Lowell, MA: Poet Paul Marion
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 …”
I’m sure I’ve never known a writer who has claimed any place harder, devoted himself more obsessively to its literary incarnation–and reincarnation–than Paul has Lowell. The difference is that whereas most artists (Jones, Twain, Faulkner, Whitman, Kennedy, Banks) seek to render a place, however lovingly, as a canvas on which to play out some larger truths, for Paul the place itself–and its people–seems the highest truth of all.
“It’s a sort of alternative kind of preservation,” he once said of his poetry to a reporter. “The whole world is in Lowell. It’s so various. Every drama you can imagine, every human condition, is here.” And so he captures and freezes them. Two hundred years of ghosts, like layers of old-growth timber: the wool grader; the Little Canada butcher; the laundry worker; Mr. Hudon out on his remembrance walk through the vanished neighborhood. It’s not nostalgia he’s after; he’s a preservationist. He walks the city on Sunday mornings–it’s an old habit, he says–as though it were a boneyard, in search of sightings, fragments, to fuse together somehow and recast. The bones become his poems, his verse documentaries, his version of the granite marker but more alive by far.
And as they’re read or heard–or assigned in classrooms by teacher-advocates like me–they achieve the goal of all good documentaries: “People have to care about a place. That’s where you begin, by getting them to care, by talking about heritage and shared purpose–a common past–by taking the story of Lowell’s people, its folkways, out into the neighborhoods … That’s been the constant for me, always: using culture as a social glue.”
This hunk of rock on Earth /
states its case for the record, / like the metal message
boards / shipped out with satellites, /
telling somebody out there who we are.