Poems

Keeping Cool Old-School with Lake Ice

From last week’s Concord Monitor, here’s a story about how Rockywold-Deephaven Camps in my town of Holderness, New Hampshire harvests lake ice in the winter for use in old-school iceboxes all summer long.

Ice harvest on Squam Lake

I have been lucky enough to witness the ice harvest and be dazzled by the immensity, ingenuity, history and beauty of the whole process. It inspired me to write a poem, “This Other Lake,” which appears, along with a number of other poems inspired by rural New Hampshire life, in my 2017 collection, Beating the Bounds. (Hobblebush Books)

This Other Lake

–Rockywold-Deephaven camps

We go down to the cove in February,
when Squam’s locked up tight with thick lake ice,
early in the morning, on short notice,
because the decision just got made –
the right weather, the right thickness of ice,
and everybody ready to work.

Walk onto the frozen surface with me,
to where the saws will whine and spark flakes
into the bright air, releasing buoyant cakes of ice
into an ever-enlarging rectangle of newly opened water.
I want you to know we call them cakes, not blocks.

In the necessary sharp cold, we’ll watch them
prod and herd the cakes using only pike poles—
down through the cut channel, to the winch,
to the truck, and then let’s tramp
to the old ice houses and watch them unload
and stack the slick cakes to the ceilings.

Over two days, they’ll uncap
three football fields’ worth of lake.
And then, after the ice houses are filled,
the lake will be left to itself again; the cold
will be free to knit, crystal by crystal,
a new skin across the breach.

In July, someone will sit on a screen porch
looking over this cove, sipping lemonade
kept frosty in the icebox,
where a one hundred and fifty pound slab of winter
slowly releases its long-ago chill.

This is how we have, for over a hundred years,
traveled through time, back to February;
this is how the cold will transport us
from that lake, with its shimmering, lapping waters,

back to this other one,
still white and locked up tight,
waiting for us to break it open.

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Liz Ahl & Charlie Rossiter

I’m very much looking forward to this April reading!

Collected Poets Series

Please join us Thursday, April 5, 2018, at 7:00 pm, when poets Liz Ahl and Charlie Rossiter will read for the Collected Poets Series. Mocha Maya’s Coffee House, 47 Bridge St, Shelburne Falls, MA. ($2-5 suggested donation)

Liz Ahl

Liz Ahl is the author of Beating the Bounds (Hobblebush Books, 2017), Home Economics (Seven Kitchens Press, 2016), Talking About the Weather (Seven Kitchens Press, 2012), Luck (Pecan Grove Press, 2010), and A Thirst That’s Partly Mine (winner of the 2008 Slapering Hol Press chapbook contest). Luck received the “Reader’s Choice in Poetry” award at the 2011 New Hampshire Literary Awards. Her poems have appeared recently or are forthcoming in Sinister Wisdom, Atlanta Review, The Lavender Review, Able Muse, Nimrod, and The Good Men Project, among others. Her work has also been included in several anthologies, including This Assignment is So Gay: LGBTIQ Poets on the Art of Teaching (Sibling…

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The B-52s

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B-52 — Image: VCG via Getty Images

According to Defense One, the U.S. air force “is preparing to put nuclear-armed bombers back on 24-hour ready alert, a status not seen since the Cold War ended in 1991.” Although the alert order has NOT yet been given, preparations are underway “in anticipation that it might come,” according to a report.

I wrote this poem years ago when the B-52s were over Afghanistan (as they have been again in 2017) — but I offer it today as I once again see that iconic (and frightful) shape on my screen. Imagine seeing it in the sky over your home.

As it happens, I was also, as a cold war teenager, a huge fan of the band, The B-52’s. I’ll never forget hearing Quiche Lorraine for the first time. I treasured each of those albums. I loved their sound, their look, their snark and sass and odd, bubbly optimism. I still do.

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This is how my memory, and much of my poetry, works — a mix of tones — the bomber and the band, the beauty and the anguish. I see the plane, and so many memories — mostly not about planes — surface from the murky depths. This poem is about warfare, but also about a band I loved, about adolescence, mine and maybe yours, too.

The B-52s

A Navy brat and vinyl geek, I smugly broke
the codes of INXS, XTC, Run DMC, U2,
as swiftly as I untangled all the military acronyms—
CO, OPM, CincPacFleet, SNAFU, OpSec—that spelled out
a whole corner of my world. Why did it take me longer
to translate “B-52,” via an obscure fifties slang incarnation

(a southern lady’s big beehive hairdo)

back into its original language, from the band to the bombers’
gray bulk so utterly un-evoked by Fred Schneider’s
Technicolor spasms? Maybe because Fred was more aptly
a boltbucket Soviet MiG, an experimental rocket ship,
a stunt-flyer-slash-cropduster-slash-crooner. Or was he
Slim Pickens, straddling the nuke, yee-hawing?

