That Summer Feeling

Who went on summer vacation this year? This blog did, that’s who.  I did.

Not that it was a vacation exactly. I was packing up my house in Brooklyn and moving into an old farmhouse in Ulster County, New York. All the while holding down a job managing a restaurant in the city while I look around up here.

The hardest part was packing up the house, not the physical work – though that adds up too: It’s emotionally taxing to sort through old belongings, especially when one of your parents has died in the years you lived in that old place. And, when your closets are full of artifacts from unfinished projects and notions. The antique lamp you were going to get rewired one day. The fixtures that would have made a mind-blowing sculpture.

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“When the smell of the lawn makes you flop down on it…”

Not that we’ve moved to a goat farm hours from the nearest cell phone tower: We still need paying jobs, after all, and our friends who have really gone for it in that sense report feeling a longing for human contact after being so used to it. We consider this more of an intermediate step, but it is a hundred and thirty year old house on a former dairy farm.

Near a creek bed, with sate forests nearby, it’s wetter than the city. Dishes sit on the dish rack and don’t dry. This morning near the equinox I took a stroll around the garden in my bare feet and felt the cold in my arches.

I can tell you already that natural beauty has the capacity to inspire insipid writing. Perfect sunrises come to represent new beginnings. Birds taking flight represent steps toward freedom.

On the other hand, you think more clearly with fewer things in front of you. I’m already writing with more detachment and humor about that most elusive and chaotic well of subject matter, my own memory. No wonder it was so emotional. I was packing up a young man’s house and unpacking a middle-aged person’s house.

Throughout the process my wife and I started listening to I, Jonathan the Jonathan Richman album that we believe we’ve listened to more times in 2018 than anyone else. The songs that made us tune in were the catchy, toe-tapping numbers like “I Was Dancing in a Lesbian Bar.” The song that grabbed me hardest and longest, though, was “That Summer Feeling.”

“Do you long for her, or for the way you were?”

More soon, friends.

Books From the Get-Rid-Of Box

Some books can move you to tears just by packing them in boxes.

I know, because we’re starting to pack our Brooklyn apartment to move to a farmhouse up the Hudson valley by the end of summer: something I once found unimaginable, but now I can hardly wait. It feels like we’re on a well-worn path, but well-worn for a good reason.

One thing I look forward to is more time to read, and packing books after you’ve lived someplace a while (eight years at this place), I find emotional.

Books

Among the books I’m keeping.

It’s something that moving forces you to do: separate them between the books you haven’t read yet but still aspire to, books you’ve read and want to keep so you can re-read them or give them to just the right person, and books you’ve given up on reading – and now you’re facing it, it’s time to get rid of them.

It’s emotional for me because that stack of books I’m ready to say “I’ll never read that” about, that is a measure of the distance between the reader I once thought I was – or the reader friends thought I was – and the reader I actually am. As I age I have less patience for any bullshit in this regard, and packing books this week was a big step in the direction of reality.

I suppose I’m simply becoming more like me. I’ve always been a lot more open to getting hooked into a long history book than a long novel. Anna Karenina was just never going to happen. The Power Broker, which is now finally in the get-rid-of box, to go back to the great used book store shelf I found it on, lasted a whole delicious summer.

In the years after reading The Power Broker, in fact, I became that somewhat familiar, annoying guy who could never help himself from pointing out how Robert Moses had changed whatever New York City landscape I was standing in. I guess I kept devoting two inches of shelf space to it in case I ever needed to refresh my memory about a legal fight about a bridge in the 1950s – or I enjoyed the reminder that I was a member of that club of Power Broker spokespeople. And now I’m letting that membership lapse.

Having said that, I’m also choosey about what I read for one simple reason. I’m slow! Even with history books, I can’t just plow through one for the hell of it, it has to be something I care about. And when a book was given to me as a personal gift, this conflicts with my natural agreeability.

So if I have a conversation with my friend Kevin about how much I enjoyed a trip I once took to Tennessee, and he tells me about a novel he loved that’s set in Tennessee, and then gives me his used copy, and I say “Thanks,” then part of me feels I owe it to him to read that book. Even though I never asked for it, and even though I’d specifically told him I only read a novel or two per year. A part of me genuinely did want to read it at one time – the reader I once thought I was, that is – and part of me has long been ready to embrace the future. And so it sat there, until the purge came.

