Archive for the ‘Places’ Category

Exotics

November 16th, 2012

This is a poem I wrote six years ago for my friend Susan Weiss, a lapsed vegan.  Recently I was visiting White River Junction, Vermont, on business, and stopped at the Baker’s Studio on Main Street to grab a cup of tea and a bite to eat.  If I hadn’t written this poem six years ago, I would have written it in the Baker’s Studio.  They’ve got the Real Deal, an incredible rarity nowadays.  So I offer this poem in honor of that shining morsel of heaven where I-89 meets I-91 above the Connecticut River.

 


In southern China
they eat civet cats, roasted whole and
braised in soy and hoisin sauce to hide the
gamey taste.  The civet lives on durian, a
spiky fruit, foul-smelling, with a flesh as
subtle as the custard dreams are made of.

On North Street, Burlington, Vermont
near the oriental grocery stores,
expatriate Africans sick for home may find,
neatly piled on a tiny shop’s back shelves where
stray Vermonters are unlikely to venture,
zip-locked bags of dried grubs, hard tan curls in
assorted sizes, but when I approach the clerk to
ask how are they cooked I chicken out and
buy instead a round brown deep fried thing that
disappointingly tastes just like a doughnut.

In Minnesota
tales of famous family Friday night
spaghetti dinners regaled the worldly Yankee
sophistication of a friend of mine whose own
family’s odyssey had landed him in high school
there among the pines and walleye pike.
At last one evening he found himself seated among
half a dozen scions of Scandinavia
logger-large and hunching over gleaming
formica facing a bowl of naked noodles,
pale and gleaming, and a bottle of ketchup.

Indonesia
original home of the scarlet condiment’s forebears.

In New York
Brooklyn, to be precise, my newly-wed mother
scandalized her husband and parents-in-law by
pouring ketchup onto her scrambled eggs, an
act so odd that even the rubric “goyish”
couldn’t encompass it; but she was from
Chicago, so what could you expect?  And I
have taught my children to follow the same strange ways.

In America
they will heap anything – bacon and cheese, whatever –
onto baked goods ubiquitously sold as “bagels”
that are neither dense nor chewy; fine-grained
bready toroids with the crust removed and a
shiny glaze engineered in its place.  Those, and
hand-coiled rings purportedly en manière de
Montreal, sweeter and maltier than anything
I remember, are all you can get around here.  But

In Buffalo, New York, 1960
Mastman’s redolent deli, full of derma
stuffed with kasha, knishes, pickled herring,
smoked whitefish, lox – the “real nova” – and
bins of “Jewish hockey pucks,” just plain or
pumpernickel, forged of fully developed
gluten, steam, and fire, as heavy as history,
yielding to the teeth like summer to fall
(in those days, gradually), holding warmth but
autumnally flavored, bagged by the dozen or one
“with a schmear” of cream cheese impasto slapped on by mustachioed
Mastman himself, unobtainable now,
rarer than civet cats with their strong sauces,
digested and carried into internal exile.

On Tully Mountain

March 18th, 2012

Tully Mountain and Renvyle Lough

A few years ago, I vacationed for two weeks in Connemara.  I stayed at a resort on the coast called Renvyle House Hotel, a place with some literary associations, and one day I hiked up a nearby hill, which they call a mountain.  This poem is my tribute to that place.   You can’t give the flavor of Ireland, I think, without reciting place names – most of those in the poem are pretty self explanatory, and if you really want to you can google them.  “Rusheenduff Lake” is a little private trout pond reserved for guests at the resort.  “The Bens” are a nearby mountain range, and the aroma described at the end of the poem is the very scent of Connemara itself, given off by burning peat.  Peat, for those of you who don’t know, is the product of accumulation for millenia of vegetable matter, preserved in the anaerobic environment of a bog.

