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

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

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

Could You Be The One?

Back when life was simpler and a lot less sad, I went out to see bands because I thought music might save my life. Music as a life saver? Please do tell.

Lot’s been written about Mark by me and others. In death, there is a tendency to enlarge one’s life, or attribute qualities to people in the dead person’s life that may or may not have been present. In Mark’s case, he was the real deal. I did my best as a dad and things turned out pretty well until last January.

In 1986, I was simply a father and husband with a three-year-old son. We were living on a dead-end street in Chesterton, Indiana.

Mark had a tricycle and was making a few friends in the neighborhood. I worked at a prison and Mary had just started working breakfast at Wendy’s prior to me heading off to the med room at Westville Correctional Facility.

Mark and dad playing in the snow [1986]

Things were looking up for our little family, trying to scrape together enough money to return to Maine. I also had aspirations of being something more than an hourly wage slave. It would take me another 15 years to recognize that the writing muse was calling. Unable to recognize its beckoning however, caused considerable frustration and angst in my mid-20s. Continue reading

Cycle of Life

Last November we sold our house in Durham where we’d lived for 26 years. This felt like the start of a new chapter. It was, but the narrative soon turned dark.

Landing in Brunswick on a beautiful tidal cove was exciting at the time. Being new to town, I envisioned capturing elements of our new home with a series of post based on weekend forays about the place. Then tragedy intervened. Life along the cove became framed by abundant morning light that simply permitted holding on.

A mile and a half from our house there is an older cemetery. I knew nothing about it until passing while running one morning in December. My new route took me westward from our new place, out Coombs Road. I immediately knew the road to be an ideal alternative providing a side loop away from busy Route 24, where I could enjoy my surroundings and not worry about dodging cars and trucks roaring along at highway speeds.

Purington Road, which abuts the cemetery, also dead ends at a gate on the east side of the former Brunswick Naval Air Station. The road, like much of this area, is bordered by chain link fence and warning signs left behind when the town answered the military’s every beck and call.

From RootsWeb, I found this description of the cemetery, known as New Meadows Cemetery:

New Meadows Cemetery is located on Purinton Road and borders the Naval Air Station. This part of Brunswick was farming country known as New Meadows before the Naval Air Station occupied the area. Old records describe it as located on the North side of the road to Great Island, about three miles from Brunswick village. This road is now part of the Naval Air Station.

Doing a minimal amount of digging revealed that the area around Purington and Coombs Roads was once a thousand-acre town commons that was once the New Meadows neighborhood. There are historical records that show there were four homesteads dating back to 1739. What locals know about the area if they know anything is that it’s framed by the recent past following the Navy’s encroachment (and significant contamination) of 90 percent of this section of the community that formerly consisted of farms, grist mills, and brick and carriage makers.

Father and son, forever.

Continue reading

The Unbearable Whiteness of Lasagna

Becoming a plant-based vegan offered another connection point between Mark and his dad. We had baseball and sports (for much of our relationship), books and writing, and then, just prior to his leaving on his walk, I decided I’d see if I could go two weeks without consuming dairy or animal-based food products (namely meat). During his trip, we kept a dialogue going about plant-based eating and associated food-related topics.

This re-ordering of diet and food might seem drastic. It really wasn’t. I just stopped eating some foods–eggs, cheese, yogurt, and meat. I replaced them with mainly plants—fruits and vegetable that I already liked and was eating. A new attentiveness ensued, searching for meals and recipes that fit with that.

In August when the three of us were together in Omaha, Yelp directed us across the city to a nondescript eatery in a converted gas station. I found out later that the chef was none other than vegan cook and cookbook goddess, Isa Chandra Moskowitz. The food on the menu was amazing. “So this is veganism,” I thought at the time. Afterwards, it made sense to seek out her books.

Veganomicon: The Ultimate Vegan Cookbook is a book written with Terry Hope Romero for people like me (and Mary); those coming to veganism who want to learn to cook vegan, and not rely on others to cook for them.  The authors bring their unique, DIY-informed approach to food, billing it as “the essential guide to mastering the art of vegan cooking.”

Vegan cooking 101

Continue reading