In this sense, letting go of a book can be like letting go of a trumpet you haven’t played for years, or a sewing machine or a set of golf clubs. It feels right, not just to have made a definite decision, but to be released from a misconception about oneself.

So, with apologies to all the historians and novelists I’ll never commune with, farewell to your masterpieces. If you ever drive past our house, I’ll be the guy in the garden with a book of poems in his breast pocket. No hard feelings.

Catalpas and Princesses

“Do you know how, once you learn something you start seeing it everywhere?”

No joke, my friend in Kingston, New York said this to me as I was snapping a photo from her roof, of a tree I kept seeing all day, the catalpa, which is plentiful in that part of the Hudson valley.

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A catalpa tree in bloom, Rosendale, NY.

From a distance catalpas have the same pale green and fifty feet height of other trees, but as you get closer you realize the leaves are giant, heart-shaped and up to a foot long. Stan Tekiela’s Trees of New York Field Guide says the catalpa, or catawba, is native to the lower Mississippi valley but took to New York when it was planted here for decoration.

Sometimes called the Cigar Tree or Indian bean tree, it’s distinct for the long pods it grows later in summer, like enormous string beans. It makes sense that a catalpa would blossom a month or so later than oaks and maples, since it’s used to Alabama or Mississippi, where summer comes about a month earlier than here. And since this is the week they’re in bloom here, you can see in plain view how many there are.

Catalpas look a lot like those of another tree called the Paulownia or princess tree, except the princess tree’s fruit isn’t a bean-like pod, but clusters of wooded pods that look like almonds. A native of Asia, guides sometimes call princess trees “invasive,” since they grow tenaciously in urban places.

Like the new discipline of permaculture, and like the poet Stephen Dunn, I hear the phrase “invasive species” with caution. “Bad plants? Nature would say, Careful now, watch your language, let’s just see what survives,” Dunn writes.

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A princess tree in an auto body shop: “Foreign & Dometic.”

Princess trees were brought from Asia because they grow fast and look pretty, and it’s true they’re invading Gowanus, the neighborhood of Brooklyn where I work. Famous for the polluted canal that sits in its midst, Gowanus is now a dining and bar crawl destination, but still a good place to get a flat tire fixed.

This winter I could see clusters of princess trees’ fruit while the branches were bare. This month I got to see them bloom: The Royal Horticultural Society says another name for them is foxglove trees, since their blossoms look like the flower. Now the flowers are almost gone and the fruit regenerating.

Is the catalpa’s “invasion” less of an affront to our Yankee ecosystem since it came from Memphis, while the princess upsets our order since it came all the way from central China?

Don’t know, too late, we’re all New Yorkers now.

Jack Gilbert: “How is THAT a poem?”

One book that got me through this grueling winter is Refusing Heaven, a collection of poems by Jack Gilbert, from 2005. I handwrote one poem from it, “Trying to Write Poetry,” and carried it around in my pocket when I didn’t feel like carrying a book, in a not-too-successful attempt to memorize it.

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It could be that some lines from it resonated with the idea of poetry I got from Irish theologian John O’Donohue, who talks a lot about finding truth in the penumbral places. “Trying To Write Poetry” starts: “There is a wren sitting in the branches/ of my spirit and it chooses not to sing./ It is listening to learn its song./ Sits in the Palladian light trying to decide/ what it will sing when it is time to sing./ Tra la, tra la the other birds sing/ in the morning, and silently when the snow/ is slowly falling just before evening…”

“Knowing that passion is not a color/ not confused by energy…”

In many Jack Gilbert poems, you ask yourself “How is that a poem?” Which is always a completely legitimate question of the reader to ask – and often the door to the room where the meaning is clear.

Sometimes Gilbert’s poems are best read as extraordinarily concise character-building sketches, that character being the “I,” the narrator. That’s not something we usually say about poets, but take this poem from Refusing Heaven:

By Small and Small: Midnight to Four A.M.

For eleven years I have regretted it,

regretted that I did not do what

I wanted to do as I sat there those

four hours watching her die. I wanted

to crawl in among the machinery

and hold her in my arms, knowing

the elementary, leftover bit of her

mind would dimly recognize it was me

carrying her to wherever she was going.

