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)
2400 N. Lakeview Ave., Apt. 1405
Chicago, IL 60614