August 10, 2015
Commencing the Gallivant (after William Carlos Williams)
Among the branches
I saw the letter P
on a red
to metal clang
and debris thump
and wheels rumbling
through the dark suburb.
— Margaret DeAngelis, b. 1947
I left this morning for the annual Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Gallivant. My off-campus rental starts tomorrow, and the conference starts on Wednesday. It has been my pattern for several years now to drive as far as Albany (about five hours) and finish the last three hours the next day. I could do it all at once, and I often come home in one shot, but it is tiring. After my Albany overnight in 2011, I had a conversation with a stranger during my McDonald’s breakfast, and received the last image for the novel I did not know then that I would be writing. It has become part of my ritual to come back every year, looking for that energy, or the remnant of it.
Last week, going through some notes, I came upon a story that appeared in July, about a Florida scholar’s efforts to identify the man who owned the red wheelbarrow in one of William Carlos Williams’s most famous poems: so much depends/upon/a red/wheelbarrow/glazed with rain/water/beside the white/chickens. It was determined that Thaddeus Marshall, a street vendor who lived from 1852 until 1930, was the “old negro” Williams recalled whose chicken coop caught his attention one rainy day. Mr. Marshall’s grave was unmarked, and the scholar mounted an effort to remedy that omission.
What literary pilgrim/taphophile could resist a trip that was but a slight eastward jig from the road to Albany?
The poem I wrote this morning, given above, is an imitation of another of Williams’s most famous lyrics, “The Great Figure.” As I sat with my Coffee & Contemplation at my favorite spot on earth, my own kitchen table, for the last time until August 27th or so, I watched and listened to the Penn Waste trash truck make its lumbering, back-up-beeping way to the Dumpster behind the church that borders our property. As usual, I was filled with a mixture of anticipation and anxiety, about what I am heading into, about what I am leaving behind, about what I may have left undone.
It took me longer to get on the road (it always does) than I had planned, and longer than I had anticipated to get through a heavy rainstorm from Allentown to Bethlehem. I arrived in East Rutherford, New Jersey, about 2:00. First I visited what the articles I read said was Thaddeus Marshall’s house, although it looked different from the picture, and of course the chicken coop is long gone. Then I went to the house where William Carlos Williams had lived. It’s on the register of historic places, but it’s a private residence, so all you can do it stand outside and gaze at it. The foliage all around it is overgrown, and the property seems quite shabby. I didn’t even get out of the car to take a picture.
At the Hillside Cemetery I inquired at the office for the exact location of the Williams plot. As I curved around from the main road to park beside Section D, I was startled to look up and see the Manhattan skyline directly ahead of me, only 18 minutes via the Lincoln Tunnel. I had less success at the East Ridgelawn Cemetery in Clifton, where Thaddeus Marshall’s newly marked grave is somewhere in the acres and acres of rolling land dotted with thousands of markers. It was 4:15 by the time I got there, the office was closed, and a guard was going about closing the gates. I rode around for a bit, made it out before the man gate clanged shut at 5:30. Next time, Mr. Marshall, I said. Next time.
And I wrote another poem, this one an imitation of yet another famous Williams lyric.
This is just to say
I have visited
on a tree-studded hill
in New Jersey,
the Empire State Building rising
like a pencil in the distance.
I bowed my head.
I gave thanks for your work.
I came without flowers,
for I could find nowhere to obtain them.
two plums and some asphodel.
This is going to be the best Bread Loaf ever!