A touching memory, but how is it a poem? I couldn’t really defend it from someone who says it isn’t one! Though I do see some poetry in the title: “By Small and Small.” The late night hours are often called the “small” ones, and the small memories and regrets can be the ones that stick in our craws. And small mercies can be the most meaningful ones, at the end of life and throughout.

Gilbert’s favorite topics are his young years spent in Italy, his home town Pittsburgh, and his late wife. In “Less Being More” he writes of a “he.” “It started when he was a young man/ and went to Italy. He climbed mountains…” (The first choice a poet like Gilbert makes is to write of an “I” or a “he” or a “she.”) It ends:

                           …. He began hunting

for the second rate. The insignificant

ruins, the negligible museums, the back-

country villages with only one pizzeria

and two small bars. The unimproved.

 

My kind of guy! And my kind of poet.

Marie Howe

Marie Howe was the find of the summer for me. Just when I think I know most contemporary American poets I come across a new one, new to me, whose voice speaks to me.

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In this case my wife gave me Howe’s 1997 book What the Living Do. It has lots of poems about surviving the death of a loved one, but also tons of poems about growing up an American girl that warrant re-reading many times.

Many are deceptively simple in that they read like a story. She describes what happened straightforwardly, with an odd eye for detail, and you wonder, “Is this a poem or not?” By the end you realize the economy of words was part of her poetic method, and you’ve just been treated to a spare collection of images that describe a happening, and hint at something universal, in the space of a minute.

Take “The Copper Beech.” As a writer who often says too much and needs an aggressive editor, I’d give my right hand to be able to write a poem so simple with my left.

The Copper Beech

          By Marie Howe
Immense, entirely itself,
it wore that yard like a dress,
with limbs low enough for me to enter it
and climb the crooked ladder to where
I could lean against the trunk and practice being alone.
One day, I heard the sound before I saw it, rain fell
darkening the sidewalk.
Sitting close to the center, not very high in the branches,
I heard it hitting the high leaves, and I was happy,
watching it happen without it happening to me.

Deadpan or Just Dull?

If I had three days to write a story about Paterson, New Jersey, before I saw the film Paterson, I’d have been sure to include the famous waterfall, and definitely something about Paterson poet William Carlos Williams and his easy-to-grasp dictum about poetry: “No ideas but in things.” I’d also make some use of the city’s industrial history and, if  it reasonably fit the story, mentioned Hurricane Carter.

You could say that, since Jim Jarmusch’s film Paterson has all these things, I’m something of a screenwriting savant. Or you could say, since I’ve never once set foot in Paterson, his film is about as poetic and authentic as a Wikipedia page. I know I’m supposed to love Jarmusch, the great uncle of independent cinema, but I can’t help feeling like I’m being put on when I watch his films, like their deadpan simplicity and see-through gags are daring me to call “Bullshit!”

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Adam Driver in “Paterson.”

I was so irritated when I left Coffee and Cigarettes in 2004 that I swore I’d never go to a theater to see one of his films again, but the buzz about Paterson lured me back. And it is, after all, about a poet with a day job as a bus driver, whose creative life is not too different from my own.

A Paterson bus driver, named Paterson, goes to work every day and manages to get verses of poems written, sometimes with obvious inspiration, and sometimes just from airy nothing. His girlfriend, more of an unfocused dreamer than he is, both inspires him and provides some counterpoint to his discipline and his measured approach to poetry. His one frivolous habit is taking his dog for a walk every night and tying him outside a bar while he goes inside to drink.

One thing you can say for Paterson the script is that it makes excellent use of the red herring. We’re encouraged to fear that his dog gets stolen, and all along we figure the resolution will have something to do with Paterson yielding to his girlfriend’s insistence that he try to get his poems published. Though the one major setback isn’t completely unexpected, it wasn’t quite what I saw coming either. Although I didn’t like the film much, I concede that the end was sweet. The balloon home to Kansas flies away without him, but he wins because he has a rich creative life, not because his poem gets published.

It’s also one of the few films that shows how difficult writing is, without being tedious, but that’s largely because Ron Padgett’s poems, which Jarmusch used for the script, are so accessible and lovely. One of them, “Love Poem,” Padgett himself reads about nine minutes into this podcast.

