I Move to the City: Worcester, Massachusetts
It was the time of the “Worcester Renaissance”, when student poets planned to bring the old city back its former glory as home of Elizabeth Bishop, the woman who never wrote a bad poem.
I moved out of my parents house and into a large 3 bedroom apartment in a Victorian tenement behind a church. I shared space with my friend, Cathy, and my then friend, J.B. This grand old building had six apartments, stacked in threes with a shared entrance, making it a double. Because it was on Grand Street, we called it the Grand Hotel. That it was at the edge of a slum didn’t bother us in the least; it was right across the street from that hotbed of Communism, Clark University, and close to the bar that we students went to to share our poetry, creative writing, art, and politics.
This tenement had the classic back fire escapes with porches from which circular clotheslines swung out over the ally way like a floating city of spiders. Since we were on the top floor, we had a view of the rooftops and the sky. J.B. was a star gazer and we spent many autumn evenings looking through the telescope at the stars and planets, learning the constellations. We woke in the mornings to the sound of church bells, and in the winter, because our slumlord was mean, we were forced to do our homework with our feet in the oven to stay warm.
Cathy had a cat and J.B. had a large floppy English Angora rabbit with gray fur. I was allergic to cats and rabbits, so, like Mimi in La Boheme, I had asthma all the time. I loved them though so I put up with it.
J.B told me I had been the love of his life for the past year, so between being with him, and having asthma I was in bed a lot. lol!
JB made me a bracelet out Dundrum’s fur — (the rabbit’s name was Dundrum Conundrum Asylum) and I still have it. See!
Dundrum fur bracelet
Before this Cathy and I had traveled to Colorado where one of my best friends had moved. I fell in love with the Rocky Mountains with their shimmering aspen trees and waterfalls, and high, soaring peaks. We met a very handsome Indian man called Dave Shonoha who drove us all over the mountains, even up above the tree line, where a big horn sheep glared at us in the snow. He even took me to a cemetery that was at the very top of one of the mountains. I could sense spirits up there. I remember Dave looking at me with this amused grin on his face. I didn’t know how to pretend I didn’t see spirits, or think it was weird that I should want to find a cemetery. Now, when I look back, I think …HHmmmm…
Landslide was my song back then. I associate it with Colorado. There are so many great versions of this, but this video shows the time as well.
As an arty crowd, J.B., Cathy, and I had so many interesting friends, really brainy eccentrics like the frock-coated artist who brought an Victorian English cab driver’s tea set with him whenever he came to visit, or the other artist who made up his own language and decorated his apartment with grape soda cans. Those were the days. I have bits about them in my journals but right now, I can’t remember their names. I had all this big blond hair and wore vintage. You could get the good stuff back then, like 1920′s bias cut velvets with beads, and Edwardian petticoats for practically nothing. But we were paid practically nothing too.
My art was becoming more and more clairvoyant, but I didn’t know it at the time. I don’t know if hunger and asthma had anything to do with it. It is a tradition among ceremonial magicians to have asthma. I was also very effected by a sort of Hawthorne-esque melancholy. Away from my parents, the world I created around me was somber, shadowy, ghostly. I later found out that many of the drawings I did at that time were traditional images having to do with Faery, like figures coming up from under the snowy ground, or women in long cloaks walking among candles in the woods followed by wolves. I was using Gothic imagery before there were Goths. I was into mythology, folklore, and the Middle Ages, and drawing what I saw.
It was January 1978 when we just left everything behind and went to Mexico. Some of this was economic, for it was a terrible recession at that time and there were no jobs.
At the time, I was collecting unemployment — $25 a week! The apartment was $150 a month. Can you believe it?
I left Cathy my vast record collection, my vintage 1920’s gowns, and who knows what she might have done with the little cloth dolls I tucked into the nooks and crannies of the place. Dundrum got a new home as Cathy was angry at him for munching her books.
I had some stuff to sell, so me and J.B. went to Boston. Bookish types, we ended up going to a big library where I was looking for lyrics to Elizabethan folk ballads. I found, on the same page, a portrait of Anne Boleyn above the words to Twa Corbies — another song I was quite addicted to. To this day, I associate Anne Boleyn and Twa Corbies.
J.B., this guy Steven (I wonder if he’s still alive. He always said if he wasn’t a famous poet by the age of 30 he would kill himself. I don’t think he is famous, so…) and I got on the Greyhound bus for New York City. We visited the White Horse Tavern which had been a haunt of the Beat Poets and Dylan Thomas or Bob Dylan or something. — it was in Greenwich Village I think.
Long story short, we got over the border and on a first class train to Mexico City. I will never forget our approach to the city because I had never seen people living like that. It was like a giant ant hill, or a bit like Gormanghast or something. All these homeless people living by the hundreds in cardboard boxes encircled the what I remember as looking like the outer walls of the City.This was the pre-earthquake, pre NAFTA Mexico City, a maze of almost empty streets, calm and beautiful courtyards, elegant old hotels, and cafes where ex-patriot Vietnam veterans hung out. I remember terra cotta, blue and white tiles, courtyards full of green plants and fountains. The Mexicans didn’t hate us, but the women were very worried about any show of female skin.
