“Cummiskey Alley: New and Selected Lowell Poems” by Tom Sexton; Loom Press, Lowell, Massachusetts, 2020; 160 pages, paperback, $20.

When Tom Sexton and I last met in Belfast he was on his way back to Eastport after spending several days in Lowell, Massachusetts, where he’d read a poem for the 60th reunion of his high school class. The poem, “Remembering Lowell High School,” is in his new collection, “Cummiskey Alley: New and Selected Lowell Poems.”

It has Sexton’s typical understated astonishment at whatever piece of the world he’s got in mind; in this case, it’s his sense of deep personal antiquity. The poem ends simply and forcefully with a short list of names from high school, and even though you have no idea who “Wojas, Frazier, Cote, Anderson” were, you sense how deep they live in Sexton’s own memory. Which is to say, very deep. Laying down plainly stated but musical sentences and simply but fully sketched images, he has an astonishing way of getting his memories to give your own memories shape you never knew they had.

The book contains a section of new poems, a good many of which sound like they were written on the impetus of that trip to Lowell, and sections taken from “A Clock with No Hands” (2007) and “Bridge Street at Dusk” (2012), both with the same subject matter — Tom Sexton’s Lowell. There are poems recalling family and neighbors from his working-class Irish neighborhood (“Coal,” “Visions of Gerard at the Kerouac Monument”), incidents (“Rogers Hall, 1947 — for Anne Sexton”), the mills, the church, and places, including the title poem which sounds like it was written on that reunion trip.

“Cummiskey Alley” opens with a typically simple, evocative image: “It’s Sunday morning with church bells ringing / as a family speaking Spanish rushes by me / in this narrow alley named for Hugh Cummiskey.” Cummiskey, we learn, led a crew of Irish laborers who dug Lowell’s canals in the 19th century. Let me give you the last two stanzas complete, so I don’t vitiate them with summary:

 

When I reach the Market Street end, a man

sitting in a Caddy with all its windows down

is listening to a talk-show host with Boston-Irish

accent loudly praising President Trump’s wall.

“Send them all back, send them all to hell,”

he shouts then, smiling, he looks at me and says,

“The bastards never even try to learn the language.”

 

A few blocks away from where he’s parked his Caddy

a Yankee mob tried in 1831 to burn St. Patrick’s

church to the ground and drive the Irish out of town,

a mob driven back to town in a panic

by Irish women who had armed themselves with

paving stones, stones they carried in their aprons.

 

This is the kind of writing whose simplicity and elegance inspires you to do it too, and makes you think you can. Then you find out you can’t. He’s already spoken for you, and practically everybody else.

“Luminous memories are our best defense / against what’s coming.” For memories of growing up in working-class Massachusetts, three Maine poets understand it exceptionally well: Sexton, Thomas Moore and Judith Robbins.

Tom Sexton grew up in Lowell, looped to Alaska where he taught at the University of Alaska and served as the state’s poet laureate 1995-2000. Along the way he revisited his New England roots and bought a house in Eastport, where he alternates with living in Anchorage. He and his wife, Sharyn, didn’t make it back to Maine this year because of the covid crisis.

Sexton’s other books include “A Ladder of Cranes,”  “Li Bai Rides a Celestial Dolphin Home” and “For the Sake of the Light,”  among others. “Cummiskey Alley” is available through local book stores and online.

Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine connections the first and third Thursdays of each month. Dana Wilde is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Contact him at [email protected].

Comments are not available on this story.