From the cradle (of American literature) to the grave

I love visiting the place, even though it’s always really dead. I’m talking about the venerable Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Mass., and specifically the section called Author’s Ridge.

Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Alcotts (including Bronson and Louisa May) are all buried in graves so close to each other (Hawthorne’s right across the path from Henry; the Alcotts are a few steps down from the Thoreaus; Emerson’s a little farther down the lane but still nearby) that they can chat to their transcendent hearts’  content without ever having to raise their voices (Keep it down, Alcott and Emerson…your neighbors are trying to get some eternal sleep!).

Here’s (Ralph) Waldo (Emerson):

And here are the graves of Thoreau and Louisa May Alcott:

It still absolutely amazes me — I’m filled with awe, truly — to realize that the earthly remains of the authors of “The Scarlet Letter,” “Walden” and “The American Scholar” are all within a few hundred feet of each other. Even more thought-provoking for me: Emerson and Thoreau themselves trod that shady path when they were among the quick, Emerson to speak at the dedication of the cemetery when it opened and Thoreau for the burials of his parents. I stand there and I’m quite possibly standing in the very footprints of two literary gods.

A final note about these grave matters: Thoreau and Emerson are both buried in family plots. Henry’s modest marker is small and low to the ground. The inscription says “Henry.” Emerson’s grave is marked by that huge marble boulder, with his name in big letters and a quotation from one of his poems:

THE PASSIVE MASTER LENT HIS HAND
TO THE VAST SOUL THAT O’ER HIM PLANNED

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Rain

Two photos I took along the Merrimack River in Lowell, Mass., as a dark storm approached at about 9 in the morning….and the song I thought of as I dashed into my car and took shelter from the deluge.

 

The haiku bird

In one part of my life there was a blue heron, which now soars silently through my mind, like a dream without sounds, a wordless vision, just power and grace and surprise bordering on miraculous: how could such a creature, so brilliantly beautiful yet so mindlessly violent, exist in such a place as a small and peaceful New England pond?  I saw that heron only once, maybe twice. I  have a beautiful photo of the bird, taken as it stepped with stealth through the shallows then stood stock-still in the grasses. The photo has the look of an old National Geographic Kodachrome of a Japanese mediation garden. The bird itself looks somehow like a haiku.

Lately, though, the wonder of seeing the bird seems less rare. I’ve recently seen other blue herons flying and landing along the banks of the Merrimack River in northeastern Massachusetts. Several times I’ve watched herons strut jerkily on their spindly legs along the trash-strewn weedy banks of the old industrial canals in Lowell, Mass., then suddenly soar into the sky and wing westward toward the  river.

Two days ago, I looked out the window of my apartment in one of Lowell’s retrofitted  old mills  — and, lo and behold, there was a heron sitting quietly and basking in the morning sun (or perhaps on the lookout for a fish breakfast). Above is the  grainy photo I took with my iPhone as the heron sat on some sort of boom or barrier that floats in the canal.

The heron soon flew away, leaving behind thoughts of fleeting flashing beauty, of thin and flimsy dreams, of miracles debunked, of dreams with no sounds and of visions beyond speaking, of love and life which fly away like herons heading home to the river.

Big blue heron flies/then alights by the river/Dried-up dreams adrift

It’s nearly Spring –“Rip” ends his winter slumber

Set your alarm clocks for Thursday, March 22, at 7 p.m.

After slipping into some sort of slumber since I did a reading and book-signing in January at the public library in Tarrytown, N.Y., hometown of Washington Irving himself, “Rip” and its author will be back in “circulation” this week at the Pollard Memorial Library, 401 Merrimack Street,  in Lowell, Mass.

The free event begins at 7 and should last until about 8 p.m. I’ll talk a bit about my longtime affection for Washington Irving’s writing, I’ll chat a little about how I came to write my modern-day parody of “Rip Van Winkle,” I’ll read sample chapters from the book, I’ll take questions from the audience, and I’ll sign copies of the book, which will be available for purchase at the event. (I might also have something to say about Lowell native Jack Kerouac — his presence still permeates this gritty city, which just spent a couple of weeks celebrating what would have been the great writer’s 90th birthday).

I hope you’ll try to make it — that you’ll bring a friend (or friends) — and that you’ll help spread the word by passing this around to anyone and everyone within range of Lowell who you think might enjoy the book and the reading.

