3 poems by Jeremy Nathan Marks

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    Jeremy Nathan Marks writes, reads, teaches, researches and talks to folks about things which interest them and which interest him. He has had editorials, essays, poems and photographs published in various places in Canada, the United States and across two ponds. He makes his home as an American exile in London, Ontario, Canada. A town that, while not having a left bank or much intellectual ferment, does offer a wide selection of craft beer.

     

     

     

     

    Two hats

    for Nora, my beloved daughter

    God, who walked the field’s edge
    was mistaken by the people
    for a troublemaker

    He wore one red hat
    and one black hat
    that really were the same hat
    but the workers to his right
    and the workers to his left
    didn’t know there was a difference

    So the God laughed
    and the workers argued
    and my daughter asked daddy
    why do they fight
    when there are muddy puddles
    as many as there are drops of rain in the sky

    ‘I have a good idea,’ she says
    piling several hats onto her head

    Leading me to the yard
    I am made to stand and face her
    ‘See, you can see both hats’
    so how could anyone fight?

    Why(?) is a statement not a question
    and answers are just further questions

    Like that God in two hats
    the God, a God or just God
    a trickster leaving stories of teething,
    first words, night terrors and potties
    told in a tangled vernacular so mischievous
    the storyteller is a face framed by
    curling blond locks.

     

     

     

    Shangri-La (or my father takes his vacation)

    I

    When I was a young kid
    my father had but one week off per year
    which he preferred taking in the summer
    since then it could serve as a form of childcare

    This was in the mid-1980s
    not an idyllic time for my father:
    when he was hired by the US Government
    in 1980 and promised a raise
    Ronald Reagan’s victory nearly quashed this promissory;
    even though the contract had been duly signed
    the Supply Side budget of 1981
    froze the escalator of incremental federal raises

    And wouldn’t you know that my parents
    first time home buyers
    had just entered a five year mortgage
    at the then standard interest rate
    of 18%

    Thank you, Paul Volcker.

    II

    Every August back then
    we’d set out for Pawtucket, Rhode Island
    in our cobalt blue 74’ Olds
    (bought used)
    its white vinyl bench seating
    hot enough to scald our thighs
    from May to September
    it had an air conditioner that took a freon charge

    A beast of a machine
    it took leaded gasoline
    and choked the air with particulate matter
    since, like every pre-77’ model
    it lacked a catalytic converter.

    We’d motor up from Aspen Hill, Maryland
    hoping to reach Little Rhody
    and my grandparents’ -his folks’- home
    for less than the price of one full day
    the cost you’d pay for taking
    I-95 and its mandated Federal Speed Limit
    of 55 (MPH)

    A trip that now would likely take seven
    eight hours tops
    frequently took ten back then
    and not just on account of the low posted speeds
    but because there were far more tollbooths
    in that pre-digital age.

    In an era long before the E-Z Pass was invented
    when Turnpikes dotted Delaware, New Jersey,
    New York and Connecticut
    the trip felt impossibly long
    while my father -for his own reasons-
    had a way of extending its duration
    on account of his loathing of the more direct line
    through New York City

    When we were within sight of Staten Island
    he would turn off onto the Garden State Parkway
    in order to bypass the bridges and tunnels fronting Manhattan
    convinced that anything
    anything
    was faster than taking the Bruckner through the Bronx

    I suspect this was the result of two assumptions:
    the first being that New York City was
    in his imagination
    a metropolis of intractable backups
    while the second contention might have been
    those embedded tales of Gotham’s decay:
    skyrocketing crime
    public urination
    graffiti covering the subway cars

    It was, even then, they said,
    an ‘ungovernable city’:
    Broken Windows,
    James Q. Wilson,
    neutered police, liberals and all that-

    III

    My dad must have had heroic patience
    since once we hit Jersey traffic would slow
    literally at the foot of the Delaware Memorial Bridge
    and pick up but little until we hit Metuchen

    The Garden State
    which I’ve mentioned
    was its own hell:
    that litany of booths every seven miles
    with their asinine 35 cent fares
    which could be replaced by a single state-sold token
    but if you didn’t live in-state this was not a practical option.