A   thousand feet above the bay
a wind that kept its hand in the pocket where the knife was
and this being Connemara those grey humpy beasts all over the sky
four sided concrete column about waist high with a surveyor’s brass plate on top
rising at the summit out of a mound of quartzite shards
to which I’d added my one
now I leaned against it facing the wind like a reader at a lectern
the bay opened out below me
Crump Island flashed from olive drab to emerald
I still couldn’t make out the abandoned church on it
but the sea around it came alive and soon the whole bay glittered bluely
soon also the oil-paint stolidity of Renvyle Point had exchanged for pastels
Rusheenduff Lake as vivid as a caste mark
and who remembered chiaroscuro when pointillism was all the rage
after a while the sun rested its foot on my back and massaged my shoulders with its toes
but the wind still kept its hand in its pocket
the grey humpies flowed back in and mottled and dimmed
everything the Bens across the valley behind me lost their playful bubbling upthrust
cloaked once again in massive mysterious dignity
although their heads still were bare and if they’d had hair the wind would have teased it
saying come on lover when it gets dark come to my room
so I headed back down the spongy heathered slopes to Derryinver
past the occasional black crescent gashes where the turf had slumped from itself
and the criss-crossing sheep’s paths, thin black and straight
down to that spicy thick perfume of
thousands of years being burned to warm the present
ah, the slow, slow deaths where the pain is stretched so thin you can’t feel it
those are among the best, and they give off a fine, peaty smell
now for a bowl of chowder and some tea

Irene, Part Five

January 10th, 2012

A colleague standing next to me said, “I come from Mississippi.  If we moved out every time something got flooded…”  She didn’t get to finish her sentence because at that moment a car drove by, honking to express support for the couple hundred of us standing in front of the Waterbury State Office Complex, and we whooped and hollered in return, waving our “BRING US ALL BACK” signs.

The first couple of months of displacement were hard.  I don’t mean to compare our plight with that of people who lost their homes or businesses to the floods, but the fact remains that the lives of the state employees who had been based in Waterbury were profoundly disrupted.  The familiar spaces and procedures in which we had spent the majority of our waking hours most days were gone, swept away, finished.  In their place were makeshifts and make-dos.  One doesn’t realize how

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An invitation

October 22nd, 2011

Here's the harp guy again. I couldn't find a picture of the South Burlington Farmers Market.

The last South Burlington Farmers Market of 2011 occurs from 10:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m. on Sunday, October 23, at the lot next to Healthy Living on Dorset Street in South Burlington.  It’s a fun little market.  I thoroughly enjoyed my day there two weeks ago, and plan to attend again with a table full of books for sale and a head full of dreams.  If the configuration is the same this Sunday, I’ll be there at the far end, between an organic fruit and vegetable stand and a Somali woman who makes some of the most wonderful samosas I’ve ever had. I also have to mention the woman from the Euro restaurant , who sells stuffed cabbage and borekas and other balkan delicacies of surpassing goodness, and who, out of what I think was an impulse of pure generosity, came over and gave me a container of heavenly moussaka at the end of the day. I had it for dinner. And breakfast. That week, in addition to basking in sunny warmth, I sold a few books, which was a few books more than I had expected to sell, so the day was an unqualified success.  Two buyers in particular stand out in my recollection. One was a middle-aged man who said he was buying it for his son, a poet and musician in New Hampshire. I wished his son good luck in his chosen professions. Another was a retired professor from MIT, who stood there for a good fifteen minutes with a copy in his hand, turning it over and over as if expecting to see something different on the cover each time. Towards the end his wife was calling impatiently for him to get a move on. He told me he had taught a course on Western Civilizations and then engaged me in conversation, gently quizzing me to see whether I had some idea what I claimed to be talking about. I must have convinced him. It is extraordinarily pleasant, to hand over a small bundle of paper and ink, representing seven years or so of one’s life’s work, to a perfect stranger in exchange for money! Especially when the transaction is accompanied by conversation and smiles. So I’ll be there on Sunday, smiling and ready to converse, and I hope you will, too. If you’ve already got a copy of my book, and don’t need to buy any for gifts, you can always stop by, say hello, and pick up a samosa.  And some moussaka. You’ll have to pay for the moussaka, though.

Irene, Part Four

September 16th, 2011

In Waterbury, After Irene

1.

I saw what flickered in the young mother’s face –
she was not going to cry, at least not right away –
amid a cluster of kids head-droopingly bored but
too anxious to wander and anyway forbidden.
The former volunteer fireman pleaded with her
not to let the work crew back in her basement
until fans had been placed to dispel the fumes.
Like me, he’d just walked by, looking to help.
A teenage crew member said to me, “But oil
don’t burn.”  I said, “You drop a match in a bucket
of oil and it’ll go out.  It’s fumes that burn.
You don’t want to come out of there in flames.”
They’d been hacking up shelving and hauling it out,
having fun with sawzalls.  I took the pieces and
wheelbarrowed them over to the dumpster, dull
green plank chunks dusted with golden sawdust
flecks that had stuck in the flood’s residual slime.

