Poet and Lowell native Tom Sexton refers to his hometown, specifically the Lower Belvidere section of the Mill City, as his touchstone, “the place I always return to in my daydreams and even in my dreams,” he writes.
It is where Sexton grew up before leaving for the wilderness of Alaska more than 40 years ago, a place he may have left in body, but never in mind.
“In my mind, I still walk along Fayette, Perry, Concord and Pleasant streets. I still climb Fort Hill to look for Indian arrowheads and get my hair cut by John the barber on High Street who is still unhappy with his son. I’m still waiting for a girl from Rogers Hall to fall in love with me when we meet in the corner store even though I know she’s been told not to talk to the locals and to cross the street when she sees one of us on the same side,” Sexton writes in an essay at the conclusion of his most recent collection of poetry, “Bridge Street at Dusk,” which reveals details and insights about the Lowell in which he grew up. Some of the poems are also set in Alaska and coastal Maine.
Sexton, who was poet laureate of Alaska from 1995 to 2000, has a keen sense of observation and the ability to weave simple language and imagery so tightly together that the ordinary becomes extraordinary. The characters, relationships and places he writes about in “Bridge Street at Dusk” seem to spring from the page, brought to life by some tiny gesture or minute detail.
There’s Bessie, who “in her brown sweater, she could have been a crab the way she moved one way and then the other …” And the “red haired and elaborately freckled Beauchemins, mother and
daughter wearing hats too colorful for church.” And then there’s Oscar the Barber, “he was larger than life, a swarthy god.”
“Sardine Packer” conveys a powerful sense of family in one stanza. Sexton writes:
My children came to see me at work.
I was the fastest on the line.
They liked to slide in herring slime.
Oh, I could make my scissors dance.
In “That Other Door,” Sexton reveals one family’s complicated story of struggle and loss in just 16 lines — a difficult task, but he nails it.
People familiar with the city will enjoy Sexton’s prose about its well-known areas and landmarks, including Boott Cotton Mills, Lower Belvidere, the Merrimack River, Wamesit Falls and the Whistler House Museum of Art. Natives will recognize some of the city’s characters between the lines. Sexton’s prose is not flowery or pretentious, but accessible and real. His language grabs, holds on and doesn’t let go.
Most of all, Sexton’s poetry connects Lowell’s dots, from the bustling mill town, to the ethnic melting pot, tightly-knit community, historic city and rich urban landscape. Each poem unveils something new, and at times breathtaking, about one of the Merrimack Valley’s most diverse and interesting places, and about the people who have called it home.
Bridge Street at Dusk
By Tom Sexton
Painting is “Central Bridge by Boot Mills,” copyright © 2012 by Richard Marion