Poets

I wish I was better-versed in how to read and understand poetry. Part of that longing emanates from a place of loss and grief—Mark was a poet—as well as being an activist, a performance artist, and one special human being always in search of his better self. His writing and poetry was part of his process.

The Tragically Hip had a song called “Poets.” When I was thinking about this post while making like a fish in the pool this morning, the song was in my head (and has been much of the day). I’m sad to say that we lost another poet and always-evolving human when Gord Downie “shuffled off this mortal coil” a few weeks back.

I was stricken with The Hip the first time I heard the opening chords to “New Orleans is Sinking.” Then, I went to Canada, their homeland where they were rock gods. Mark was probably five at the time. Downie’s poetic ruminations, framed by a rock and roll backbeat captivated me for more than a decade. So maybe I was more familiar with poetry than I thought. Perhaps Gord and Mark are somewhere reading together.

Last week, I was at Curtis Memorial Library in Brunswick. Now that the power has been restored in Brunswick-proper, the library has resumed it normalcy, which for me is mainly, a place where people come to find and check out books. I found Stephen Burt’s the poem is you: 60 Contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them perched on the new releases shelf. “This is the book for me,” I thought. I was right.

A book about poetry.

Burt includes 60 poems, collected from 1981 forward. Interestingly, the featured poets were all “shipping” their work across the approximate span of Mark’s lifetime (he was born in 1983, the year after my better half and I tied the knot).

The first poem, John Ashberry’s “Paradoxes and Oxymorons” was published in 1981 and the final one, by Ross Gay, “Weeping,” was released in 2015.

When Mark realized he was a poet, he also came to terms with the landscape where his writing would be living and breathing, I felt like this was when his work was destined for bigger and better things. Of course, little did I know what lay ahead.

Burt, who now is known as Steph, is an intriguing figure within the realm of poetry and literary criticism circles. There are those who don’t care for his “cheerleading” for poets. Of course, we live in such a cynical world obsessed with tearing others down that being accused of “indiscriminate positivity,” “blurbing good cheer,” and “comprehensive enthusiasm” seems destined to get you disliked and even hated. Whatever.

Mark was of good cheer, too. Because of that and some of his own unorthodox ways, others have directed their hate and vitriol his way via YouTube, and other social media platforms, too. Fuck the haters!

I read another one of Burt’s selections and poets this morning: a woman named Lucia Perillo. Her poem, “Viagra,” was a “funny poem” that takes its title from a well-known pharmaceutical that inflates flaccid penises. You’ve probably seen one of the commercials.

Perillo was a person with a disability. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when she was in her 30s. She wasn’t shy about taking on the issues affecting people like her in America. Sadly, I learned this morning while doing research to write this that she died just after Mark began his walk last October. She was only three years older than I am when she died. I keep coming across these poets lately and I wish I could ask him about them, if they were people he was familiar with and had read. But of course, I can’t.

As I make my way through Burt’s fantastic book (see, his cheerleading is rubbing off on me), I’m learning that poets like Perillo and many others did other things besides just writing poetry. She had been a researcher for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prior to earning her MA in English from Syracuse University. A.R. Ammons studied chemistry and biology at Wake Forest. He then worked for a biological glass company for twelve years while honing his chops before his poems shaped by his math and science skills began to get noticed by the poetry community.

Mark worked in a library as a content management specialist. He was an activist, and he also took time to put his feet on the ground to traverse this wide and surprisingly diverse nation of ours. He was writing poems as he walked. He was teaching those of us paying attention that the more you get out and about, the more you begin to realize that while we’re the same in many ways, we’re also different, too.

Rugged individualism plays well in some corners (mainly conservative talk radio), but in much of the real world, we all need (and rely) on others. If we don’t, we become bitter, twisted, and just plain lonely, I think. Or your world becomes darkened by fear and hatred of “the other.”

I’m still finding my way forward with poetry, but Burt’s helped me along and I’ll continue to grow my understanding of the genre. I also now recognize that the poems and poets I was made to read in high school and hated are no longer required in adulthood. Plus, the palette of flavors is much broader than I ever imagined.

The Day After The Election

Last fall on the day following the election of Donald Trump as president, Mark woke up in a hotel that didn’t have power in some of the rooms. The night before, he went to his room with his room key and flicked on the light switch. Nothing.

The hotel, an odd little place on the side of Old U.S. 22 in Shartlesville, PA, placed their room key envelopes fastened together with an elastic and sitting in an old coffee can. Mark merely had to go back to the front desk and pick another room key.

Sitting along what had once been a major east/west corridor, the interstate usurped this road’s importance. Like many similar roadways that once were important overland routes for travelers dating from the time of covered wagons up through the earliest days of Happy Motoring in America, most have fallen into disuse like much in a nation built around planned obsolescence. Mom and Pop lodging matching the place where Mark spent the night last fall struggle to remain solvent. Perhaps the owners had simply taken a page from the austerity playbook, implementing measures like asking guests to forgo electricity. Mark also noted that there were signs indicating to boil the water prior to drinking.