From there we went South, intending to go to Guatemala (strange idea…wasn’t there a war going on there at the time?). We ended up in a Zapotec Indian Village called Barra de Colotepec outside of the then undiscovered Puerto Escondito. We had the Colotopec River, the beach and a lagoon almost all to ourselves. For $10 a month, we rented a cabana with a dirt floor and ragged walls owned by the la Senora of the village. We slept in hammocks and had to store our food high along the walls so the local dogs wouldn’t eat it. La Senora kept everyone in tortillas, and little girls would come in the morning with baskets to collect their share.
The veil is very thin in Mexico. My intuition was higher than I realized. One weird thing that happened was that la Senora had an neglected altar in our cabana, and one day I got the strong urge to clean it. In a couple of hours, it was shiny and I had picked some flowers and put them on it. La Senora came in and saw what I had done. She brought some candles and somehow she conveyed to me that it was Easter. I had had no idea.
I was writing lots of poetry as I was in that receptive state of mind that attracts poetic ideas. We had seen a sea turtles lay it eggs in the sand — that is a whole story in itself — and some while after I wrote a poem about it, using the imagery of the stars and the tortoises shell — I’ll have to find that poem some day. Anyway, years later, I found out that what I had written in the poem was true! When sea turtles are born their shells are imprinted with the patterns of the constellations, and when it is time for them to return to the shore where they were hatched, these patterns guide them to the right place.
I also almost drowned in a rip tide. I had been close to death before, so I just remember thinking it would be an easy way to go if that was it. I just relaxed and was carried back to the shore. That was one time when my rather alarming 20 year old passivity came in handy.
The Little Flowers of Saint Francis of Assisi
I was really into St.Francis and had this book. Inside, there are some pressed flowers from Mexico and a poem written by J.B. that I still have to this day, thirty years later.
There are so many great adventures I had in Mexico at that time that will make about twenty blog posts, so I won’t share them here. This is just a timeline. Since I have been around for a long time, there will more installments. The ones after this will talk about how I became conscious of my abilities and who I was when I came into contact with West Coast American culture.
The Poem by J.B.
J.B. wrote this poem to describe an ordeal we all went through on an, unexpectedly, all night fishing trip into the bay at Puerto Escondito. While Steven and I were freezing
in our Summer clothes, sitting in the wet bottom the row boat and hurling over the side, J.B., stoically reclined on the back bench with his hat over his face contemplating this poem, I guess. That was until he, in a Hemmingway moment, he leapt up to slay a fierce a manna ray that had gotten hooked by our hosts (who were all bundled up in their wooly sweaters.) Since the whole things was his idea, he could afford to be blase!
Anyway here is this poem that he probably doesn’t know I have. I think he might have wanted to title it something about the Southern Cross as he was really into the stars.
Untitled, Mexico, January, 1978
flails the darkness
from feverish stem
to stern, a verbal meteor
storm, nearly pentecostal.
Nets hurtle upward
into the stars, pause,
and fall hissing like warm
soft wire into the sea. Monafilament
and chopped mullet swamp the deep hull,
milling with bare feet and wicked hooks
into the mutinous melee
of Mexican fish catching. I huddle
needlessly by the port gunwale, alone
in my English.
is not the same
on the water.
the waves break backwards, aching
toward the treacherous permanence
of sand, And here I see entrails
of fish glowing with the minute
life of agitation: the uncommon
world given off in the commonest
of gestures, simply
a mullet spilled open.
our passage may be
crisp, our wake aglow,
we flow with the lightning
poetry of oak splinters.
Mantas tumble out of the sea
and belly back. A turtle struggles
away from us,
like a pregnant sow, aching
with the surf
and her future.
I have come
thick tongued and thin
sated into this Pacific
village. I cannot sing
with the men, I cannot sing
with the women, nor wash. I only swim
and laugh at myself, and have no loss
And laughing is enough. I soon
surrender my landed musings
for mezcal and a gesture
towards a boat.
(it is dangerous,
this affirmation of nothing that
hauls fishermen out of their
footprints.) I check my handline:
nothing but lead and fish guts, the
barb buried in a liver.
I see Puerta Angel wherever I
look for the pole star. My skull skies
like a starborne compass, or is it the
sea. The water is lost in itself, and we.
The stone anchor cannons into my urges,
calling from beneath the waves, but the
sea takes only 20 yards of handline.
I don’t know what the last line means exactly, but J.B. was an enigma at times. He had talent, but he gave up I think.
Hope that’s not too self indulgent. Or if it is, I hope its fun at least. I don’t like to be serious all the time.
Do you have any mementos from so long ago? Its kind of strange the way memories pull you….
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