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Lowell, MA: Poet Paul Marion

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.

Part of Lowell’s appeal, too, was Paul and other people like him–other artists, because the city is full of them. I was hoping that I might find some of the same gritty, life-grounding energy he was always talking and writing about. I did find the energy, but in the end it wasn’t enough to hold me–other things came along–and I left after only two years. I’ve sometimes wondered since, though, whether I gave it enough of a chance.

It’s several days after our pub dinner. We’re standing now on the little grass island, deciphering the memorial, talking about the city’s immigrant past. On one side is a company parking lot, mostly vacant now; on the other, the rear wall of the university’s glass-and-concrete recreation center. It’s late afternoon, warm and nearly cloudless, but even now the sidewalks around us are empty. It seems an unlikely place, I tell Paul, to memorialize anything. “Yes,” he answers, “but here is where it all was.”

This starts him on the stories. He’s so full of stories, and of their connections to one another and the lessons he sees in them, that when he goes to tell you one, it will start out clear and linear, like anyone’s family story, but then branch out and loop back and link up with others, until what you thought was a simple piece of cloth is suddenly a tapestry.

The monument, he tells me now, was placed here by the priests of St. Jean-Baptiste parish, “to mark the passing of Little Canada,” their name for the neighborhood. The church, he says–now standing empty–is on Merrimack Street, one street over from Moody, where his grandfather’s butcher shop was (“His store is a parking lot today”). On every street in the neighborhood–Aiken, Cabot, Cheever, Coolidge, and the others, all the streets named on the monument–“the tenements were as dense as Hell’s Kitchen in New York.” They were so dirty and low-class, he goes on, that his mother, from the Centralville neighborhood on the other side of the river, “wouldn’t be caught dead here as a girl”–but still somehow wound up with his father, who grew up on Cheever Street. This starts him on his father, and the work he did grading wools: “a rare skill,” he says to me now as his thoughts near the end of their looping–and there’s something like pride in his tone–“to be able to grade the wool, one fleece from another, based only on its look and feel …”

The stories go on, sometimes sideways, just as often backward in time: about his father, a machine gunner with the Fourth Infantry Division, who marched across Germany, then came home to grade fleeces in Lowell; his father’s father, Wilfrid the butcher; Wilfrid’s father, the carpenter Doda, who married Rosalba, a weaver on a textile loom; and before Doda, Joseph, also a carpenter, who came south in the 1880s from Quebec. He can trace it back all the way to a merchant named Nicholas, from Normandy, who came with his bride to New France–Quebec–and settled there and raised a family, around 1665.

They’re all gone now. His father’s mill is gone–all the mills are gone–along with the butcher shop, St. Jean-Baptiste parish, the department store. Little Canada was bulldozed in the ’60s–a late victim of urban renewal, which had already taken the Greek Acre and other neighborhoods–to make way for public housing. The downtown emptied: the stores, the Strand Theatre, the sidewalk markets, all shuttered or moved to the malls. Buildings, whole blocks, were burned or flattened; parking lots replaced businesses; the population fell by a quarter; unemployment reached 12 percent. “Somebody ought to drop a bomb on this place,” a high school history teacher told Paul’s brother’s 10th-grade class in the mid-1960s. It was the city’s darkest time.

“They were here, and then they were gone,” Paul is saying now. It’s early evening. We’ve been driving, for the past 30 minutes, the little grid of streets just east and west of the Aiken Street (Ouellette) Bridge, the neighborhoods’ old dividing point, and have come full circle back to the monument’s little grass island. I’ve had the full tour, both sides of the river: the parking lot where Wilfrid’s market once stood; the shuttered old neighborhood church; a blighted, prewar building complex, North Common Village, where men in undershirts sit in clusters on front stoops; the four-story red-brick fortress, St. Louis School, now in its 103th year, where, Paul once told me, his mother and Jack Kerouac, both Centralville natives, were schoolmates nearly 80 years ago; Paul’s birthplace on Orleans Street, still a tidy two-family.

“We can’t have those tens of thousands of lives just erased,” he says. He’s standing a foot or two back from the monument as he says this, sweeping an arm, almost angrily, right to left across his chest to take in the little island, the street and the land behind it, and the river, a block away to the north. He’s been talking, for the last several minutes, about the mills that used to line the shore here: “the armies of workers who tramped through them–Irish, Greek, French Canadian, Swedish, any country you could name,” and how their lives and stories, their comings and goings from this place, were what made him, in the end, want to write his poems.

People were here,” he says to me now, stabbing a finger first at the granite slab, then at the air and sky beyond it. “There are people inside that piece of stone. Lives were lived here. That had richness. That had value. That deserves to be counted.”

All that history and geography / in a supersaturated marker, /
tucked between evergreens on Aiken Street … / You stuck an arm out the window /
to touch the next tenement. / You heard one tongue for blocks …

In a short essay at the end of his latest collection of poems, Paul quotes from Joan Didion, describing the relationship between another writer–James Jones–and the place and time he wrote about: “A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image …”

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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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