of New York; as well as grandchildren, Evan, Ilana, Ambrose, and Perry; brothers, Marvin and Howard; sister-in-law, Gayle; nephews, Gregg, Brad and Keith; and nieces, Janine and Diana.
FOR ALFRED MOSKOWITZ
When last I visited Alfred and his wife We spent the evening talking about his art. Sculpture was his passion, the largest part Of his endeavor, his creative life.
Rhina is a writer. She and I Became the best of friends. Her poetry Shows readers how the heart and mind can fly Through the Muses' ever-greening tree.
Now Alfred's mind and heart have taken wing And she is left alone to write her songs -- She feeds them to the wind: it, too, can sing Even when her heart breaks and belongs
To breezes in the needles and the limbs Of brooding woodlands that can echo hymns.
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.
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.
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,"
The Virginia Quarterly Review "The Mutable Past," a memoir collected in FANTASEERS, A BOOK OF MEMORIES by Lewis Turco of growing up in the 1950s in Meriden, Connecticut, (Scotsdale AZ: Star Cloud Press, 2005).
The Tower Journal Two short stories, "The Demon in the Tree" and "The Substitute Wife," in the spring 2009 issue of Tower Journal.
The Tower Journal Memoir, “Pookah, The Greatest Cat in the History of the World,” Spring-Summer 2010.
The Michigan Quarterly Review This is the first terzanelle ever published, in "The Michigan Quarterly Review" in 1965. It has been gathered in THE COLLECTED LYRICS OF LEWIS TURCO/WESLI COURT, 1953-2004 (www.StarCloudPress.com).
The Gawain Poet An essay on the putative medieval author of "Gawain and the Green Knight" in the summer 2010 issue of Per Contra.