2.

At a house not far from there, I saw a man
attack with vicious blows of a framing hammer the
underlayment in what had been his kitchen.
We’d scraped loose the vinyl tiles, tossed them
into heavy duty plastic bags, and
humped them out to the dumpster, past the mound of
grey, crumbled drywall, pink fluffs of
fiberglass, dismantled cabinets, shards of
wainscoting taking up the whole front yard and
growing sodden there. Whoever had tacked that
plywood down, had not spared the nails.  Our little
prybars and catspaws groaned it up slowly.  It bent,
its stiffness soaked away, without the strength to
overcome the flooring boards’ swollen grip.
Wordlessly, he picked up the claw and went at it,
splintering, splitting, smashing, swift and ferocious.
I stood back.  His father said, “I told the
builder, build it like you were going to live here.”

3.

I saw the house’s innards, the hues of road kill,
grey and pink and brown on the lawn in the rain.
We loaded a plastic tub and the working wheelbarrow
handful by leather-gloved handful, globs of wallboard
decomposing to gypsum and paper, spears of
lath and molding spiked with nails, drawer parts,
shelving paper checkered blue and white,
clots of insulation the color of sunsets.
Trudging back and forth a couple of hours,
having reduced the pile perhaps by half,
we’d paused to catch our breath when someone vaguely
known to the family drove up in his bright blue
bucket loader.  Soon he’d scooped the yard clear.
No one regretted our efforts, though they’d been useless.
A few blades of grass streaked the mud,
all lying in one direction, like a comb-over.
“I think you’re going to have to reseed,” I said.

Irene, Part Three

September 13th, 2011

The call finally came on Tuesday, at a little past noon.  The lawyer who manages my work unit told me that we would be allowed into our offices briefly at 1:00, to retrieve files and other items.  Although my office was on the second floor, thus presumably safe from the water, it was good to have it confirmed that it still contained files and other items which could be retrieved.

Waterbury was an odd place, Tuesday afternoon, but not in any way I had expected.  The water had receded back within the river’s banks, just barely, but cleanup hardly had begun, so there were few obvious signs of yesterday’s inundation.  Buildings’ insides mostly were still inside them.  Entering town from I-89, I looked down the embankment to my left, into a trailer park.  I saw a man without a shirt on, standing in the open among the trailers, and some other people moving slowly about on

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Irene, Part Two

September 10th, 2011

Monday was a beautiful day, bright and clear, moderate temperatures, mildly breezy, just enough humidity to soften the air with none of the oppressive moistness that had led up to the storm.  I woke up, as usual for a workday, at 6:00 a.m. to drive my son to his job in Williston.  Then, instead of continuing on to Waterbury, I returned home, expecting a couple of hours of pleasant leisure before I had to be at the office.  It had been announced the night before that State offices would not open until 10:00 today.  After pulling into my driveway, I braced upright the trellis my beans were growing on, which had blown over Sunday afternoon.  I’d lost one bean vine, its leaves already withering and drooping, but the others looked intact.  I noted that my jalapenos were ripening, beginning to turn a fire engine red.  Then, repairs from Tropical Storm Irene completed at the Steinzor residence, I went in to turn on the computer, to look for the situation update the State had promised would appear on its website at 7:30.

My first inkling that we’d had anything more than a heavy rain storm came when I opened up Vermont.gov and discovered that I, together with all other state employees stationed in Waterbury and Montpelier, was instructed to stay home unless specifically called in to work by a supervisor.  I carried my cell phone with me all day, but the call, not particularly expected, didn’t come.

All day long, listening to the radio, checking email and facebook frequently, the dimensions of what was happening trickled into my awareness.  A friend emailed me from Florida to find out if I was alright.  The irony wasn’t lost on him, of someone in Ft. Myers checking whether a friend in Vermont had been spared by a hurricane.  This and enquiries from relatives in other parts of the country alerted me to Vermont’s unusual status as the national media’s disaster du jour.  I haven’t watched a television newscast in decades, having decided long ago that teevee news isn’t a reliable source of information regarding anything I care about.  Learning indirectly that the national media was scaring people unnecessarily did nothing to change that opinion.  It merely heightened the surreality I was beginning to experience.  People were calling to to find out if I was alright.  The sun was shining, the basement was dry.  My biggest dilemma was whether to eat a bowl of soup for lunch, or the leftover chicken curry.

