With his two previous books, “What Is the City?” (2006) and “Mill Power: The Origin and Impact of Lowell National Historical Park” (2014), centered squarely on the city of Lowell, Paul Marion’s latest release, “Union River: Poems and Sketches,” takes readers on a poet’s tour of America. From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., to the California coast, Midwest, Mississippi Delta, and back up to New England, the book’s robust sense of place is assembled brick by brick with poems and pieces of short prose written over the span of Marion’s 40-year career.
“Union River” is divided into themed chapters or “suites,” as Marion calls them. Like poetic picture postcards, each poem or story offers a sun-dappled glimpse of a specific place at a particular time. In the poem “Kansas City Stars,” Marion writes: “Rolling through the corn-box counties, the slaughterhouse states./Power line stanchions are robots in the fields.” In “Red Mud Road”: “Not brown-soil film but terra cotta dust on the porch table/Not far from where Rebel fighters chewed their last dry corn.”
Lowell and New England also have important roles to play in Marion’s American journey. In “The Yellow Gate,” we’re invited to sit beside him at a bistro table in Harvard Square’s old Café Algiers. You can almost smell the clean salt air of Down East Maine while reading “Burying Island,” and hear the deafening clatter inside a Lowell textile mill in “Majestik Linen.”
One of the book’s later chapters offers glimpses of what it was like to be a child of the Space Age. In the short sketch titled “Ducharmes’ Porch,” Marion, who grew up in Dracut during the 1960s, writes: “Mr. and Mrs. Ducharme on Cinderella Circle sat on their back porch every summer night with binoculars and a solar system map watching for odd lights in the sky.” In “Space Lunchbox,” he writes: “For me, in those days, Space as a concept meant the future. It was the next chapter of the American story.”
Along with Marion’s places come people. We meet eloquent union worker Harry Callahan in “Harry at the Lowell Conference,” the German Moravians who settled in the Carolinas in “Don’t Tell Jesse Helms,” and in “Crazy Horse,” Boston-born sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, who spent his life in South Dakota carving a monument to Crazy Horse on the side of a mountain, a project that continues to this day despite his death in 1982.
“To understand America, a good place to start is where you are,” Marion writes in the short essay “Cut From American Cloth.” And indeed, in “Union River,” Marion uses language to the fullest extent of its power to introduce us to his America — majestic and beautiful and flawed — a place that can be that can be viewed through binoculars from a mountaintop or considered up close through a magnifying glass. He asks us to not only see the people and places in his stories, but to feel the desert sand beneath our feet, the sun on our faces, the firm handshake of our neighbor.
Reading “Union River,” you are reminded why poems matter. When done right, they are the keys to locks we didn’t know could be opened, throwing wide windows and doors that lead us to places we never thought we’d go. If ever there was a literary equivalent to a traveler’s scrapbook, with its snapshots and ticket stubs and handwritten captions in the margins transporting us from one interesting place to another, “Union River” is it.
Union River: Poems and Sketches
by Paul Marion