“Love Poem” reminds me of something a director I know once said about Joe Swanberg’s films, which landed him his Netflix series Easy: Why does every single character listen to LP’s? You could say that a screenwriter, like a poet, doesn’t just make content out of a world that already exists but creates a world, and if the Swanberg of Drinking Buddies, like the Baumbach and Gerwig of Frances Ha, wants to make a world where everyone’s so cool that vinyl records are the rule and not the exception, then that’s their prerogative.

“Love Poem,” according to Padgett, is a poem he wrote in the 1970s. It begins as an ode to a brand of matchstick, and cleverly turns into a description of his love for his woman. That it still speaks to us via Jarmusch means it’s a quality poem. That Jarmusch has Paterson’s girlfriend gush about the contents of the poem, the shape of the logo on the matchstick box? That could mean we’re witnessing a vision of creativity that’s right at home in a loving relationship, as opposed to the tortured genius who keeps his loved ones out of reach, but it also goes to show the limitations of Jarmusch’s ability to create a world. We’re expected to swallow that two people in 2016 are both taken by an antique-looking matchbook. It’s whimsicality bordering on twee.

It gets worse yet in the bar Paterson takes his dog to every night. Like Jimmy’s Corner on a good night, it’s a white person’s fantasy of a cool black bar: 70s R&B and a 60ish barkeep with a folksy appreciation of local history. Their discussion of who belongs on the “Hall of Fame” wall behind the bar is plain clumsy. That Paterson’s girlfriend wants him to get a cell phone and he refuses, you could see as a reflexive position on the antique world these characters live in, as if Jarmusch knows we’re noticing all the anachronisms and makes Paterson a guy who, like Jarmusch, is consciously holding onto this unique world, but I wasn’t buying it for a second. I wanted more reality, more plot, and higher stakes.

 

 

John Montague, Poet from the Land of Poets

The Irish poet John Montague died last weekend, with hardly a peep around here in the place where he was born, Brooklyn. It was Montague and Seamus Heaney, specifically their selections in The Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry, that kept the poetic flame alive inside me during a long period of estrangement.

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Glass and video have replaced “the cage” on the Clark Street 2 & 3 Train stop, formerly the I.R.T., in Brooklyn Heights, where John Montague’s father worked.

His Irish Times obituary hinted, not surprisingly, that he regarded Heaney, the more successful, Nobel Laureate face of Irish poetry, as his rival. It added, also not surprisingly, that in his final years his jealousy lifted and he quoted Heaney’s poetry with fondness.

Among his works I revisit through the years are “The Trout” (Super homoerotic! I was surprised to learn he wasn’t gay.) and “The Cage.” Though born in Brooklyn, his mother got sick when he was young, and he was raised by relatives in Northern Ireland, while his father stayed here to work.

 

The Cage

My father, the least happy

man I have known. His face

retained the pallor

of those who work underground:

the lost years in Brooklyn

listening to a subway

shudder the earth.

 

But a traditional Irishman

who (released from his grille

in the Clark St. I.R.T)

drank neat whiskey until

he reached the only element

he felt at home in

any longer: brute oblivion.

 

And he picked himself

up, most mornings,

to march down the street

extending his smile

to all sides of the good

(non-negro) neighbourhood

belled by Teresa’s church.

 

When he came back

we walked together

across fields of Garvaghey

to see hawthorn on the summer

hedges, as though

he had never left;

a bend of the road

 

which still sheltered

primroses. But we

did not smile in

the shared complicity

of a dream, for when

weary Odysseus returns

Telemachus must leave.

 

Often as I descended

into subway or underground

I see his bald head behind

the bars of the small booth;

the mark of an old car

accident beating on his

ghostly forehead.

 

I confess to ruining the mood at a dinner party one night a few years ago, when the subject of poems about fathers came up and I broke this one out and read it. I’d remembered it as a sad story of a man who’d sacrificed his happiness for a job in a literal cage. The afterthought phrase “non-negro,” to me, testified to Montague’s great love for his father, whom he accepted faults and all, with no indication that his da’ didn’t share his neighborhood’s racism. The real-life “negroes” present at this particular get-together seemed a bit like a jab to the belly had been delivered, like they might have preferred a little warning for so hurtful a subject to come up, or at least a reprieve till dessert was finished.