Later in the day, I walked down to Church Street and enjoyed an herbal iced tea at Uncommon Grounds, sitting at an outside table and people-watching.  Church Street was crowded with college students coming back to school, their parents, tourists, and probably not a few off-duty state employees like me.  Everything was bright and clean and unbelievably normal.  We had been told not to venture out on the roads.  I felt isolated, stuck in a strange bubble on another planet impassably distant from the “real” world, and from the world at large.  The airport was the only way out.  Now, for a person living in Chittenden County, a certain sense of disconnectedness from the rest of the state is ordinary.  As the joke goes, the nicest thing about living in Burlington is that you are so close to Vermont.  But now we could not go there.  Despite the tragedy unfolding only fifteen minutes’ drive away, we could not touch it, any more than it could touch us.

Part of the ache was my intimacy with Waterbury.  I have worked there for well over a decade.  That means, for well over a decade the majority of my waking hours have been spent either in Waterbury, or on my way to or from there.  I have grown to love the place, nestled in a bowl in the Green Mountains formed by a wide spot in the Winooski River valley; the homely, serviceable, extensive, architecturally peculiar state office complex, a hundred year old maze which once upon a time housed 1500 mental patients and where much of state government now resided.  Setting aside the obvious jokes based on the complex’s history, it was a humbler, sleeves-rolled-up counterpart to the neck-tied self importance of capitol city Montpelier.  If Montpelier is where the laws are made, Waterbury was where they were brought into contact with people’s lives.  It had a really good Chinese takeout restaurant, and the Park Row Cafe, and Vermont Liberty Tea Company where you could buy high quality teas from all over the world, and Bridgeside Books, my favorite bookstore – off whose shelves To Join the Lost first found its way into the hands of someone I did not know – and a corn field right behind the state office complex and the river right behind that, and a 3.2 mile looping trail you could walk during the lunch hour that took you between the corn field and the river, through a  cemetery, over a bridge, down a dirt road along the river, over another bridge, and back to your office, all in view of the rounded green hills.  Now all this was in jeopardy, and I couldn’t be there, couldn’t witness, couldn’t help.

Irene, Part One

September 4th, 2011

I’ve been through three hurricanes.  Well, technically, except for the first one, they had stopped being hurricanes by the time their paths crossed mine.

I met the first one in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.  The year was 1967 and I was fifteen, a passenger on the S.S. Constitution en route with my family to a year in Europe.  The ship was one year older than me.  We skirted a late summer storm which perhaps presaged that year’s coming turbulence of assassinations, riots, and war.  Of the hundreds of passengers aboard, my father and I, devoted trenchermen both, were almost the only ones to appear in the dining room that night.  Spaghetti carbonara.  Rain, wind, and ceaseless, extravagant motion.  Sleep soon after dinner, because it was the only thing to do.

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Bigger than life means dead

August 24th, 2011

I recently participated in a Facebook discussion about the new Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial.  The press clipping that sparked the discussion said that critics of the memorial are upset because it depicts King in a sombre, confrontational stance, and because it was done by a sculptor from China.  The reported criticism seems absurd to me.  It is a curious mythology that would recall King as a nonconfrontational figure.  On the other hand, I think MLK might have had some trouble wrapping his mind around the idea of a 30 foot tall statue of himself on a 4 acre plaza. I don’t think he would have much cared what country the perpetrator was from.

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Bare Nekkid Boys

May 15th, 2011

A recent encounter with high school memories has me thinking about the sexual culture of hell.  In Dante’s Inferno, souls are punished for sex out of wedlock and for sex with taboo partners.  In To Join the Lost, seven hundred years later, the picture has evolved.  In place of the “sexually incontinent,” we find sexual predators.  Instead of damnation for being gay, people condemn themselves to suffering for denial.

These thoughts come to you courtesy of the Facebook group for alumni of Kenmore West Senior High School, my alma mater.  A lot of comment there the past few days has been sparked by the recollection that, in the late sixties and seventies, gym teachers required boys to swim naked in the pool.

The immediate reaction of many, of course, is “eeuw!”  Where were the parents?  Where were the authorities?  What were they thinking?  Imagine anything like that happening today!  At least one commenter has used the word “pedophile,” and there has been talk of lawsuits.

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