Here’s what the library’s website saying about the event:

The Pollard is excited to welcome local author Nicholas DiGiovanni to read from his novella “Rip”. Imagine Washington Irving sitting down for a friendly drink and spinning yarns with Kurt Vonnegut and Thomas Pynchon, and you’ll get an idea of the flavor of “Rip,” DiGiovanni’s satirical retelling of Irving’s venerable story about ne’er-do-well Rip van Winkle. DiGiovanni brings Rip van Winkle into the Sixties, finds him gainful employment as a toll-taker on the Tappan Zee Bridge, and makes his long suffering wife a charter member in the feminist movement just starting to sweep the country. There’s a lot more packed into this story, but you’ll just have to read it for yourself. Suffice to say that once you’re done, you’ll understand why novelist Christian Bauman (In Hoboken, The Ice Beneath You) calls DiGiovanni “a master storyteller.” So come on down to this free reading and get your copy of Rip signed by the author.

Here are directions to the library:

Take I-95 or Route 3 to the Lowell Connector. Take exit 5B to merge onto 3A N/Thorndike Street. Continue on Thorndike Street as it changes to Dutton Street. Turn left onto Market St. Turn right on Cardinal O’Connell Parkway. Turn left onto Merrimack Street. Library will be on the right—a large granite building with “Memorial Hall” etched in the side. The library is next door to City Hall, another large granite building with a clock tower.

Here’s information about parking (note that if you parked in a metered space outside the library, you don’t have to pay after 6 p.m.):

The library has a free 2-hour parking lot on the corner of Moody and Colburn St. To access this lot, head north up Merrimack Street past the Library, turn right onto Cabot Street. Then turn right onto Moody Street. Follow Moody Street all the way back down to the library. The lot is on the corner as Moody turns onto Colburn Street (across from the Lowell Fire Station). There is handicapped parking on Merrimack Street in front of the library. There is also on-street metered/kiosk parking available around the library. Meter/kiosk parking fees are in effect 8am-6pm Monday-Saturday.

The meeting room where I’ll be reading is on the Moody Street/Coburn Street side of the building, the entrance right across the street from the library parking lot. If you enter through the front door, just head to the main desk and they’ll direct you to where I’m reading.

Thanks! I’ll be hoping to see a lot of friends, old and new, at Lowell’s Pollard Memorial Library on Thursday evening!

At Kerouac’s grave

Jack Kerouac's grave at Edson Cemetery, Lowell, Mass.

“He honored life…”

But have the living given proper honor to Jack Kerouac, America’s one true spokesman, who plumbed the deepest depths of sorrow and climbed to the highest ledge of beauty and joy?

His grave at Edson Cemetery in Lowell, Massachusetts, is marked with a simple slab with the above inscription, the names of the names of the grave’s two tenants — John L. Kerouac, “Ti Jean,” and his third wife Stella Sampas, and their dates of birth and death. Nearby are the graves of Stella’s mother, father and brother.

Pilgrims to Kerouac’s grave leave tokens and talismans — piles of pebbles, beer bottles, cigarettes, spare change and ballpoint pens.

Lowell does its best to remember its native son — there’s an annual Kerouac festival and even a Kerouac park with stone monuments engraved with quotes from his prose and poems.

And people abound who can point out the Catholic church and Catholic school he attended in the city, who can talk knowingly about his brief stint as a sports reporter for the Lowell Sun, and even folks who can point you to the bars where Jack used to drink — and oldtimers who actually drank with Jack (or at least say they did).

But stand at Kerouac’s grave on a cold day in January as the wind rushes off the Merrimack River and stirs the brown grasses and dry leaves. The winter sun lays low in the sky. It casts a certain slant of light. The light has the heft of cathedral tunes.

Kerouac’s grave is just one of thousands in the sprawling cemetery. They’re all just as dead. Their bones are all just as bleached and brittle. Their names and dates will erode and fade from their stones — and so will Jack Kerouac’s, despite the pebbles and bottles and cigarettes and change.

Standing at this holy tragic place I hear the rattle of bones and the riddles of life. And I hear Jack Kerouac speaking, his words pouring out, his words slurred by dharma and drink:
“Love is all.”
“Happiness consists in realizing it is all a great strange dream.”
“It all ends in tears anyway.”
“Something good will come of all things yet.”

Pilgrims, hear those words, and say them like a prayer, when you stand at Kerouac’s grave.