My own love for Irish America is complicated by this very issue, our complicity in covering up the original sin of our country. It’s very American, really, that Montague appends this phrase to his poem at all, rendered in parentheses no less, as if he needs us to know where these people stood on the epoch-making issues of their day, and to discreetly take a position himself. (He and Seamus Heaney both lived in the U.S. for decades and became celebrities here, or at least paid the bills.)

This Christmas with my family, when the beer and wine are flowing, I plan to break out another of Montague’s poems, “The Silver Flask,” a country idyll about a family passing a flask of whiskey around the car. It begins:

“Sweet, though short, our

hours as a family together.

Driving across dark mountains

to Midnight Mass in Fivemiletown,

lights coming up in the valleys

as in the days of Carleton.

 

Tussocks of heather brown

in the headlights; our mother

stowed in the back, a tartan

rug wrapped around her knees,

patiently listening as father sang,

and the silver flask went round…”

Not exactly Christmas with The Waltons, neither my family nor Montague’s. He was a poet from the land of poets. I can understand young writers feeling like Montague and Heaney are both losing their relevance, their Irish heritage a kind of thesaurus of evocative images. They’re still special to me, though, and it goes beyond their Irish-ness. Even when they’re trading in nostalgia, they keep our eyes on sad details, then hint at some universal experience, then go back to the images to let them have the final word, and that, to me is what poetry is.

The Great Mother

A thunderstorm tore through New York City yesterday – the sky got that yellow, dirty glass color. On my back porch I resisted the urge to record it with a phone camera, so I could show you all. I knew others were probably on that assignment, and they were, but what does it say that we no longer experience something so elemental as a thunderstorm without reaching for our iPhones like a smoker relieved to be out of a meeting.

“It’s rainin’ it’s pourin’/ The old man is snorin'” I said, and it occurred to me for the first time in my life that the old man in that rhyme may be The Old Man. God snoring, that’s what thunder is. Kids in Catholic school in the late ’70s used to say it was angels bowling.

So I called my friend Mark in Connecticut, a potter who blogs at Offers to Raven, and who’s always ready for a mythic or poetic question. He agreed that even though the old man soon after “went to bed and bumped his head/ and couldn’t get up in the mornin'” that the snoring did imply thunder.

At this point I was sitting under a steel awning with an electrical device in my hand and lightning crashing nearby, so we said good-bye and I traded the phone for a collection of one of the great poets, Wislawa Szymborska.

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From 6,000 BC in Iraq, now at The Louvre.

I’ve memorized her poem “A Paleolithic Fertility Fetish” in the past. Though it fades and comes back in pieces the way memorized-then-forgotten poems become circular loop-de-loops, I often go back to it. “The Great Mother has no face,” it starts. “Why would the Great Mother need a face?”

I always assumed this poem refers to a statuette of a woman from pre-history, Szymborska finding reassurance and peace from the incompleteness and abstraction of the holy object. It ends:

“The Great Mother barely has a pair of arms,
two tiny limbs lie lazing on her breass.
Why would they want to bless life,
give gifts to what has enough and more!
Their only obligation is to endure as long as earth and sky just in case
of some mishap that never comes.
To form a zigzag over essence.
The ornament’s last laugh.”

Goddess forbid, if I get hit by lightning and die, one of you please read that poem before you lower me into a grave with nothing except possibly a sheet between the earth and me. You can read the complete poem if you scroll down here.

Where Poetry Lives

“Where do poems live?” is a harder question than “Why is the sky blue?” “It depends”  may be the most accurate answer, but a live reading never did a poem any harm, and many are only alive when read aloud.

I know where screenplays live. They live on the screen – where the film is. The script itself is a demo version of what the film might be, and screenwriters have to be able to value a script as a script. Novelists published and unpublished have the pleasure of calling a work complete. Of course they’d love to see a stack of hard covers at a bookstore, but a PDF on an iPad is the same kind of experience as a student reading a used copy of Hard Times the night before her European History 102 exam, or at least the distinction is tiny compared with the ways we experience poetry.

The novel, I guess, created a planet full of people with rich psychological lives, the place where most literary thought lives being the interaction of page and eyeballs. My father would have turned 83 yesterday, and he rarely read books but could spend hours reading newspapers cover to cover with the same solitary exploration. I wonder at his thoughts on the civil war in Liberia, just like I wonder what my wife thinks of the row of George R.R. Martin novels on my bookshelf at home. He rarely talked about issues, but if asked could give you an informed opinion, inflected by his own experience growing up with “the war.”