On his blog, following the election of the worst candidate we’ve ever called president (thus far), he made a connection between the new POTUS and what MAGA might actually mean when he wrote, “I hope the motel where I stayed isn’t an omen for the future of America. Some of the rooms didn’t have power and you couldn’t drink the water.” Continue reading

Save Yourself (But maybe not)

Today is Day 04 following the Great Windstorm of 2017. Have they officially dubbed it a hurricane? To be honest, I have not been consuming much news this week, so if there’s a name for the storm that landed Sunday night, wreaking havoc across Northern New England, please clue me in.

We’re fortunate. I say “fortunate” because we didn’t have any trees land on our house or garage. We had a partial window shatter (the outer pane in a two-paned weather-resistant window facing the water), but no water invaded our domestic confines. Poor Lucy, our cat, slept about as well as I did Sunday night and early Monday morning, which means hardly at all. She’s been in recovery mode all week, sleeping during the day, rather than watching birds and squirrels from her usual perch in a window. Oh to be a cat like Lucy!

We have several trees lying on the ground. We had some water coming in around a vent above the garage and it’s leaking through the ceiling. This isn’t related to this storm, as we’ve had issues with this during prior heavy rains. Given that the summer and early fall have been bone dry, this hasn’t presented itself until re-surfacing a week ago. The property manager is dispensing his handyman to the house on Friday. Based on past practice, he’ll figure out what needs to be done while making an assessment about our window situation. I think the tree crew will be out next week, but that’s conjecture at this point.

We got electricity back Tuesday night. We were fortunate. Many CMP customers are still in the dark. Others are freaking out about their website. Perhaps technology can’t save us? It sure as hell can’t restore downed power lines. Continue reading

The Wind Howled and the Power Stopped

The Great Ice Storm of ’98 is something that’s nice to have in your back pocket, in a “I was without power for 08 days and learned to shit in the woods like a bear” sort of way. It’s nostalgic, something you can dust off and regale hipsters who maybe just moved to Maine, or just bought a house in the country after living on the West End for five years. However, I’m not really keen about re-living it, at least not this year.

I got about three hours sleep Sunday night. I was sure a tree was going to snap off and come through the roof of our bedroom. We live about 100 feet from a cove and the winds were gusting well above 60 miles per hour about 2:00 a.m.

Our gray Chartreaux, Lucy, was troubled all night. She came up to snuggle with us prior to the winds making a sound like a freight train outside our deck door. But, like me, she knew this wasn’t a normal night for sleep. Mary seemed to be okay, as she’s a much sounder sleeper than I am.

I heard a crash around 4:45. This was after I’d gotten up, watched some bad TV, charged my phone and crawled back under the covers at 4:30, just as the power flickered twice and went off. At this point, I wasn’t getting back up.

Dozing off fitfully until the first flickers of daylight shown into the room, I looked out and could see the carnage. Trees had snapped off and fortunately due to the wind driving from the south and southeast, pushed them away from the house. The crash was one of the panes shattering in our double-paned window that looks out from our kitchen nook onto Woodward Cove. At least pane #2 remained intact. Continue reading

Positively Podcasting

Are you into podcasts? I know a lot of people are.

I worked on an article this week that I was assigned by the editor at the auto trade magazine I’ve been writing for since 2015. She wanted me to gather some podcasts for their end-of-the-year “best of” issue.

Mark was a big fan of podcasts. When he’d email me from the road last fall and winter, he regularly shared something he learned from one of the rotating podcasts he was listening to. Sometimes he’d tell me about a topic covered by Rich Roll, one of his favorites. Do you remember on Day 009 how excited he was when Roll tweeted about him? He also liked Malcolm Gladwell’s  Revisionist History. Because of his enthusiasm for these podcasts, I started listening.

Over the past year, I’ve gotten out of the habit of listening to Roll and Gladwell. The past few days, I immersed myself in the world filled with innumerable people broadcasting and streaming outstanding and maybe more important to me—uplifting content. I don’t want to let the “cat out of the bag” in terms of my future article, but I will share a few things I learned by simply taking time to fill-up with something more positive than the latest angry tweets from our president.

I’ve been a fan of Gladwell’s for a long time. He’s such an outstanding writer. I fell in love with his writing after reading several of his long-form pieces he wrote for The New Yorker. He had a talent for taking a topic that you thought you knew something about and turning it on its head. I then read The Tipping Point, How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. I still can’t believe that book is more than 15-years-old. Continue reading

On Friday I Went for a Walk

A year ago at this time, Mark had been walking for a week (actually, he was on Day 008), and had been posting videos that we were all watching, as his following grew larger. He was in New Haven, CT, and had just stayed with friends. The day was rainy, but per usual, this didn’t bring Mark down. He’d later walking into a Taco Bell and yell, “I’ve got the hook-up,” hoping to win 100 bean tacos. He didn’t.

As I’ve been watching his daily videos a year out from when they were made, it feels similar to last fall. I’m still learning things (as we all were) and his life and actions make me want to be a better person.

