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Lowell, MA: Poet Paul Marion

Lowell, MA: Poet Paul Marion
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Mr. Alphonse Hudon, / wearing a blue parka and dress hat, / leans on his cane on Pawtucket Street, / checking the freshly tarred walk / and grove of short pines / along the Northern Canal. / “Looks good, doesn’t it?” I ask. / And he says, “I liked it better the way it was,” / which opens up a line of talk …

The poem goes on to tell of the conversation the two men had that day: Mr. Hudon, the older man, telling the younger one–the poet–how he used to know his father, and his grandfather before him, and an old neighbor named Mr. Marquis, who, 60 years ago or so (“before the wrecking cranes pulled up”), owned a filling station near the spot where they’re talking. The young man recalls a house he knew as a child, a block or two away, with a tree growing through its porch roof. “Oh yes,” the old man remembers, “that was Mr. Marquis’ house. / And there was a monkey there, too …”

Mr. Hudon is probably gone by now. He was old already then, and those lines were written years ago. And the village he remembers has been gone now more than 40 years–its only memorial a bronze plaque on a granite slab squeezed onto a narrow spit of grass a block south of the Merrimack River in Lowell, Massachusetts, a minute’s walk from where he and the poet had their talk: “On this site grew the heart of the Franco-American community. Hard-working French Canadians came to fill the mills of Lowell …” The granite was cut “from one of the last blocks … to be torn down.” And around the plaque’s sides, a border of street names, a fleur-de-lis at each corner, and two dates: 1875-1964.

It was the poet himself who first brought me here, on a summer day more than a year ago, to deliver on his promise to show me the city of his poems. He’s been writing them now going on 35 years, since before he finished college: poems about bars and laundromats and textile mills–“cotton was king” here, but there were wool mills, too; about boxers and politicians, God, death, young lovers, work, baseball, the weather. Nine collections–Strong Place, What Is the City? and more–plus essays, co-authorships, and editing several titles, including Atop an Underwood, a popular collection of Jack Kerouac’s early writings. And at the heart of nearly all of it is this city where he was born. It is both his muse and his dearest subject, and the cause around which he builds his working days. His devotion to it defines him. I may never have known anyone who loved any place more.

His name is Paul Marion. We’d come that day from our offices at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, where Paul wears a suit and tie and plans community outreach projects, and I write and teach part-time. For more than five years, we’d worked in the same office–although we didn’t anymore–and I had come to value his warmth and wit, his vast knowledge of the city, and his love of the Red Sox.

And at least once every summer for the past eight years or more–because as much as he follows the Red Sox, he loves the Lowell Spinners more–we’ve sat together in the box he rents for the season at LeLacheur Park on Aiken Street, just three rows back from the field, and shared beer and kielbasa while the sun drops behind the scoreboard.

It was around that time last summer, a week or two before our Spinners outing, that I went with him to the little granite memorial. Our tour had begun several days earlier, when we’d met after work at his house. It’s a grand house, in an un-grand part of the city, a mile or so south of the memorial: six bedrooms, Italianate, all brick and stone and high windows, built 150 years ago at the peak of Lowell’s textile ascension, home to the agent of the old Appleton Mill, the city’s largest at the time.

It’s bifurcated today–with Paul, his wife, Rosemary, and their 13-year-old son, Joseph, in one half; the other half the home of his in-laws, who have lived there 50 years. Rosemary grew up in the house; her great-grandmother once worked there as a maid, before her son, Rosemary’s grandfather, bought the place nearly 80 years ago. Joseph, both parents tell me proudly, is the fourth generation of their family to live there.

They explained all this to me over beer and peanuts in the oversized dining room, while Paul–who seems alternately proud and embarrassed by the grandeur of the home he’s married into–came and went with family photos: of his grandfather the butcher, pictured in an apron in front of his market; his father the mill worker (“People always said he looked just like Sinatra”); Doris, his mother, who sold coats and dresses for 25 years in a women’s department store downtown. He was in his element, and it showed: telling stories, shuffling photos, eyes alight, between what may be his two favorite subjects in the world, his family and the city of Lowell.

He talked about his father’s job in the textile mill–the filth, the long hours, the years and years of daily drain. “I don’t know how he stood it,” he told me. “I got a job there one summer as a kid, cleaning the drains in the scouring plant–where they scour the dung out of raw fleeces with nothing but hot water and lye. The stink was unbelievable. I think I lasted two days.” This took him to the subject of Lowell’s mills in general–the wool uniforms for World War II soldiers, for the Union Army the century before–and from there to the immigrants who manned the spinning machines and the looms.

“The Irish were the first ones,” Paul said. “Then the French, the Canadians–my great-grandfather, Joseph, in 1880, he was one of the early ones–and then the Greeks after that. But the Irish ran things for a pretty long time. The French were second. It wasn’t till ’36, I think, that we had our first French mayor …”

The talk turned more personal later that evening, over dinner at an Irish pub downtown, where he shared with me, between interruptions (you can’t sit down with Paul for long in many places in Lowell without someone calling his name), some of the quiet sadnesses his family had borne: his shopkeeper mother, Doris Roy Marion, who had never finished high school but who once boarded a silver railcar from Boston for a training program with Charles of the Ritz in New York, then caught the flu and came home (“I found the training manual years later cleaning out her dresser”); his father, a shy, quiet man who mapped out retirement trips to California and watched symphonies on TV (“kind of a closet intellectual without the education”), but gave his whole life to his mill job and died of cancer at 62.

“They were good people,” he said to me. “Good working people. They dreamed dreams. But all they ever knew of life was work.”

It was a side of Paul you rarely see, outside of his poetry. He’s an affable man, very gentle in his ways, with wide brown eyes, a round face, and a story or clever remark about almost any subject you could name. There’s a dreaminess about him, too, that comes across the first time you meet him–from his eyes, his slight smile–it’s hard to know from where. You have to make the time, and do some digging–or hit just the right nerve–to get to where the poems come from.

I remember the first time I saw this. It was four or five years ago; I was teaching a class in freshman composition and had assigned a Paul Marion poem, “Majestik Linen,” about a worker in an industrial laundry somewhere in Lowell, seen through a window on a Sunday-morning walk: “She turns back to her work, what most of us won’t see / unless we’re in the Flats at the hour of the early Mass, / following the drone of automatic washers / to a sunrise service recognized worldwide …” A student in the class, a boy of 18 or 19 who rarely if ever shared his thoughts, raised his hand to tell me, with what seemed like genuine wonderment, that he recognized in the poem–he was very sure of it, he said–his mother’s place of employment.

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Updated Thursday, October 8th, 2009

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One Response to Lowell, MA: Poet Paul Marion

  1. John Andriote November 5, 2009 at 9:55 pm #

    We’ve been trying to figure out how we in Norwich, CT, can emulate Lowell, MA’s success in becoming a National Historic treasure and enjoy the economic revitalization that can follow. Reading this story underscored the parallels in Lowell’s and Norwich’s histories–as once-prosperous textile manufacturing centers, as immigrant melting pots. Mr. Marion’s observations about how a city’s history and shared memories are essentially the cultural glue holding a place together and giving it the potential for renewal. This well-crafted, thoughtful and thought-provoking story really goes to the heart of what it means, in my view, to be a New Englander: To know that one’s sense of personal identity is strongly bound to a particular, well-loved, richly textured place. Thank you for running it.

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