Cummiskey Alley: New and Selected Lowell Poems by Tom Sexton, a Literary Son of the City
A Review by Chath PierSath
I am not a native son of Lowell like Tom Sexton had been, but Lowell and I crossed paths serendipitously in 1996. I was looking for a job after I had returned from working as a volunteer in Cambodia, where I was born, with a local human rights organization. A friend said there was a Cambodian community growing in the city. With my experience, I could apply to work with one of the social and community organizations.
My first encounter with Lowell wasn’t very favorable, as the city was a sleepy, economically depressed hub where the mills were museum pieces to marvel at. It didn’t feel alive until I looked closer at her history. I found Jack Kerouac and plenty of hope, literature, education and like-minds to connect with in celebration, optimism, and creativity, visually and as expressed in writing among the local writers who were picking up pens where the previous generation left off to chart a new way of seeing, documenting, storytelling, and remembering Lowell as she was and as she was becoming, metamorphosing.
Though I have lived there for a short time, the literature I discovered, the education I received at UMass Lowell, and my relationship with a host of professors willing to coach and involve me in the literature of the region had made a big difference in how I considered myself among those who write in order to remember her and to document the new, ever-changing inhabitants who provide all the stories writers can tell.
It’s not the same experience to read about a place from a distance. The closer one gets to the social, cultural, and physical environment of a writer, the deeper one’s connection. Jack Kerouac had started it all—when far, he wrote about Lowell, and in his stories, Lowell got on the global map as a significant city so beloved by literary figures who had crossed paths like I did with her.
Tom Sexton does just that by connecting a reader to Lowell in his most simple, deep reflections. A reader senses a connection to the city’s soul and spirit, well and alive, transitioning, changing, her residents migrating in and out and changing, making Lowell a destination to remember and cherish, one immigrant or refugee story at a time, each with a personal story that inhabits our memory, the time in which we live and grow up. When far away, we search for old pictures in our hearts and minds knowing what we had known is long gone. Every new era is an adjustment in memory, and those writers who remember the past give us up close and personal history that enables us to connect with the progressive changes we experience, generation to generation.
Tom Sexton is a poet who remembers his past in this book about the larger story of his city. Through his eyes and ears, his heart and perceptions of his life in the context of his interaction with others, I gained a greater understanding of what Lowell used to be and why this mill town has had such an influx of immigration. The mills once provided a mountain of jobs and drew working-class people from all over New England into the city, many coming in the early days from Canada, Ireland, Germany, Greece, Italy, Poland, Portugal. Immigrants kept coming, enthralled by the bustling American sense of freedom, liberty, and economic opportunity and religious freedom, often fleeing war and religious persecution.
Tom Sexton reminds us of the contributions that immigrants made, especially his Irish ancestors who built Lowell’s canals or and are adding to the American democratic landscape, in particular in shaping a city like Lowell by adding to its prosperity and literary regeneration.
I decided to pick up a pen before I arrived in Lowell, but Lowell augmented my desire to write and remember more than any other city I had lived in, due in part of my connection with contemporary literary figures like Paul Marion, Tom Sexton, Jane Brox and others from the region, old and new. In doing so, I write to remember where I came from, how I got to a certain place, America, what it means to become an American, and to remember the experiences of the past so not to repeat the bad.
As Tom Sexton writes in “Cummiskey Alley,” those who remember are those we need to consult when we have wonder who we were and are, what we should become, what identity to take on, what humanity to cultivate so a city as diverse as Lowell can thrive in harmony and in peace, giving all people an equal chance to make the city safely their home.
It’s Sunday morning with church bells ringing
As a family speaking Spanish rushes by me
In this narrow alley named for Hugh Cummiskey
The Irishman who led his crew of “white niggers”
Thirty miles from Charlestown to dig the canals
That made Lowell’s mills the envy of the world.
Old buildings on both sides of the alley sag.
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 a Boston-Irish
Accent loudly praising President Trump’s wall.
“Send them all back, send them all to hell,”
He shouts, then, smiling, 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.
The key to the city of Lowell is passed like a baton to all those native sons and daughters, whose parents were born elsewhere, to unlock their own narratives and chart new paths, one poem or novel at a time, pen and notebook or a laptop tapping away, remembering, when far, the memories of home linger.
In “The American Dream,” Sexton writes:
From a block-long empty lot where mills
Still stood when I was young, I watch light
Fall on the far bank of the Concord River,
Light that must have fallen through high
Windows on workers stealing a moment
To read a worn letter from home, perhaps
In Irish saying I’m glad Liam found you work
In the dye house, your father’s had a little fall,
Or later one in Greek saying Bless you
Daughter, the landlord’s paid, we breathe.
Intertwined voices on the stairs at dawn
Climbing to learn the language of bobbin and loom.
Wind lifts a few scraps of paper from the lot.
They rise, swirl about, catch the light, fall back.