    To pass the time I’d recite to myself in silence
    the names of familiar Essex, Bergen and Passaic County cities:
    Newark, Clifton, Fairlawn, West Orange, Patterson
    and then Paramus at last (with its mall)
    where the congestion would thin
    and the New York State line loomed
    which, with a sign of relief, we’d clear
    only to begin our wait for the Tappan Zee tolls
    that Dutch named dual span crossing the Hudson

    I would press my face to the window
    peering down the river in anticipation
    of the moment when
    through blear white air
    Manhattan’s skyline would emerge
    all thumbs, index and forefingers
    of steel, concrete and glass
    prying apart the haze
    I would say look! to my sister but she wasn’t fazed
    since often she was enmeshed
    by the challenge of drawing circles on her Etch A Sketch.

    On the opposing Hudson shore
    we’d move through Westchester
    past White Plains
    to skirt Pound Ridge
    finally touching Stamford:
    New England at last!
    But we weren’t in the homestretch yet
    since the fun of the John Davis Lodge awaited
    Connecticut’s special contribution to that unbroken
    vibration of coins-clinking-in-baskets
    a defining feature of Northeastern US highways.

    At the outskirts of Bridgeport and in another jam
    I could hear my father swear softly to himself
    ‘I’m never doing this again’
    an oath he would repeat while we would wait
    an hour, two hours maybe(?)
    to go perhaps twelve miles
    before getting stuck shortly thereafter
    in the New Haven clog

    The trip now deserved the mantle of epic
    as it was my father’s journey to the house where he’d grown up
    that house on Edgemere Road
    the little bungalow his parents bought after the war
    with three quarters down:
    who could leave a home where you owned everything
    even if the town around it had ceased to be a bright destination?

    IV

    The final stretch past New Haven was mercifully swift;
    Mystic, New London and then Rhode Island at last

    At the state line I’d see a welcome sign:
    Providence 44 miles.

    Peering carefully down the highway
    I’d scan the horizon for that first sign
    of the capital’s towers
    back before Providence was a place
    New Englanders liked to come to visit and shop
    back when it was barren, crime ridden, ‘a dump!’
    or so I was told
    which was why we never went there
    despite the fact that I always asked if we could

    Since I wanted to see up close the Fleet Bank Tower
    an elegant old art deco structure
    topped off in 1928 at 111 Westminster Street
    the mere site of it used to cheer me inexplicably

    But perhaps the thing that drew me most to downtowns
    was the inverse of an impulse which had pushed my father away:

    As I had not lived and worked in urban America in the 1970s
    hadn’t had a gun pressed to my temple at a St. Louis
    intersection; hadn’t watched decay crumble formerly vibrant
    business districts and public spaces;
    hadn’t had the dew on my lily desiccated
    by the hollow echoes of promises made in the fields
    of urban planning, economic justice, race relations

    Maybe as I had not experience the 1970s-

    I would not understand my father’s unshakeable aversion
    to taking his family into any urban environ?

    What I think I understand now
    more than thirty years later
    is that my father’s incentives were
    even then
    vastly different from mine

    I remember thinking how when I grew older
    our rationales would converge
    that having a family, too, would lead me to avoid
    close encounters with urban centers
    summer vacations with children
    becoming daunting ordeals to be endured
    that filial challenge in the life of the working professional.

    But this hasn’t happened.

    Thinking about those days, those trips
    I admit how they now feed my father’s legend.
    Recounting my upbringing
    recalling his perpetual struggle for comfort
    I recognize not just how times have changed
    but that I have a particular and peculiar comfort
    which he never had:
    the assurance, I think, of not caring too much about my job.

    Sure, the value of money was impressed upon me
    and on those Rhode Island trips I had not just he
    but my grandfather too
    to school me over money’s power
    what it could do
    and how the working world was an unforgiving place
    so be smart, try and find a sinecure
    but even if you do
    always work, dammit! Work!

    I love and respect my father
    but I don’t want what he had and has:
    a career that drives him to fret
    but that also has delivered a pension
    and reputation
    which have secured him
    vacations free from distractions
    now

    Time shares
    Europe
    cruises
    National Park trips
    without too much worry
    (so I imagine)
    about their cost.

