Saturday, October 30, 2010

Lowell, Mass

Erin’s at UMass Lowell now, after a prep school (pretty much his only school) experience of community college. UMass had a parents day last week, a feature of which was a rendezvous of the various school groups. Erin’s in environmental studies so gathered with them folk. It was nice to see the energy, because all these groups are basically geek havens. I mean geeks in the sense of focused interest. The ‘cool’ kids are in bars or whatever, snubbing the idea of joining.

Anyway, I have been thinking about Lowell, which is a fascinating place. And given that I have lived my whole life nearby, I hardly know the place. But I have impressions.

The bones of Lowell are beautiful, as I have said before. It is a town with waterways. The Concord River enters the Merrimack in Lowell, plus the industrious folk of the 19th century dug canals to transport the fruits of labour. The natural landscape offers rolling hills and a sense of human blessing.

The unnatural landscape is now largely decrepit. Always a home for immigrants, Lowell shows the sure hand of utility. Yes, give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses and I’ll run them into the ground at the mill. What Lowell represents historically is a cornerstone to what is going on here, now. Lowell welcomes those of few means. When I say welcomes, I mean tolerates when useful. I understand that only Phnom Penh has more Cambodians than Lowell. Opportunity doesn’t seem to overflow in Lowell, tho, but the killing fields are more subtle. Subtle, that is, if you think Tea Partiers are subtle.

You will find few places with more stained glass and architectural knick knacks on the most mundane of buildings than Lowell. Lowell is among the prime towns for brick New England factories, which for some reason thrill me. These factories are now repurposed as condos, stores, museums, and such. The factories stand as monuments to when the turbine still surged. Today, the city of Lowell itself is a national park.

As a national park, Lowell receives or has received considerable fed money, without which Lowell would be chugging on empty. I’m not against the funding, but I do not think this will help Lowell get its soul back. The solution is too makeshift.

I have a larger purpose (of consideration) here than just to show off my halfbaked political thoughts, however. Better halfbaked political thinkers than me exist. Instead, I see myself making a mole to get at Tyre.

A couple of weeks ago, the town of Gloucester saw a gathering of people to discuss and honour Charles Olson, he of the almost centenary. I wish I could have attended. At the same time, I am leery of the weight placed on that place. Olson lived in Gloucester, sure, but other places too. Worcester saw his inception, but he did not go back to those roots but the more interesting story of Gloucester. He might have chosen the equally interesting story of Portsmouth, NH, or Salem, MA, if that was all he was on about. Of course, that was NOT all.

Olson wrote of Gloucester in an idiosyncratic and personal way. His local is not about street names, but of the inner/outer conflict between ‘our’ world and the larger thing before us. Thus proprioception is a key word for Olson.

Kerouac is tied to Lowell in a similar way as Olson to Gloucester. It is an old-fashioned romantic notion, of hero and place. Leaning on that biographical detail is lazy. Olson’s writing is not about Gloucester, nor is Kerouac’s about Lowell. Such biographical distraction poorly serves the writers in question. I am not saying that the Olson gathering was like the Melville Society one that Olson himself ranted against, but that rant comes to mind.

Neither Kerouac or Olson made it in their respective towns, they were merest actors briefly on those stages. Place collapses into words, finally, and words collapse into space. Space is empty, yet here we are. The local is when. Our writing, ages and ages of it, strains towards that place where we think we are.

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