My neighborhood lies at the heart of Northampton, a small city in western Massachusetts.
At the same time that it’s geographically centered, this neighborhood is also isolated and a little wild. The Millyard, that’s the name of this place that few know and fewer use, is an odd assembly of old homes that used to house railroad workers. We live, by definition, on the other side of the tracks. And we like it that way — at least I do.
A few of us — my wife plus Figge and Melodie, the neighbors who abut our backyard — scheme over evening beers about bringing the community together. I decided to forge ahead by building then erecting The Millyard Poetry Box.
The idea came from that hot house of all things cool — Portland, OR. My brother’s family lives in the Hollywood District of that most white and most millennial of cities, where people hold nude biking parades and drink the best beer in the land. Of course, next door to my brother’s house stands a poetry box.
I took pictures of the Portland poetry box and built my own, then painted signs, inviting others to contribute.
My hope is that neighbors, even those who live in the wider area, will print poems they love or write the poems they wish they could read and drop them off at the box. I’ll then display a new poem every week or so.
I don’t imagine that keeping up with the flow of poems will be difficult work, rather like mowing the lawn in the Sahara Desert.
I, though, have a surfeit of poems, both written by me and those I’ve collected from other poets. My shack walls are postered with poems by Wendall Berry, Wislawa Szymborska, Jack Kerouac, and Mary Oliver. My buddy Sam Taylor, the renowned potter, writes me poems that I tack up on my wall. They are all candidates for the Millyard Poetry Box.
New England Palm Sunday Prayer is the first poem I hung in the box. It’s a poem I wrote a few years ago, and has been rejected by any number of publications. It’s found its place, the poetry box next to the railroad tracks. Walgreen’s Drugstore sits in the background across the tracks. This is self-publishing at its most primitive, and an improvement to the neighborhood.
I wanted to hang my poem Letter to the Neighbor who Calls the Fire Department When I Burn Illegally first, but my wife, Janet, warned me that a snarky first poem might set the wrong tone. She is right, which seems to be happening more and more the older I get. The poem is an invitation to my neighbor, whoever it is, to come talk to me before calling the authorities when burn brush. I set down four principles of our neighborhood, The Millyard:
- Pull your shades during intimacy
- Shovel your snow, help your neighbors shovel theirs
- Mind the kids, even if they’re not yours
- Spend a few moments chatting with neighbors, it thickens our bonds
Nobody asked me to set down what we believe here in The Millyard. It’s the opportunity I seized since I built The Poetry Box. If others would like to amend our principles, the Millyard Poetry Box is always open.
Below is the first poem hung at the Millyard Poetry Box.
New England Palm Sunday Prayer
During an early spring warming
we reveal ourselves in the north,
we’re in shorts
before the trees spread,
before leaves hide us
This Sunday before Easter,
the restless ride bikes and scooters
on the nearby bike path.
Some passersby watch me saw boards.
I, in turn, spy
one man try inflating a flat.
Pope Francis, a member of my Taoist, Episcopal, Stoic sect,
intones help is always right.
Straight as mercy can make me,
The local student says he’s at a loss.
I promise I’ll return
with air pump, tire irons and a new tube.
You couldn’t have broken down in a better place, I say.
We shake: His brown eyes sincere,
his hand splotched black from tire grime
When I reappear,
— the pump and irons as well.
I pray for my tools to get stuck in his spokes
sending him sprawling.
Bloody, I hope.
I put away my saw, hammer and level,
notice a lawn chair
— on it I find my returned irons and pump.
Tomorrow’s forecast is for cold rain.