*

In poster-papered bedrooms across the globe, I fixated
on Fred’s beatnik vaudeville, was pulse-thrilled
by the jangly, knockabout guitar, homegrown sound effects,
the amped-up pout of Kate and Cindy’s backup routines,
the dangerous shimmy of their leads. “Rock Lobster”
was the staple of school dances where girls
like Nancy Foster with her punked up blonde spikes
writhed on the floor in the center of the gym. I watched
from the fringes of vague circles, with girls like me,
girls who only punked up our hair in private, quietly
collecting vinyl, amassing libraries of intellectual and musical
superiority. What currency did I imagine for myself
as I gently dropped the needle on the disk’s black
edge? I did wear a black trench coat, hand-me-down
from dad, decorated with a hesitation of safety pins.
It was how we communicated for several years, via surplus,
him accidentally fashionable, passing along an old pea coat
or duffel, gifts of shifting and unexpected value.

*

Years later, I wandered through the SAC museum
where they’ve got a B-52 corralled among the others
in the gargantuan hangar — I stroked their flanks
in awe, weirdly nostalgic for the cold war,
the constantly patrolled skies, the stark, theoretical
shadow of mutually assured destruction.

The cool gray skins of the grounded planes
made me sweet on what I used to know: as a kid,
living on the hill above the naval air station, I learned
to identify planes by their bellies and wingspans against the sky,
or sometimes by the sounds they made as they tore
or lumbered through, unseen, above the clouds:
the stout triangle of the F-14, the slender dart of the F-16;
the pregnant, rumbling silhouette of the C-141.

*

Why do I need to know the names of everything?
These days, it’s birds I’m tracking—squinting
and listening, with a soft spot for troublemakers and villains:
the jays and woodpeckers, the soft brown cowbirds
with their song the sound of falling water. I learn them
with books and photos, a little Latin on the tongue.

Tonight, from Afghanistan, scratchy eyewitness radio reports
the telltale signature, back after a lengthy, peaceful absence:

four impossibly distant, wispy contrails,

claw mark of the B-52 bomber whispered against the blue,
belly full of apocalypse, miles above what I imagine
are brutally beautiful mountains.

As if they were fading tracks in week-old snowfall,
I follow these faint lines into odd confluences
of history and memory—blurrings of music
and machinery, of adolescence’s cold war standoffs,
the names and acronyms we make and say.

The war reporter’s voice is vintage crackle as he describes
what he sees. I remember the silhouettes of planes,
the scream of them against the atmosphere,
the writhing bodies of kids at school dances;
I remember both the old and more recent perils
of kids in black trench coats; I remember
the hiss of the needle against vinyl, one breath
before the music that saved me began.

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Beating the Bounds is here!

9781939449146As many of you know, Beating the Bounds, my new collection of poems, was published this September in the Granite State Poetry Series of Hobblebush Books. I’m so happy with the way it turned out, and so grateful to folks who helped make it happen.

If you’d like to get a sense of what the book is about, check out Matthew Cheney’s thoughtful notice.

If you are local, the Plymouth State University Follett Campus Bookstore has copies of the book for sale. If you’d like to order online, you can order a copy directly from the press via Paypal.

You can also order a copy from the WONDERFUL folks at Small Press Distributors — they also have my first chapbook for sale there, if you’re interested. (The book is also available at That Other Place That’s Taking Over The World, if you must.)

I had a really fun book launch/reading/sale/signing/celebration (in spite of/because of the flooding!) at the Pease Public Library in Plymouth, New Hampshire, on October 30. If you couldn’t make it, please check out the “Upcoming Readings” section of this blog — many more readings ahead!

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My Typewriter Story

To celebrate the release of the documentary, California Typewriter, their Facebook page has made a call for folks to share their #TypewriterStory. It could win you a typewriter! My story is longish, and involves line breaks, so I thought I’d write it up here instead, give myself the sprawl of the blogspace. I guess I’ll just start with the poem. Well, the first poem. My poem.
Antique
I bought this Underwood typewriter
for my last fifteen dollars in an old man’s
yard somewhere between Pott’s Grove
and Washingtonville, off a road that spun
lazy through fields of corn, withering
from June’s lack of rain, through fields
of wheat waving stiff and crisp as khaki.
I tested the keys, entranced: the “B”
and the “M” leaned slightly to the right,
the “2” and the “Q” stuck the worst,
but the quick brown fox jumped over
the lazy dogs.
                            The old proprietor,
who appeared from behind a tree to my calls,
winked and gave me a cardboard carton
to carry it in. His yard was filled with junk:
skeletal iron bed frames, pots and pans steely
with sunlight, plates from several states,
a market scale, a seamstress’s dress form,
one box of shoes, one box of plastic honey dispensers,
a Mary Poppins carpet bag–and tables full
of other lost, forgotten knickknacks.
                                                            I asked,
“Is it all yours?” “No, some of it I get.” “How
do you get it?” He said no more, offered
a noncommittal shrug.
                                         To the side
of this sunlit gallery, a small red shed
with a sign on its open door: “Do Not Enter,”
and peering in I could scarcely make out
the pale face of a large porcelain doll in the dark.
Outlines and shadows of other things loomed
over him; it was a porcelain boy in blue.
The old man said those things were not for sale
today, but after I paid for this typewriter,
a huge glass brick, a wooden baby swing,
and angel and devil salt and pepper shakers,
he said “Wait,” and ambled inside.
                                                       He emerged
with a small green metal case and set it out
proudly on one of his peeling, rickety
three-dollar tables. Smiling, knowing exactly
what would please us, he brushed off dust,
lifted away the lid, revealing a Tom Thumb
child’s typewriter. I think I was properly amazed,
and reminded him I had no money left. He nodded.
“Next time you need a typewriter, you come
back here. I’ll have something new, then.”
His rooster crowed, I took some photographs,
and he called after me, “You put those in the paper!”
Home, I finally notice there is no key
for the number one, no space for it.
No exclamation mark, either. Black with green
and gold script, this fifty-pound writing machine
could be a pipe organ, Model “T” or steam locomotive.
My new interpreter will make stubborn muscle
of my fingers, which lunge into it. It lurches
forward, shakes the table, chatters out these lines,
the hammers little soldiers marching
at my command.
                              I’ll call her Viola, after the crazy,
antique Viola who lives in my building and tells
angry, earnest stories of the aliens, subversives
and communists who plague her life. She yells
at me in the elevator, demands I pin up
the smoky, wandering wisps of her hair.

