The Good Father

This poem was the first one I wrote for Sam Cornish’s poetry workshop at the Boston Public Library several years ago. The following fall, Sam called me up to the front of the room after class had ended  and told me he had submitted “The Good Father” to a juried contest and that it had been chosen for a month-long exhibit at Boston City Hall.

This is the kind of teacher Sam was–generous, encouraging, and always pushing his students to publish and share their work. The poem was later accepted for publication in Grey Sparrow Journal in 2015.

The Good Father

The good father fell asleep on Saturdays
stretched out long on the couch.
Or he hoisted me onto his shoulders
or carried me into the ocean,
keeping a firm grip on me

The good father took me to church
let me play with my white prayer book
with the gold cross hidden in a place inside the cover.

He pointed to the altar in front
when the three bells rang
and the priest held the white circle bread high.

The good father slept in the big bed
on the white sheets with dark blue lines at the edges.
He lay next to my mother, slender, dark-eyed, pale.
Laughter came from their room at night,
and whispers that lulled me to sleep.

He drove us to Florida in the car with three pedals on the floor.
I tried to stand up in the back all the way to Virginia.
Dirty water came out of the hotel’s faucet in Charleston.
We heard the train whistle all night.

He brought me a Charlie McCarthy doll
so I could talk to everyone and not be so shy.
He smelled of aftershave and orange bath soap.
I traced the scar on his forehead with my small hand.

And later, the sad father came to be in our house.
He wore a heavy brace on his leg.
A black steel bar ran up the side of the boot.
He walked with a wooden cane.
Bottles of pills filled the medicine chest.

He was early to bed.
We had to be quiet then.

 

A Tribute to Baltimore-born poet, the late Sam Cornish

Sam Cornish (1935-2018), Poet Laureate of Boston from 2008-2015, was born and raised in Baltimore, but spent most of his later life in Boston.   Through his teaching at Emerson College, his poetry workshops at the Boston Public Library and other venues, and his ability to be seemingly everywhere where poetry of the people was shared and heard and spoken, Sam was a force of poetry. He encouraged novice writers and journeymenandwomen alike to write and to speak their truth through poetry.

Last Sunday, many of his former colleagues, students and poetry mentees gathered  at New England Mobile Book Fair.  Sam had spent much of his time at the bookstore’s old location helping generations of patrons locate just the books they were on a quest for–often in the vast remainder book section of that book  warehouse of yore.  Six months after his death, we  celebrated his life and work, and the profound influence he had on all of us.

Enormous gratitude to Somerville poet and editor Doug Holder for publishing my poem on  his blog and next week, in the print edition of The Somerville News, whose tagline is “Somerville’s Most Widely read Newspaper!”

You can read my Sam Cornish tribute poem here.

Sam C

For Valentine’s Day: “Jamaica Plain”

At a grouphouse down the block from the old stables,
a shambles, deserted, derelict, gentrification a long way off—
When the flu had you down for weeks, I figured you lost my number,
You recovered, you relapsed. My friends said he’s not healthy
enough for you. You sent me a ticket for Fenway Park.

I made coffee in my galley kitchen on Sunday morning.
We went to the movies, to a bar, drank a couple of pints,
went to my place, made a frittata with artichokes.
I watched you wash the dishes.

When the door closed behind you I couldn’t believe my luck.
For days I called up that feeling, your hands firm around my lower ribs,
like you were pressing my heart upwards so you might take it.
But it was already stashed in your pocket.

~Lynne Viti

bab-heart-2
Images by Barbara Aronica Buck, copyright 2019

This poem originally appeared in The Thing Itself.

On City Snow Days Gone By

This essay originally appeared in The Baltimore Sun in 2015. As the snow falls on my street today, I think back to the old neighborhood in Northeast Baltimore, and our intrepid sledding down our city street.

The 6600 Block of Hilltop Avenue, Baltimore

I grew up in the 1960s, in a housing development that backed onto a small woods. Until our woods was razed and supplanted by apartment buildings, we used the “forest” to build forts and act out scenes from televisions shows about Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. We wore coonskin caps, carried toy rifles and used paper percussion caps to simulate gunfire. In summer, we played baseball in our backyards. Sometimes a fly ball would vault into the woods and get lost. Or a loose foul tip broke a basement window behind the makeshift home plate. There were rivalries: the boys against the girls, the bigger kids against the younger ones. But snow was the great equalizer.

More than two inches meant an official Snow Emergency in Baltimore. All cars were ordered off the major thoroughfares, and sometimes even the smaller residential streets like ours in Northeast Baltimore near the county line. Snow tires weren’t unheard of, but more often, people drove to the local gas station and had chains installed on their tires. Riding in a car with chains was a noisy enterprise at best, and sometimes one of the links would come loose and rap at the wheel cover — we called them hubcaps. Soon the ride sounded like a morning in a noisy Lowell textile mill — crash, clatter, crash, clink, bang.