The bridge

Here’s something I wrote last week, inspired by a span in the Massachusetts Berkshires called the French King Bridge. Somehow a couple of glasses of cheap merlot told my mind and memory that it was called the King Philip Bridge…Anyway…the poem’s not good…it may be awful…but I want to post it anyway…it’s sort of a historical document. N.B. One reader of the poem speculated that the narrator (and hence, perhaps, the writer) was contemplating “taking the plunge” and my answer was no, not literally, for both the speaker of the poem and its writer have a terrible fear of heights…so, not literally, but maybe symbolically and maybe figuratively…do not be afraid…

The Bridge
I believe
it might be called
King Philip Bridge
although the name
doesn’t matter
except it’s got a name
that’s regal
and she told me
she had stopped there once
when police were searching
for two people
who had jumped
to their future off
this majestic bridge
and now she had stopped
on her way here
and had taken such photos
such beautiful photos
that she cited Ansel Adams
and I thought not nearly so
but told her yes
I could see it
could see what she meant
and it was no lie
and I’m thinking amid the beauty
and the karma and the zen
where did those poor souls go
there was irony that day and night
that day I’d asked her to let me know
if she had arrived safely
and she’d said no
but then she did
she let me know
that she was alright
and more irony that night
on the night when night
became the darkest night
that young girl came with me
to Zen and to Karma
and one human being
was kept alive thereby
for at least one more day
and perhaps one night

or was this in my mind
i think it was in my mind
perhaps it’s only
in my mind

the bridge was named I believe
after an Native American chief
that sort of king
a redskinned king
not a paleface king
a king with no castle
defeated
without a home
a real king

such beauty yes I saw it
in her photographs
but also
as I drove two weekends past
to Boston on the pretence
of seeing old friends
but really to see her
and I thought of her as I drove
along the Mohawk trail
and over that bridge of beauty
that bridge of sorrow too
with its white granite towers

and i think that perhaps
her photos and the driving
and the talk of poor people
who took the plunge
to who knows where

the talk of how she stood
so high and on slippery walks
in order to snap and snare
such beauty that Ansel
would answer YES this is it
that somehow this YES
that this witnessed
beauty
helped
form these words

So today I’ll seek
that haunted span
and overcome my fear of heights
and plumb the depths of sorrow
and look way down
and look far up
because love gasps
and love grasps
and love drowns
in that place where current
runs deep
where current runs strong
and helicopters hover
and wait at the gate
for when the next knave
knocks upon love’s
topaz door
and seeks
guidance
from love’s
compass
needle

Ballad of the sad cafe

She’s a waitress in a small cafe in a tiny New England town. Could she possibly know what a big difference she made this morning? Might she somehow sense that she quite possibly changed the course of history? That she might have made the universe tilt on its axis? That she quite possibly altered the trajectory of time? That she, at the very least, probably saved my day?

Let’s try to describe her. She was wearing a wedding ring. She was about…I don’t know how old she is…let’s say she looks young…or at least younger than her age…maybe she’ll read this…maybe that will make her feel good…she is not tall…she has a nice smile and displays it easily and often..she has short dark hair….she has nice eyes but I don’t even know the color…that is all I remember…I wasn’t focused on how she looked…

She smiled easily when she leaned across the table and took my order. She spoke with a gentle tone when she asked later if I wanted more coffee…she laughed a soft laugh when I replied “Not quite yet but pretty damned soon…It’s a two-cup morning…” She saw me looking at her one last time as I walked out the door…hoping to catch her eye so she would know that I had noticed her and had appreciated her kind way…and, indeed, her eyes followed me as I walked out the door…I think she knew we had made a human connection…transient, mutable, ephemeral and wispy as it might be…nothing to do with love or passion….she’s got a wedding ring and I’ve got a heart still laden and loaded with love…No, it was just that we had noticed each other…we had been nice to each other…she had poured me an extra cup of coffee…she had smiled goodbye as I walked out the door…she had made note of my departure…It feels good to be noticed…it means we exist…

It’s another cold night in New England…the wind yowls and howls..it shakes the windows and rattles the walls… I’m actually sitting in what might pass for a cold and bare and gloomy garrett just like the ones in melodramatic novels in which the characters have names like Heathcliff and Rochester…

I wish that waitress could read what I’ve just written…just so she could know that her gentle way…her oh-so-obvious inner peace…her aura…her vibe…that they’re important…they’re worthwhile…that they make a difference…you’re a waitress working hard in a small town cafe…but you’re able to make the world spin faster…or slower..scrambled eggs…English muffin…two cups of coffee…it must get so redundant and dull…but the world is at your command…