Lowell, MA: Poet Paul Marion
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.
I told Paul about it the next time I saw him. His delight was as plain as a child’s. “That’s wonderful,” he said. “He saw through the poem to his mother. He saw that place as a subject of literature. That made it matter for him. That gave it dignity.”
Around that same time, I moved to Lowell from a small town in New Hampshire about an hour away. I had worked at UMass Lowell nearly five years by then, and had a pretty good sense of the city’s past and present: the mill girls and millionaires of the 19th-century boom years; the slow obsolescence; the bottoming out through the ’60s and ’70s; the wax-and-wane cycle that followed; the flood of Cambodians that followed the Khmer Rouge genocide.
I knew about the blight, the muggings, and the gang violence, but also about the galleries, the small museums, the repertory theatre, and the artists’ lofts downtown. I knew the city had been down and up and down again enough times to develop a sense of tragedy. But I liked that you could sit in deep cushions in the Caffé Paradiso and eat Italian pastry at 11 o’clock at night, and that there were real-imitation gaslights on Palmer Street, and that you could go to a pro baseball game for eight dollars, and that some of the streets still had cobblestones.
I liked what the city was on its way to becoming: a place where people honor the past but don’t cling to it, and where a future is unfolding as you watch. Half a mile from the cobblestones is the 6,500-seat Tsongas Arena, spanking-new, of brick and glass, which has hosted Bob Dylan, Liza Minelli, Van Morrison, and the Boston Pops, along with Serena Williams, the World Wrestling Federation, and the World Men’s Curling Championships. The old mills and boardinghouses are today’s condos and artists’ lofts. Walk a mile along the river and you’ll see everything from the ruins of 100-year-old coal sheds to the site of the UMass Lowell’s new nanotechnology center. Something exciting is happening: a newness, a kind of hipness peeking out from under the drear, that makes you want to be a part of it.