Last spring I worked on a collection of poetry about my hometown. Here is the preface and a few poems. This is their public debut – hope you enjoy.
Ipswich, Massachusetts, was founded in 1634 by John Winthrop’s son. This is the story I know: John Winthrop (who founded Boston) wanted to create “a city on a hill.” Jealous John Winthrop the Younger wanted to outdo his father. And so he built Ipswich.
It’s a story that would bring a smile to any Ipswich resident’s face, because we know as well as anyone that Ipswich can’t compare to Boston. Ipswich is a tiny town perched on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. It is a community of 13,00 people and 45 square miles, nearly a quarter of which is underwater. It is home to the largest number of houses built before 1725 in the country, as well as the oldest double-arch stone bridge. If you want to buy clothes or watch a movie or do most anything practical or fun, you have to drive at least 15 minutes. We do have, however, great clams and great beer.
I spent the first 18 years of my life in Ipswich. It is the place where I lived out my own small history, which you will find in these poems. It is also a place of traditions familiar to all Ipswich residents: sledding at Cable Gardens in the winter; walking in the promenade at Crane Castle, overlooking the ocean; the annual holiday when busloads of elementary school kids spend the day at the beach in celebration of the long-dead Cornelius Crane’s birthday. It is the place of the most important, joyful, and painful moments of my life, nearly all of which include my mother.
When I first moved away from Ipswich for college, I discovered that my relationship with my hometown is complex. I only knew who I was in the context of Ipswich; I had never been away for long enough to ask who I was when I wasn’t there. How does one extricate oneself from their hometown — or more generally, their past?
Inevitably, people don’t. People return to the North Shore in droves. They leave for college, live in new cities and countries, and eventually come back. Nearly every visit to my local coffee shop results in bumping into someone I used to know, who traveled the world, and who has returned to visit, or for good. There’s many wonderful things about Ipswich, and many less wonderful things. It’s a place, to quote Dickens, that haunts pleasantly.
This is a collection about my hometown, memory, relationships, and childhood. Most importantly, it is about change. I used to think change meant moving on and making space. Now I think of it as an estuary, the place where the river meets the ocean. Change is brackish water, salt and fresh simultaneously. It is not about leaving your old life behind. It is about taking it with you.
Melanson’s fire, August 7, 2009
Five more minutes and we’re on Heartbreak Road where the swans nest in the spring and at night spring peepers scream and we slow down our cars and open our windows and breathe deeply, those peepers, back again.
The towering elm tree between East and County Street will die later that summer. Seemed healthy in the winter. Frozen branches that snapped on cold nights, like most things do. In winter, sick trees are hard to spot. Much easier when something burns so we can say,
oh, it burns.
We watched from the Green Street Bridge as Melanson’s boat shop burned down. They rescued old Melanson from inside before the paint cans exploded. The new boat was destroyed. Shame, we said. How satisfying, we said, to watch the flames reflected in the river.
Earlier that afternoon, I sat in a dinghy twenty miles east, thinking about the river,
and watched the black smoke puff above the treeline like charred fireworks.
Visit to Highland Cemetery
At the cemetery, we sit on the family plot,
mom, dad, brother, and me.
We lie in this square of earth and memorize.
This is where we will live or visit.
There is a particular tree on one side of the plot,
and another nearby. Their branches divide
the sky. At the bottom of the hill: Dunkin Donuts.
And forty white houses preserved in vinegar.
The tour guide points proudly, “And here
we see the handprints of a dead Puritan.”
But we are on top of the hill above centuries
of bodies. The treetops have broken into green.
My brother and I measure our bodies.
The plot is small. We will have to be burned.
We perform our poses for when we enter the incinerator.
We hold hands as if we will die together.
We always perfect the poses, but it’s the ashes
that clouds absorb, that fall in rain.
My mother is dying. She smiles and weeps.
I wrap my fingers around hers. They are stiff.
This will be her parting pose.
I lay an acorn on her chest. She almost whistles.
And now everything outside her grows
and the fire trucks come,
as they annually do,
to spray foam
on the town children
My cousins and I
wear our favorite
We raise our hands
to the sky
and throw our heads back
like we’re praising God.
A firefighter crawls
to the end
of the highest ladder
and waters us
with clods of dirt.
mom walks us
to the snack shack
next to the baseball field
and Wyatt picks
as we walk
and I order