    My father has found his Shangri-La
    but so have I

    Mine is just a quiet shadow
    within his shadow
    as his circle is still wider than mine
    though I imagine how my own is closer
    to that dark concentric centre
    that is silence

    Perhaps the sublime?

     

     

     

    Autonomic

     

    When my grandfather died we made the old familiar drive
    up I-95 through the many miles of turnpikes and tollbooths
    my father again under the wheel.

    A strange unsettling calm pervaded the car as my father
    who had just lost his father
    guided our powerful Dodge Intrepid
    on its first actual pathbreaking mission
    across the many miles of uncleared corridors of grief

    Grief that was his, foremost
    but it was ours, too.

    Grief for my lost grandfather
    grief for my father now fatherless
    grief as a verb guiding our movements
    through the brume of deep sadness that now
    overlay everything

    It was grief, I know
    for that first moment when
    a parent had passed
    something not one of the four of us
    had ever experienced.

    I remember the sensation in my chest
    a feeling that my father was propping himself up
    without benefit of any of the non-visible supports
    each one of us relies upon just to carry on
    those invisible springs to propel us out of bed
    or the silent turnings of wheels of autonomic action
    philosophers like to call ‘Will’

    All of this now a deliberate set of actions.

    My mother was a prop
    her hand on my father’s back
    his shoulders
    offering through her fingers
    a warm palm
    of fulsome compassion

    We,
    my sister and me,
    trying hard to follow her hand
    while she,
    my mother,
    now the appointed captain
    piloted the traffic of all of our emotions
    on their true course of compassion
    to him.

    We, the other three:
    my mother, my sister, me
    becoming together
    a three legged table
    the meaning of family now plain
    since, as I said,
    much of the mostly benevolent force
    usually at work unseen in my father’s body
    (his soul, if you will)
    was now spent
    or in retreat
    meditating in a silent, recondite place:
    A cave?
    A devotee lying prone in supplication
    atop a 30 foot pole in some trackless desert?
    Job looking toward the serene blue sky
    asking why-

    My father,
    he was there
    but he was somewhere unseen as well
    a place I knew then
    more than ever before
    I one day would have to go.

    And when we arrived at his parents’ house
    (now his mother’s solely)
    and when I found her in her kitchen
    hunched over in grief at a table bereft of bread;
    when I felt the walls of that kitchen
    a room which always had bent outward to receive
    my grandfather’s frenetic joie de vivre
    (the kitchen being one of the places he always was most alive);
    when I felt those walls caving in upon themselves
    succumbing to a metaphorical withdrawal of autonomic will,
    crumbling from that ebb of ordinary life
    glorious in its gracious mundane;
    it was there and then that I felt the kriah
    of grief, of a body as rent fabric
    and within that garment an inner frame:
    the bones and muscles of my father in his ‘cassock of pain.’

    This was too much to bear
    and my wall of reserve broke
    as I darted into the backyard and sobbed,
    a flood of tears breaching twenty years
    of a carefully cultivated demeanour;
    I felt the four legs of my own supports
    warp and collapse.

    It was my sister who,
    having followed me out,
    reached for my shoulders
    and pulled me close.

    We stood there,
    she firmer than I
    as she felt me cry out
    from the hollows of my loss

    But before I struck their source
    a bird -a Mockingbird-
    began singing, shouting,
    imploring we pay him full attention

    He was standing low on the roof
    just over the backdoor to the kitchen
    that room where my mother, my father and his mother
    were huddled
    the room I had just fled-
    that bird stood there for at least five full minutes
    and carried on looking right at us.

    I ceased crying.
    We stood in silence-
    watching, waiting, wondering
    at this new whatness.

    A song,
    a shout from the field
    that never paused
    and when it was over
    I felt the first shocks of my gracelessness
    pass before a peaceful awe of loss.

    I reentered the kitchen
    strangely girded against the curtains of despair
    fortified by the syrinx,
    perhaps the gizzard
    of a tiny creature bolder than death.

     

     

     

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