“Cummiskey Alley” contains a broad selection of Lowell poems by Tom Sexton, a Northern Essex Community College graduate who went on to found the creative writing program at the Anchorage campus of the University of Alaska and publish many volumes of verse. At the end of this collection, in a short prose piece titled “On Becoming a Poet,” Sexton writes: “I have lived in Alaska for most of my adult life, but it has never shaped me the way my hometown, Lowell, Massachusetts, did and still does.” That line says much about the poetry in this book.
These are poems filled with remembrance and layers of history, and seem like faded postcards. How do you make poetry out of the stuff of Lowell? Well, often it begins with images of the forlorn, dull and broken down. Dead ends: economic, literal. But this is just the surface. Look deeper and you see a woman getting her nails done, spreading her hands “like a peacock spreads its tail to show its feathers to the world,” a man waking up at night for a chance encounter with a passing gaggle of geese, or a pot of milk, “heating on the stove for hot chocolate with drifts of cream like snow.”
The poems echo the thoughts of a solitary wanderer who experiences the world through his feet and is searching for moments in which the present dissolves into a past that might evoke pleasant memories or flash insight into what we have become.
Sexton expounds on this relationship between the city past and present in “On Becoming a Poet,” writing, “When I can, I walk Lowell’s streets accompanied by ghosts who can be surprisingly good company.” Sexton, now 80, details a 2019 amble through the city, launched from an Oak Street Airbnb in the neighborhood where he grew up. “I had a good visit,” he notes, “but the Lowell of my youth is gone.” After standing outside the shuttered Dana’s Luncheonette, he comes to the realization that he will “never complete another book of poems about my Lowell,” before heading off for a meal of mofongo and Dominican beer. This means that “Cummiskey Alley” may mark the end of Sexton’s long walks with the ghosts of the Mill City. As he continues to publish books of poetry — his 2018 collection “Li Bai Rides a Celestial Dolphin” is excellent — we can anticipate the chance to walk alongside him even if this means leaving Lowell behind. It also makes “Cummiskey Alley” both and introduction and conclusion to one of the great artistic endeavors devoted to our region.
By Tom Sexton