Today’s contributor is Jerry Wemple, who is a featured reader in the upcoming Writers’ Showcase: Spring Edition. Jerry Wemple describes himself and his work:
A Pennsylvania native, Jerry Wemple writes frequently about the people and places of the Susquehanna Valley. His work includes three poetry collections: You Can See It from Here, selected by Pulitzer Prize-winner Yusef Komunyakaa for the Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award, The Civil War in Baltimore, and most recently The Artemas Poems. His poetry and essays have been published in numerous journals and anthologies including internationally in Ireland and Chile. He is the recipient of several awards for writing and teaching including a Fellowship in Literature from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and the Word Journal chapbook prize. He is a Professor of English at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.
Jerry’s featured poems for “The Obsequious Pen,” are the following: “Nickel Rides,” “Bridge,” and “Tapies.”
Back in the days when your grandfather’s father,
maybe his father, was a young man down at the shore
amusement piers or the scruffy city lots over near
the wrong side of town, they used to call them nickel rides.
Steel boxes jacking up and down, bucking around,
make your back feel like it was worked over with crowbar,
your hips like they was smacked with a plank.
Back in my day, word was out about those nickel rides
on the Philly streets. I was in from the country, hard
down by the river and the woods, but even
I knew what was what. Saw clear enough that one day
while stretching my legs near the 30th Street station
waiting in between long-run trains, when the paddy wagon
pulled up and four cops jumped out, jumped a man I hardly
noticed, whacking him good with long sticks. I figured soon
enough that I needed to take a left, cross the street,
head up another, act like never saw nothing, especially
a side-vision glance of him being cuffed and dumped
in the back of the wagon for a nickel ride. That unit
screech-lurching down the street like the driver wanted
to bust the brakes and run out all the gas all at once.
First off, the war on drugs is a concept. There ain’t a war on drugs;
there’s a war on people. All wars have casualties, atrocities.
All wars have losers. Only some wars have winners. Tonight
I see Charm City up in flames. Orange tongues of fire taunt
us from brick buildings. The old people say it’s just as it was
back as the King riot, nearly fifty years ago. They say
the neighborhood ain’t changed much since those days.
We had one good store. Now it’s burnt. Kids too young to remember
Tupac let alone Reverend King dodge in and out of focus,
like they were spun off their own nickel rides, dazed from the experience.
Philly, Baltimore, D.C. – I’m not much for cities. But a twist of fate,
a change of luck, and I could’ve been. Missed being born in Baltimore,
city of my conception, by a few weeks or a month. I got a parcel of kin
buried in the German saint’s cemetery in the Manayunk section of Philly.
Generation or two before them it isn’t hard to fathom other blood kin,
all those years removed, being sold in an auction lot in swampy D.C.
Of course, there’s a war on despair, too, though not official
and having no spokesperson. It’s often erratic, explosive even,
but is long-going like the rest. Likewise, despair too is a concept,
and so needs a people enemy. And sometimes it’s them, but in the end it’s us.
Me, I avoid the nickel rides. I watch on my TV what’s happening
one hundred fifty miles downriver in slacked-jawed sorrow.
Someday soon, he says, I'll go to sleep and not wake up. You tell him no. -- Richard Hugo
Tuesday night and I’m driving over the river bridge
that connects the old highway to the village.
The bridge is long, and low, and lighted.
Rain water drips from the rounded steel side railings.
No other traffic is on the bridge, and I think
how easy it would be to pull to the side,
slip from the car, and slide into the darkness below.
It’s been raining for days: the water is fast and cold.
It would only be a moment.
Tonight firefighters and volunteers search
for a seventy-something woman who disappeared
in another village ten miles downriver. In two days
they’ll find her washed up a bit farther down,
jammed against a log on the north end of Packer’s Island.
Had she missed the island, gone another mile or so,
she’d have spilled over the dam at the south end of Sunbury,
churned and churned in the water until morning
when some passing trucker on the nearby bridge
phoned it in to the county dispatch.
The woman’s husband knows she always gets sad
come the short days, the long nights, that he needs
to be on guard when she says she’s going for a walk.
He knows, despite the saying, there are some things time
does not erase. Cold rain can seep deep into the hollow.
I’m no expert, but I remember from my Navy days:
a few minutes in the water this time of year and the limbs
go numb, breathing is labored, the heart is taxed then
shuts down. That’s why it’s rare. Damn near no one
walks back out of the river once they go in.
Tonight I finish my trek across the bridge,
turn right on a side street, pull into the lot
of a neighborhood grocery. Inside I say hello
To the store clerk, then search the bright
Ordered aisles for the things I need.
Hot summers we played ball in the carnival lot
using tapies, old baseballs, covers worn and gone,
held together by quarter rolls of electrical tape
pilfered out of our fathers’ garages or bought
from the discount bin in Guffey’s Hardware
with pennies and nickels earned from bottles
redeemed at Jean’s corner store. Those summers
Were hot, the nights never cool enough, still
Mornings we’d be out by eight, the air already
heavy, sky filled with a haze that would remain
until the evening rains. We’d pound the ball all
summer, using wooden bats too long or too short,
too heavy for our arms. With tapies, even the kids
without mitts could catch a fly ball, though we usually
had enough gloves to go around if we picked sides carefully
and shared. Those days our fathers, or worse,
our stepfathers, laid off from the mill would drink
cheap drafts from noontime on down at Shaffer’s Tavern,
watching the Phillies lose again on an old-style set
with rabbit ears and adjustable dials, mounted
sturdily on a corner shelf next to the Schmidt’s
beer clock. The men would grouse about the heat,
about the snow last winter, about maybe moving
to Florida, someplace where there was no need
for the expense of winter coats and winter tires.
And sometimes in the fall a kid would be missing:
Bobby, or Timmy Mathis who lived a few blocks over
past the Spruce Street cemetery and who none of us
much liked anyway. Still, he was good for another
outfielder, willing to play catcher, and now he was gone,
disappeared. Our fathers would sweat as they walked
the afternoon blocks home, just in time to cut the backyard
before supper. We’d scuttle home too, dusty, scraped,
our shirts and hair matted wet. After supper, our fathers
might take a call on the kitchen phone from a cousin
who says they’re hiring drivers up at the bread plant.
But more than likely they’d go out on the back porch
with one more bottle of F&S beer and think about how
two years ago, when the mine shut down in the town
over the mountain, six hundred union jobs just disappeared.
And we’d drift back over to the carnie lot for a few more
innings, play a few minutes past when it was too dark
to see the ball. Fireflies would be blinking in the deep
outfield. And when it was our turn to bat, we’d swing
with all our might, smack that crinkled cover of the make-do ball,
hoping to make it safely home.
The Writers’ Showcase is an event that features readings of poetry and prose from Pennsylvania based writers. The Writers’ Showcase: Spring Edition will take place on Saturday, March 3, 2018 at the Olde Brick Theatre, 126 W Market St. Scranton, PA from 7:00 p.m.-9:00 p.m. Admission is $4 at the door.