Thanksgiving Memories of Martins Ferry

So much, maybe everything, is lost in translation–
those tiny steps we take between heartbeats
Like the steps I’ve taken backward and forward on holidays
in those worn out shoes I wear on special occasions only–
trying to remember myself, and Martins Ferry–
that place this life remembers as its beginning, and
that place I loath and love like some hopelessly confused clown
dancing in the headlights of strangers’ cars–
cars running over my dreams
which know no way to die on their own

We forget it’s all an illusion–
every last blink of experience
flowing into and out of us
like some forgotten river–
maybe the Ohio, and
then again maybe not

Martins Ferry clings to me–
some terribly worn, out of style suit of clothes–
in synch with my special shoes, but painfully dull and empty
like the now abandoned house on Indiana Street
where my winter dreams began in the warm family room
where a short-needled Christmas tree stood every year–
the same corner where I cried in quiet desperation
hoping a dream would some day carry me far away

Now I want to go back–
this time by choice to wear those shoes and that suit
Something tugs at my heart on Thanksgiving and Christmas
Making even the sadness and loneliness look good
Just one more time to sit on the family room floor
and play with my toys
while Mom and Dad argue in the kitchen about money, relatives
and so many other empty things filling life–
things that are also part of love

December Reminiscences

Sometimes I wish I could go back
To my younger years
When magic walked the Earth
And all destiny rested in my dreams

Dreams that went beyond what was
To new untouched places
By me, you, anyone
Places deep inside our then tender hearts

Things weren’t particularly easy
Plenty of struggles with reality
But you felt what love was
Never more than a hug away

Things meant something back then
For their own sake, it seemed
Not because they helped you do anything
Or be anybody

Back then, dreams could overtake you
Grab you up in their big arms
Hug you like a bear
Shake you to life

We laughed and cried
Because they were the right things to do
Joy, as simple as a shiny red apple
Pain, just tiny scratches on a mountain

If you wished hard enough
Any day could be Christmas
Daily experiences outnumbered memories
So many lingering sweet first kisses

Days and nights were playmates
Not irreconcilable opposites or indecipherable dialectics
You said your prayers each night
You woke up happy in the morning

I go back once in a while
More and more as I grow older
And as life and death become equal partners
And goals give way to just being

A Special Christmas in 1958

I was seven
Though big for my age
Still believed in Santa Claus
That wizardly wise, white-bearded jovial old man
Gifting the world each Christmas
With toys, candy-filled stockings, other things
Of which childhood dreams are made

We lived at 919 Indiana Street
In Martins Ferry, O-hi-o
A large two-story tan and gray house
With an old coal furnace
Warding off winter’s frigid bite
Belching smoke and soot
All about the snow-covered roof and yard

Christmas fell on a Thursday in 1958
So Santa made his long-awaited visit
On a Wednesday night
Prayer meeting night, as we knew it in my family
A special late night candlelight service was held
Honoring the Christ Child’s birth
That went on well past 11 PM

I was deathly afraid Santa would skip our house
On this particular Christmas Eve in 1958
For Dad’s blue ’52 Ford wouldn’t start
In the cold, snowy, now empty church parking lot
The old V-8 refused to turn over
That onerous clicking sound
Only a dead battery can make

My sister Diana howled in tears
The very thought we’d miss Christmas
Mom mad as a hornet
So many loose ends to tie before Christmas morn
Dad’s frustration showed in his face and hands
His dark hair blown in all directions
By the blustery winter wind

At precisely twelve midnight
Dad proclaimed we must walk home
Back then, no cell phones to call a friend
And so we did
We walked and walked
One dark street to another
All good children fast asleep in their beds

At first I thought I was hallucinating
The sound of sleigh bells
Bright lights coming directly our way
Mom exclaimed it was an apparition
A sign surely we’d die this unbearably cold Christmas Eve
Dad hushed us to be quiet
Look past our fear, see reality he said

No sooner had our outbursts stopped
When a horse-drawn sleigh pulled to the curb
A tiny little man, no more than five feet tall
Descended the sleigh, calling out to us “Merry Christmas”
I watched the two large horses’ frozen breath
Spout from their large flared nostrils
As Dad talked with the strange little man