I wrote this poem as a college student, 25 years ago, after buying my first antique typewriter, pretty much as described above in that entirely too wordy poem. It was the summer before my senior year, and I was attending the Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets, and really trying on what it might mean to Be A Poet. It was fitting, I guess, that my first Underwood and I found one another during a day trip during the Seminar. It made me feel Very Much Especially Poetic.

The summer after I graduated, before I headed off to grad school, my dad took temporary custody of the typewriter, and gave it a thorough tune-up and cleaning. He was a model ship-builder and engineer, and all-around handy guy, so this was right up his alley. And because he also had an artistic spirit, he returned the typewriter to me with a poem of his own, though he swore its true author was the machine itself — you’ll see why. I have a scan of the original, but I’m having trouble making it post-able in all its typewritten glory. So, here it is, just typed in by me on this dumb laptop keyboard:

RESURRECTION

by John Ahl

Ahah! So there you are!
The one. Come closer!
Look at me now!
Clean!
Black lacquer gleaming.
Escapement mended.
Keys ungummed; oiled.
New, untraveled ribbon.
Reborn!
Revitalized!
Brought forth,
like some mechanical Lazarus
from that Pennsylvania barn-crypt where
interred in cow dung motes
I rested
rusted
remembered.
Until you bought me
brought me.
Did you remember me from the time before?
There were so many times, before.
Did I know you before?
Which one are you?

The whiskey-flushed night reporter
who, with shaky, tobacco stained fingers
hunt-and-pecked page seven unread
Broadway gossip of the 20’s?

The sixty-word-per-minute
manicured secretary who
typed lawyers’ briefs
served lawyers’ coffee
avoided lawyers’ hands
until she was committed?

Are you the fiction writer
whose nail-bit, cold fingers sought, but
never quite found the answer?

The indifferent Corporal
who typed letters of bereavement
for the Captain’s signature
advising parents of their sons’ untimely but
gallant death in Bataan?
Chosin Reservoir?
Chu Lai?

Perhaps you are the clerk, who
with greasy hands
typed up orders for Buick parts.

Or the hands poised, mind paralyzed high school junior
seeking inspiration from 45 RPM rock and roll
for a 1000 word, typed, double-spaced
(with footnotes)
carbon paper triplicate essay
on Henry James Jr’s Portrait of a Lady.

None of those, you say?
Then come closer.
Put your fingers on my
reborn keys.
Tell me who you are.

I love my dad’s personification of the typewriter as possessor of the spirits of its previous users. I think he glimpsed the human spirit inside the machine, evidenced by the slight wear and tear. I think that for him, working on it was a way to connect with those ghosts. I love seeing his imagination at work in those lines, which he presented me sort of shyly, rolled right into the Underwood, as if it had typed itself.

In the years since, I’ve amassed and parted with many typewriters. Someone even left one on my doorstep once, a sturdy little orphan. At one point, I had about twenty of them, but I think I’m at a modest dozen or so now. I can’t remember the last time I drafted a poem on one of them. My dad passed away in 2015, not yet having completed his latest ship model, a scratch-built Constitution. Typing that poem into this post is a chance to hear his voice again, to remember his delight at the Underwood I left in his care for him to bring back to lustrous, solid (if not mint) condition.

I think I’m drawn to manual typewriters for the energies they carry, those that my dad sensed and translated into his poem. They are machines, yes, but machines powered by human touch and muscle, churning out human language, and, now, in the age of iPads and texts made of light, I find comforting music in their clatter, and a sturdy anchor in their physical heft, their dark, shining presence.