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

The Sweet Smell of Life

Sometimes we try too hard
To be something more, or different than we are

In our haste to grow up
We grow old before our time

We lose track of ourselves–
Our real reason for being

Sometimes it takes an unexpected reminder
To make us realize
We are who we are
And the more we fight that
Our spirit dies

As a boy, baseball was important to me
In part, because Dad enjoyed it
But also because baseball is life–
Running bases, trying to get home safe

A couple years ago
My younger brother Doug helped me reconnect with something
I had lost some fifty years ago–
My Gus Bell-autographed MacGregor baseball glove
My first, the only one I really loved

Tears filled my eyes
When I opened the box
And saw it lying folded over–
Just as I left it so many years ago

My first instinct was to smell the leather
Its sweet scent reignited memories
Of the forever dusty baseball field in Martins Ferry
Early morning practices
Anxious game days
So much more

It changed me
Not baseball, or the glove
Not even my brother’s thoughtfulness
But the sweet smell of life

Thinking of Martins Ferry and James Wright on St. Paddy’s Day

Funny what we remember
When we’ve had too many snoots
More than our share
At Dutch Henry’s Bar in Martins Ferry

Not the kind of place Zagat’s would ever rate
Let alone a place you’d tell your mother about
Unless of course, you grew up in Martins Ferry
Where James Wright and I were born

James is gone, now thirty years, can you believe it?
So it’s entirely up to me
To tell the story my own way
But certainly, in a way James would approve

Dutch Henry’s was a working man’s bar
A place steelworkers and coal miners drank
And brewed stories they hoped
Would set straight their broken, exasperated lives

It was also a place they bragged
Even about their overweight intellectual sons
Who’d never survive a Friday night in autumn in Martins Ferry
Where all that mattered was Purple Rider football

James never spoke above a whisper at Dutch Henry’s
He knew the pain one drunk could impose on another
Without remorse, or even the slightest regard
For poetry, Plato, or even uselessly expensive Scotch

Nothing very special about the place
Other than the exceedingly ordinary people there
Who removed their masks once in a while
And played themselves in real life

Only twice did I overlap with James Wright at Dutch Henry’s
Both times his smile out-lasted mine
And both times, he drank me under the table
In long beers, bruising shots, and unrehearsed words

I was no match for Martins Ferry’s first poet son
Yes, Minnegan’s faithful eulogist
Martins Ferry’s best-ever poet, and a man
Whose silence will always speak louder than my best words

Yet Another New Christmas

Narcissism, so very hard to digest
Deep intrapersonal indigestion
For all seeking its source
That is the place
It all comes from
Yes where we all begin again

Every once in a while
We must go home
Could be Martins Ferry
Maybe East Cleveland
A place where all unraveling ends
And all beginnings start again

A new Christmas is here
A time for introspection
Exploring the inner depths
Infinite light and dark places
We’ve either been
Or dream about on such special nights

Two days before this Christmas
My heart is still stirring
So many vibrations filling the house
I must look in the mirror
And there find myself staring
In a dark suit of clothes, not truth I am wearing

Easier times behind us lie
I sit in bed and sometimes cry
Last log on the fire
Watch it burning
Life inside me
Forever churning

A new Christmas has finally come
A destination of hope
Ever deep repining
And so back in the magical mirror I glance
Hoping to see
God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost

Doing My Christmas Shopping in Martins Ferry One Week Before Christmas in 1958

Once again thinking back
Christmastime Martins Ferry
Shopping list inside my gray wool mitten
Trudging through virgin white knee-deep snow

The walk uptown
Past Teare’s Drug, the rowdy Antler Bar
Finally down South Fourth Street
Woolworths, the Fenray Theatre

Emptying my Christmas Club account
All seven dollars and nine cents
At the old Citizen’s Bank
Just north of Isaly’s, best ice cream in town

In 1958, seven bucks bought a lot
Presents for Mom, Dad, my sister, both grandmas
Magically, the right gifts always appeared
With at least a dollar to spare

Arms full, the walk home
Along South Fifth Street
But first a stop in the library
Then a browse of candy at Tidbit’s

The snow started again
A week till Christmas
I hoped, prayed it would last
Ensuring Santa’s on time arrival

Boys Climbing Trees

Click here to hear me read this poem.

Some things always remain a part of you
Like when you were seven
And shinnied up your first tree
Like some starved Colobus monkey
In search of tenderoni leaves for lunch

Sooner or later, every boy climbs a tree
A rite of passage to manhood
Maybe to see the world from a higher place
Or just because the tree was there
Teasing you silly in the hot mid-morning sun

My first a massive sprawling oak
Jutting out our weedy backyard
Into the red brick alley
Where wood frame garages and steel garbage cans danced
On howling winter nights

I climbed high way up
To the big “y”
Where I perched for nearly five minutes
While my friends below
Proclaimed me a hero

While half the tree remained unexplored territory
I reveled in my accomplishment
Tomorrow was another day
A chance to climb higher
Seeing even more of the world’s vastness

Once the neighbor’s cat, chased by a maniac dog
Darted up the big oak, climbing too far too fast
The fire department was called
To retrieve the terrorized calico
From the high branches

We boys gathered to watch the rescue
Lasting twenty long minutes
Because the cat wouldn’t budge
Till assured its canine assailant was clearly gone
And control of the world returned to the cats

Somehow you just knew
That 1958 would always be
A watershed year in your life
Preparing you for higher climbs
Bigger life adventures ahead

Memories of a Dear Uncle

Stoney
The name of a man
I never knew growing up
But Uncle Hank talked about nonstop
Like some freight train
Coming and going
Without scheduled stops, and
Most importantly, without even a destination

I was curious–about Stoney, my Uncle Hank
And of course what came before all curiosity
Something deeper
Taking us to the ocean’s bottom
Something today that still keeps me up
Well past midnight
Well past all memories

I think of the Antler’s
So many years later
A bar, a place where working men hung out
And dreamed about something larger
Than the lives they lived
The woman they married
The children they fathered
Brought into the world
Like cold rain on some nondescript Sunday night
After seeing their mother
In that hideous, souring smell nursing home
That even death avoided
Till the very last moment

Stoney doesn’t matter
Not now
He’s long gone
He was just a reason
For my uncle to dream
Past the reality he lived
My uncle, childless
Wished for his own
But none came
A man who dropped dimes, and sometimes quarters
Into our sweaty palms
As we stood on the porch
And waved goodbye
Before he walked slowly up the street–
The same street we played on
The same street my uncle died on
And the same street I left
Moving on beyond the dimes and quarters
To some place else
Some place now
Where time grows short
Walking much faster than my long gone uncle
Who now plays with Stoney
In the side yard of grandma’s house
A place I desperately try to remember