There’s a famous story about Augustine of Hippo meeting Archbishop Ambrose of Milan. Neither one of them were saints yet – Augustine wasn’t even a Christian yet – and he was awed by the fact that Ambrose could read without moving his lips! To Augustine, who was no dummy, it was revolutionary that literature could live in the eyeball-page axis. To him and presumably most people, the written word was just shorthand for where literature really lived, spoken aloud.

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The Whitney Bridge in Minneapolis is better known as the John Ashberry Bridge for the poem along its span.

It made Ambrose and his weird new faith alluring, to have a psyche and a conscience so private. This was the year 400, and already we were on that slippery slope to virtual reality helmets.

Poetry lives a double life, on the page and in the spoken word. Poems live on monuments, and some get domesticated for service at weddings and eulogies, but mostly they live being read aloud in small groups. Some friends of mine get together every once in a while just to have some drinks and read poems…at home, where we can control the audio. It’s slightly gauche in this setting to read your own work, at least before you’ve introduced some other published, contemporary poetry or dropped a few classics on the group.

Hearing poems made me write poems, and from this I got drafted to read with a group called the Verbal Supply Company, which hosts quarterly readings, usually at a bar called Halyards, not far from my house in Brooklyn. This Monday we’re moving to the Upper West Side for an evening. The group is celebrating its fourth year, so we’re all just doing extra short sets, and this time around many of the writers will be doing excerpts from memoirs and longer-form fiction. I’ll be doing some poems.

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A previous Verbal Supply Company reading being called to order (photo by Brad Hamilton).

 

“Where do poems live?” is above all a practical question, to the person reading his or her poems. An article from 2014, by a poet named Rich Smith in Seattle, exhorting poets to stop using “the poet voice” keeps getting recycled online. It’s a reason people avoid readings: the dullness of readers, most of whom aren’t in fact performers, emphasizing the cadence and clarity of their work at the expense of any “Shazam!”

I try to be sensitive to that and give it some spoken-English life, but I can also relate to poets trying to honor their poems as literature, to insist on it having some life on the page the way a chapter of a novel does. We can’t help adding a dose of Saint Ambrose.

In its four years, the Verbal Supply Company has insisted that its readers come to a “rehearsal,” and guess what? The readers are more focussed, and the excerpts or poetry more thoughtfully read, a step closer to a theater showcase than an open mic night. When deciding, “Where does this piece live” at least a writer makes a conscious choice.

Past readings are archived online on the VSC website. So you can open a beer and listen at home. Tip your bartender. The third from the top, “Not Yet Fully Monetized” from last summer, is a good one to start with. (If you’re partial to morehastohappen, you can skip to my few poems at the very end, at 1 hour and 8 minutes.)

O Canada!

May 7, 2016. How did I get a Bachelor of Arts from an accredited university, and spend years calling myself a writer, and today is the first time I’ve ever read Whitman’s Song of the Broad-Axe?

I turned to it, because of some photos I saw of the fires in Alberta.

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“Muscle and pluck forever!
What invigorates life, invigorates death,
And the dead advance as much as the living advance,
And the future is no more uncertain than the present,
And the roughness of the earth and of man encloses as much as the delicatesse of the earth and of man,
And nothing endures but personal qualities.
What do you think endures?
Do you think the great city endures?
Or a teeming manufacturing state? or a prepared constitution? or the best-built steamships?
Or hotels of granite and iron? or any chef-d’oeuvres of engineering, forts, armaments?

“Away! These are not to be cherish’d for themselves;
They fill their hour, the dancers dance, the musicians play for them;
The show passes, all does well enough of course,
All does very well till one flash of defiance.”

Soon, friends, I’ll finish a long post about Gordon Lightfoot, the builder of the Erie Canal, and environmentalism. (I know you DeWitt Clinton fans are on the edge of your seats.) I get up to write it today, and what do I see in the news? A whole Canadian region whose economy is extracting oil from tar, going up in flames. It takes a Whitman to stay positive in times like these, and I don’t mean a box of chocolates.

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