I didn’t notice the burning
rubber wrapping around us
dancing behind us
like a stumbling drunk.
I didn’t notice the smoking
leaves in early autumn
the rogue neighbor burning
his lawn in a rusted barrel.
I noticed your shirt
the delicate cotton
around my shivering shoulders.
I was flattered-
and suddenly flammable.
we missed the leaves changing.
we missed them.
the reds the yellows the
the leftover greens.
the whole season gone
in the time it took
to drive to New Jersey.
You can feel the pride, life, and history of community
All this concealed in one Boleslawiec eight-inch plate
Universal edge, touching its white rim
Eyes moving in to a blue band
Inside situated intermittently brown bars connecting on to
An undulating brown band, again those transverse brown bars
That melds to a blue band, yet traveling in
To pastoral green circling band
Centering in blue astron stars of flowering curves
Three platen astrum cobalt blue stars
Step out into history Polish image revealed
A head erect close people with identity to defend
Centrally large stands the Flag high
Gathered congregations conversing intimately
To the right, people tightly Catholic mingle
At the very forefront an agrarian scene
Man and a horse plowing the field, yet still closer
A woman sows seed by hand of life
Evening relaxes the day’s toil, the stars twinkle with release
Farmer and wife enter their hearth
She with her fertile picked bouquet of blue aster for centerpiece
The farmer at the head, wife setting the platter
To renew the pastoral cycle through genesis sustained
In her hand she held memories of family past
With intrinsic power she carries the future round
The proud unbroken glimpse is all unveiled
In a circular eight-inch plate
in a boat.
The 8 mm film is still partially covered with mud. For many years, it sat in a dresser at my grandmother’s house, next to the dike built to hold back the waters of the Susquehanna River. As a child, I pulled the blue and white roll out of the dresser drawer countless times and tried to see the images captured by my grandfather, in the miniscule frames, by holding them up to a light bulb. All that I ever saw was something that looked like a hazy reddish blurb of illumination in the center, near the top of each frame, at the beginning of the roll. Still, I tried to catch a glimpse of something, time and time again. The film projector, like many other possessions, was lost forever to the flood waters of 1972.
For people of a certain age, life in Luzerne County is only measured in two ways–there is life before the Agnes Flood and life after Agnes. To my childhood self, this film seemed to hold a secret since it possessed the ability to exist in both the “before and “after” simultaneously.
About two years before Agnes, my grandfather’s obituary in the
local newspaper said that while he was working as a pipe fitter, he was “stricken with a heart seizure.” When I attempted to fill in the blanks of my family history at the library, I learned that death notices were often very dramatic before Agnes. The obituaries seemed to warn of innocent victims who were “taken” or “claimed” by death, allowing the insinuation to linger that implied you could be next.
During the last moments before Agnes, my grandmother sat in stillness, saying over and over again that she wished that my grandfather was still alive. A police officer knocked on the door and told us urgently to evacuate the area. There were sirens in the background screaming warnings into the night as rain beat down on the pavement. That is when the time known as “before Agnes” officially ended for me.
About 18 years after Agnes, my grandmother died. For the first Christmas after her death, I took that flood stained home movie to a camera shop to have it converted to VHS format so I could give copies as gifts to family members. The reddish blurb on the film turned out to be lights on a Christmas tree. It was a Christmas before Agnes, before the deaths of my grandparents and before the arrival of the last three grandchildren who would complete the next generation.
I don’t remember much about my grandfather who passed away when I was in kindergarten. I have no real sense of him as a person other than that he was a hard worker—which was a badge of honor in this community built by the history of European immigrants and anthracite coal. After he died, my grandfather was known to me only by his absence, just like on the last night before Agnes. It’s somehow fitting that a man defined by his not being present was also unseen in the one home movie that survived the flood.
I don’t know much about my family history. The lives of my great-grandparents have been reduced to nothing more than names from the pages of local obituaries only mentioned as the parents of those who have died. I only know the names of two ancestors who came before them. The best explanation I can think of is that they must have been people who were so caught up in the hard work and struggle of just trying to survive, that concern for the present always had to trump contemplation and preservation of the past.
In warm dreams we were jumping off
A music staff–
Little black eighth notes hurrying along the pages.
In our rushed coda
We became polyphonic,
Our flags becoming stems–
My heart beating in tempo with yours.
Tell Mozart to put a repeat sign at the end of our song.
Radio fuzz blurs the messages they send you.
Zealot car dealers scream over our song
Tearing down the sweet reminiscence of us.
Pop slaughters an original from the vault–
Screaming white girls trying to recover the gospel blues
Reminds me of us trying to keep it glued together.
You can dress it up but it still rots from the inside.
I don’t care for the new style–that fake ingenuity–
Words mean nothing unless you say them right.
Murder. That word evokes so many different thoughts. You might hear the word murder and think about something you might read in a Stephen King novel, where murder only happens under the most bizarre circumstances (and, for some reason, it only happens in the state of Maine).
You might hear the word murder and relate it to something that happens to actors and actresses on television shows like Murder She Wrote. one week, you see an actor or actress lying dead in a pool of blood. The next week, you see the same actor or actress sipping a martini on a rerun of The Love Boat or Fantasy Island.
Or perhaps when you hear the word murder, your mind turns to more graphic and realistic depictions as you see on shows like NYPD Blue or CSI Miami. You might hear the word murder and have visions of vivid scenes from a movie where you see waxy grey body parts strewn awkwardly inside chalk lines and splotches of darkened red blood splattered on rugs, walls, and sidewalks. You see close-up shots of the victim’s horrified face frozen stiff with her eyes still open.
Maybe when you think of murder, you think about the way it is in the courtroom: tragic images blown up to a size that is three times larger than life and projected onto a screen so that anyone who missed out on the gore at the original crime scene could get their fill.
The word murder may elicit different thoughts for you. You might think only of the victim.
You wonder about her last moments on earth. What was going through her head when she saw the fists or the knife or the gun? Did she beg for her life or pray for death? Or maybe both? And if both, when was the moment that made her change her mind? You wonder if she saw her life pass before her eyes. You wonder if you were part of that vision of her life.
You wonder how the killer could be walking the streets or eligible for parole, while you are serving a life sentence of memories that, when evoked, trigger grief and pain.
Thinking of murder can make you not want to think at all. You try to block out everything that has become a trigger for memories of the victim.
When they play Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” during oldies night on the radio, you change the station because you don’t want to picture her dancing to that song at your junior high school dances. You don’t go to see the remake of Freaky Friday because you don’t want to recall that you saw the original with her. You avoid driving past the elementary school when you visit your hometown because you’re afraid you’ll see a group of young girls giggling on the playground and memories of the two of you doing that same thing so many years ago would resurface in your mind.
When you hear the word murder, you may not want to think or feel. You turn off every ascending pathway in your nervous system so that the outside world can no longer penetrate through to the inside. You numb your heart. You shut your eyes. You close off your ears. You turn your back on people you love and on the people who love you because love requires feeling. You transform yourself into a hollow stone statue filled with murdered memories.