I don’t remember ever seeing a snowplow come down Hilltop Avenue. Once all the cars were reparked in driveways, some barely clearing the sidewalk. The fins of Chevys, Plymouths and Fords overhung pedestrian territory, and ambitious snow shovels had to navigate around the Detroit behemoths.

No plowing meant that our street, which sloped down from Northern Parkway with a nice angle for sledding, became the children’s territory. We grabbed our Flexible Flyers — no plastic sledding discs or toboggans for us in those days — rubbed the runners with Brillo pads to remove old rust, buffed the metal with waxed paper. We might squirt the steering mechanism with a little oil, check to be sure the old clothes line rope used to pull the sled up the hill was in serviceable condition. We didn’t have ski gear or waterproof pants or parkas. We wore jeans, maybe the kind that were lined with flannel, and our everyday jackets. A lot of us sported blue and white Baltimore Colts bobble hats. Mittens worked better than gloves.

The street was not blocked off for our play. A few parents congregated at the top of the hill near the big parkway, warning intrepid drivers to slow down or wait for a dozen kids to make a sled run down the road of identical semi-detached brick homes. Once the last sledder had careened over the packed snow, hoping to make it almost all the way to the end where our street met Burdick Park, the car’s driver inched down the street. Not one kid wore protective headgear. No one ever suffered more than a bump or bruise. Collisions between sleds were common, but except for a whine or a tear here and there, even the bigger boys and the tougher girls were considerate road-mates, timing their belly flops to avoid the younger kids.

My friend Linda often recalls the common practices of our youth: We rode standing up in the back of the family car so we could see through the windshield and out into the world; our fathers held us on their laps while they clumsily juggled a cigarette and a can of beer; we were left home alone at night from the age of nine or 10, to babysit younger siblings; we had no smoke alarms, and our parents smoked in their bedroom or the bathroom; we went door to door selling Girl Scout cookies, ringing the bells of people outside our neighborhoods, strangers. Our parents taught us how to use our gut senses to back off or flee if things didn’t seem quite right.

On the city street that for a few days became our sledding run, we screamed with joy as we raced, belly down, chin slightly up for visual navigation, hands gripping the Flexible Flyer steering bar. It was pure, intense, unforgettable delight.

Lynne Viti is a lecturer emerita in the writing program at Wellesley College. Her email is lviti@wellesley.edu.

The Baltimore Girls in ’64: Beatles Night at the DC Coliseum

On this 55th anniversary of the Fab Four’s arrival in New York and their first U.S. concert in Washington, D.C. , I’m reprinting this essay, which so many readers enjoyed when it appeared a few years ago.  I dedicate this piece to my late mother and our chauffeur to DC, Marcella Spigelmire, and to my fellow Baltimorean Beatlemaniacs: Francine, Christ, Gay and Debbie, and all our friends and classmates from those years who screamed, sang, and celebrated John, Paul, George and Ringo.

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Beatles Night at the D.C. Coliseum

Mary Jane and I were ecstatic when Suzanne, our new friend from the past summer, said she’d get us tickets to the Beatles first American concert in Washington, D.C. Suzanne was a year old than us, the only daughter of a career officer Marine. On the white sand at Bethany Beach, she befriended us, initiating contact first with a smile and a wave of her well-manicured hand,  then asking what it was we were so intently reading. Suzanne was camped out with several adults with deep Southern accents and two handsome boys, one our age and the other, a college man.  Mary Jane and I were enjoying a Jane Austen/Charlotte Bronte summer, steadily making our way through the summer reading list Sister Seraphia had handed us on the last day of school. Suzanne carried  much lighter reading to the beach—Seventeen, Glamour, and Vogue. She used Bain de Soileil bronzing gel instead of drugstore suntan lotion like ours. She was cooler than us, too—it was obvious that she had bleached her hair, because we could see just a hint of  dark roots. We were instantly drawn to her, and closed our paperback copies of Pride and Prejudice as soon as Suzanne offered to share her fashion magazines. We pored over Vogue and Glamour. Suzanne and I smoked cigarettes behind the cottage, and the three of us persuaded all of the parents to drive us to Ocean City so we could stand under the Esskay clock at Ninth Street and the boardwalk. Once there,  we tried to  meet older  boys, though with no success. By the time Suzanne  headed back to Fairfax, Virginia  with her parents, Mary Jane and I had secured her promise to  stay in touch. Continue reading “The Baltimore Girls in ’64: Beatles Night at the DC Coliseum”