Norman Leer

Norman Leer

Aulay and Ferdie: I’m forwarding, through Liz Rosen, a copy of the poem I wrote about Manumit. As the date indicates, it was written a month after 9/11. I’ve thought about Manumit a lot over the years; when I wrote the poem, I think I was searching my memories to try to affirm something in myself that I needed to find again after the devastation a month before. Manumit stood for (still does) much of what I consider positive in the world.

The trains are a symbol: of memory, of lost and found connections, of my need at the time for a home. When I was young, I was fascinated by trains. I realized later it was because of their being connections and their associations with landscapes, which were part of the connections and disconnections.

Please feel free to do whatever you want (or don’t want) to do with this poem. Hopefully, you’ll want to share it with some of the others in the network. I’m struck by how the memories I dug up four years ago are the same ones I’ve been sharing with all of you today.

All the best,


At Manumit: Apropos the Trains


It is only photographs of lost

places, a few unwritten poems,

memories imagined because


real, how I might have been

because I am. The trains

go back and forth like broken string.


I am fifteen; I am

sixty-four. Terrorists crash planes

into New York. Buildings disappear


like yesterday, like tomorrow.

Recovery necessary and impossible,

a few unfinished pieces, almost gone.


Dark trains blur like frozen

hands. There are unclear faces

in the whistle darkened hills


of Pennsylvania. The trains

go back and forth, shifting pieces

of loose string. In Chicago


after the divorce, my father

had no place for me, just his helpless loving

In a stingy room. Buildings disappeared.


Home slid past the moving

windows, ghostly farms in underwater

snow, embers of lost crossings.


That year Henry Wallace ran

for President and lost. Europe glowed

with ashes, death trains and dreams.


We sang of union maids

and a Lincoln Brigade

we had never known, chanted


“Dona Nobis Pacem” at the school

assemblies. Uncle Bill, the chunky

angular Director, led us, his arms


pumping lost truth, harvesting

the earth, friendly with cigar smell.

Uncle Ben, his brother, thin


and slightly bald, reading

The New Yorker, looking blown away

like one of its cartoons. We called


all the teachers by first names;

once a week we built the school with them,

making libraries from barns.


Potatoes and oranges, floated

on the Hudson River,

during the Depression, clinging


to the ferry boats like drowning

hands. John taught us.

He had seen it; I never forgot.


I remember a giant rat

crawling past the wooden chicken coops

where we lived, one night


while a counselor told ghost stories.

That winter the outhouse froze over;

we had no water for a week.


Afternoons, after school, I lay

on my army cot, learning jazz

from a radio station in Camden, New Jersey:


“Jazz Unlimited,” half an hour

of Louis, Bunk, Kid Ory; blues inside me

blizzard death and warm hands


at the same time. Jim, my roommate,

played guitar; his father, thick knit Irish

voice, Longshoreman’s Union,


came with bread and wine

on weekends. From them I learned

Kevin Barry, brave and boozy, hanging.


Joe McCarthy from Wisconsin

crawled across the land, bloated,

smelling of dead fur.


English puzzled me. Poems could bloom;

grammar was my father’s rooms,

full of business words. Peg


taught me Joseph Conrad, worn

seductive books and language

I could hold like light. I think


I love the touch and taste

of books because of her. I try

to find her every time I teach.


I failed Algebra; letters

as numbers made no sense.

I doodled railroad names


all across the book.

Astronomy was different. Uncle Bill

intoned Orion in the dark


behind the lost trees

of the baseball field, his voice

a cosmic locomotive wail. Now


I had geographies of God

that were not tight and did

not pinch like writing on the synagogue.


The nation froze toward Ike

and predatory underwater cars.

There was a formal garden


past the Main House, with mazes

of hedges, buzzing with slow fat

bees, and a dry unused pool.


The paths sang still as fragrant

heat. I could get lost there, learn to say

the summer smells and silences;


or I walked two miles, the tiny

foreign farm-lined road,

to the ice cream store, damp


shelter of chocolate and strawberry.

Thin Modigliani girls in gentle pony tails

sat soft and smoking in the Common Room,


and I would dream of smoking, laughing

with them, more comforting than ice cream

and as unapproachable as home.


Hearing folk songs, I imagine these girls

now, wonder how it would have been

if I had dared to be with them.


I am sixty-four. Terrorists crash planes

into New York. Pieces of string

burning, more fragile than trains.


I am fifteen. In the fifties

everybody wanted to go home.

I was no different.


My father found a boy’s school,

cruel and closer to Chicago.

Unable to fight back,


I made one friend, another Jew

with Asthma. People snickered

in the James Dean slouching


movie house. Manumit

was gone. It shut down

like my father with his string,


only photographs imagined. Once,

teaching on Long Island, I visited a woman

living in the Village. We had only


dried up names and silences.

We were deep in Vietnam;

Kennedy was shot; before the hope,


before the unsung possibilities,

the music upside down,

before the other mad assassins.


After New York, people trace the sky

for faces, pray in different languages

together. I write this poem


I cannot end, memories

I need to find, photographs of dreams

that waking I already am.


(October 10, 2001)


Norman Leer

2400 N. Lakeview Ave., Apt. 1405

Chicago, IL 60614