Then with a single motion of his hand
The little man waved us all into the sleigh
Where a heavy burlap blanket awaited us
Which we promptly pulled over our heads
The little man, it turns out, a widower
No children to his name
Asked us to call him “just one of Santa’s friends”

I peeked from under the blanket
Catching an occasional word or two
That either Dad or the little man said
One thing I remember was their talk about real gifts
Those one man gives to another
No expectation of anything in return
All for the joy of just giving

Fifteen minutes later
The sleigh pulled up to our house
Our tree lights still shining in the front window
The neighbor’s cat perched on our front porch
Dad tried to give the man some money
He refused, saying give it to someone in need
Someone who needs the money

As Dad opened our front door
I watched the magical sleigh drive away
And as I fell fast sleep that Christmas Eve
The little man, his horses, and the sleigh bells
Danced through my head
Somehow I knew, deep down inside
I had already been given my best Christmas present

Meeting James Wright at Dutch Henry’s Bar in Martins Ferry

finally met up with him, one blustery cold friday night
saw him, sitting at the far end of the bar
hunched over a blue spiral-bound notebook
his right hand, like a machine gun
shooting words onto a shadowy white page

the only other time i’d been to dutch henry’s
was with uncle hank when i was eight
as my uncle pushed open the front door
he cautioned me: never bring a lady here
didn’t ask him why
but after my maiden visit
i knew exactly what he meant

i felt so important
just sitting on a bar stool next to my uncle
drinking a coke through a straw
listening in on his conversation with the two burly men
whose massive sandpaper rough hands swallowed mine
when we shook hands
somehow i knew one would ruffle my curly black hair
before our visit was over
jake, the taller fellow, did just that
not once, but twice

i never knew my uncle laughed so much

james looked older than i remembered
from his black and white celebrity photos
but i still recognized him
his heavy, black-rimmed glasses, were a dead giveaway
a balding portly man
his gut hung, like a small pouch of dough, over his belt

i reached him at the end of the bar
just as his left hand grasped the neck of his beer bottle
without letting go of his beer, and
only barely moving his torso
he swung his right arm around
extending his writing hand to me
managing just a hint of a smile
he said with a slight lilt “don, i presume. i’m james wright.”

his hand was soft and warm
i thought it would be rough and cold
from the hard life he had lived
it wasn’t till much later
i saw the thick writing callous on his middle finger
mine was negligible compared to his
but then, so is my poetry

he chugged the remains of his beer
we ordered another round
as i sat down next to him
i strained to read what he was writing
but his handwriting and the darkness prevented me
from making out even a single word
he didn’t offer, i didn’t ask

he asked when i had left martins ferry, and why
it was the why part he was after
i wanted to move on, talk about writing
and what it’s like once your poetry ends
why i left no longer mattered, but
why both of us returned, just for this visit, did
we both knew more than our poetry carried us away
from this near dead steel town along the ohio river

james made me feel like a mirror
allowing him to see himself
at first, i felt like some hyperbole to him
then i realized…
dead men can’t see themselves
then i understood why i was sitting
in the town’s dingiest bar, talking
with the ghost of martins ferry’s poet son

like james wright
i had seen autumn begin in martins ferry in 1963
he was long gone from this place
and well on his way to infamy
i was still there (here)
an aspiring player, galloping terribly against other young men’s bodies
on shreve high school football field

back then, every night i went to bed
dreaming about becoming somebody important
hoping to escape the choking smoke of the mills
and someday make a difference in the world
here i am 44 years later, literally dreaming
about meeting a dead poet in a bar
locals would remember far longer
than their town’s poet laureate

isn’t it odd how dreams and reality stare back at each other
not only in poetry
but also in fanciful meetings with long-gone poets?


Author’s Note: Like the poet James Wright, I grew up in
Martins Ferry, Ohio. Wright died in 1980. Dutch Henry’s
is still serving drinks, and it’s still not someplace you
should take a lady. Someday I plan to sit at the end of the bar
and write a poem.