Last Friday, we were at Brown, as colleagues from the library and the school’s literary arts department remembered Mark and touched on his legacy at the school. One of the speakers (I don’t recall which one) talked about Mark and his walk and I jotted down a note to myself, “start walking every week.” What I was telling myself is that I needed to do a walk weekly where I left my house and walked out a certain distance. My intention was to think about Mark and his own walking practice during my own walks. Continue reading

Walking and Remembering

I’ve been thinking about walking. Admittedly, thoughts like these have their origins in reflections backward to this time one year ago. Mark said “goodbye” to his house at 38 Pleasant Street, and walked down the hill on his one-way street commencing yet another cross-country journey into the unknown. He’d done a similar one in 2010, but this one was different in a host of ways.

He let readers know some of the reasons why he was making this trek. I knew the road had been calling out to him across the expanse of the previous six years since he stepped into the Pacific after wearily making his way across the sands of Santa Monica Beach at the end of that epic march.

Mark wasn’t the first writer who’d been drawn to the realm of walking. Perhaps the obvious name that crops up when talking about writers who valued the walking experience would be Thoreau. There have been a host of others. There seems to have been some deeper, intuitive connection between walking, thinking, and then, writing. We of course have by-and-large lost this. I’m sure part of this stems from being immersed completely in our American version of Happy Motoring.

I found an older article in The New Yorker by Adam Gopnik. He details how at one point in the mid-19th century, walking was actually “the dominant spectator sport in America.” Could be that if enough fervently patriotic football fans abandon the NFL, then walking might make a comeback? That would be a shame because if there was a figure who could captivate fans of professional walking, it would have been Mark. Continue reading

The Kindness of Strangers

I met Richard one morning early in 2016 at the Bath Y. He was a regular and I’d see him per my routine early swims, usually Tuesdays and Fridays (or sometimes Thursday, if I couldn’t swim on Friday).

The Y is similar to other places where I’ve worked out in the past (like Auburn’s Planet Fitness)—the early AM workout crowd tend to be creatures of habit and generally, a little older. We’re there to get our reps/laps/miles done and then, it’s off to whatever the day throws at us. Across the context of two strangers’ paths crossing, a bond sometimes develops. You see the same person week after week. Unless you’re a misanthrope, you’ll have a conversation or two. Before long, seeing that person becomes part of the routine.

Richard’s 14 years older than me. That means he fought in Vietnam, is nearing retirement, and has accumulated a bit more life experience translating into wisdom. He’s solidly middle-class, probably a tad more conservative than I am, but I know he didn’t vote for Trump, either based the accumulation of our AM conversations.

There was something inherently likable about him. He was a no BS type of guy, and I have always had an affinity for males of that stripe. As the months passed, I found out he was working part-time at The Home Depot in Topsham. He’s “retired,” but like many seniors, retirement now means holding a job to supplement retirement savings—Americans are living longer and longer and staying topside costs slightly more than chump-change. Continue reading

Invasive Prayer

Prayer’s been all around us since Mark was killed in January. People have forced prayer on us, even though none of us (including Mark) held out any hope that petitioning a deity would alter the universe in any way. I’m still curious where God might have been back on January 21. Perhaps he doesn’t travel Highway 90 in Florida.

Every time a tragedy occurs, Facebook lights up with “prayer” and a host of other religiously-draped sentiments. While some of those directly affected might find comfort knowing that there are a legion of warriors out there “wrestling with their God,” directing His/Her “comfort and healing” earthward, lives remain forever altered.

I’m not telling anyone what to believe. If you want to talk to your conception of a deity, have at it. However, to impose those ideas that have no actual basis in science and reality seems invasive at the very least.

Here’s what I think about the platitudes and prayers offered to those of us who’ve had our lives turned upside down by tragedy. Prayer and words that may or may not be infused with anything more than a sentiment help make you feel better and even heroic. But for us living with loss each and every moment of every day, it changes nothing. In fact, when I’m forced to endure another round of this happy horseshit, it just makes me tune it out. Continue reading

Validation

How often do you affirm other people? I mean, honestly recognizing qualities and positive traits—some amazing skill or ability they have. I’m guessing not very often.

Yesterday, I spoke to two friends. One of them I’ve known since 1988 when we were both new meter readers at our local power company. The other one, I met in February, the weekend we held Mark’s Celebration of Life at Brown.

The former knew Mark from the age of five and saw him grow into his teenage years. We’d lost touch as Mark got into college. But with true friends, a sabbatical isn’t a deal breaker.

My old friend was crushed when he learned Mark was killed. I’d called him the next day because I knew he’d find out and I wanted him to hear from me. He’s been there for me over the past eight months.

My newer friend and Mark were colleagues at Brown. Both navigated the school’s Literary Arts program together, earning MFAs. They are also poets.

We’ve been calling every other week and have deep and meaningful conversations about life. Yesterday, we were talking about how rare it is in this life to receive validation.

It’s interesting that our current president is a man who has made his way to the top by doing the opposite—tearing down others and seeking to destroy them. That says a great deal about the value that Americans place on catching others doing good and authentically recognizing that. Continue reading