David Mason
(February 1998)




The Country I Remember

[In this, the title section of a long poem, the widowed Mrs. Maggie Gresham is speaking in Los Angeles, 1954, about having left her family and the powerful influence of her father. At this point in Maggie's narrative, it is the early twentieth century.]


By the time the train pulled into Portland, I
knew there was no one who could save my life
but me. Now I was twenty-nine years old,
a spinster with a love of poetry
and no money, experienced at cooking.
Portland was a brick city on the river
with some degraded shanties for the poor.

Fishermen, lumberjacks and prostitutes,
bartenders and bankers rambled her streets,
and I saw quickly it was rougher than
the frontier village that my father knew.
And wet. I swear it rained all winter long,
the smell of fish and cut wood everywhere.
I spent a week just wandering the streets,

looking for work to pay for my hotel,
but what could I do? I couldn't bring myself
to sing in a saloon with sawdust floors
or join the mission at the riverfront.
I saw that I had lived with family
to fortify me far too many years,
and I would have to learn to live alone.

The hotel keeper, Mr. Jenkins, must
have pitied me; he offered me a job,
first as kitchen help, then behind the desk
keeping his accounts. It paid my room and board
and something extra that I set aside--
my first Christmas away from home I sent
small presents to the folks in Pomeroy.

I had a private room on the first floor,
and bed and dresser and electric light
for reading so I didn't strain my eyes.
"It rains across the country I remember."
That was a line from Trumbull Stickney, read
in another room some other, later year,
but I remember feeling it in Portland,

closing my eyes and burrowing in the sheets
to listen to the water streaming down
the walls outside, the brick streets rushing
all that dark water downhill to the river
where it kept on going silently to sea
and clear across the China. I was alone.
I was alone and it was more than I could bear

to lie there listening to that driving rain.

                         *

Maybe that is why we go on talking,
always trying to show someone we're here,
and look--I have a past just like you do,
a stream of words that fills the empty night
and sweetens troubled dreams, or so we hope,
and tells us not to linger long on bridges
staring at all the water passing by.

I thought my whole ambition was to make
the past and present come together, dreamed
into a vivid shape that memory
could hold the way the land possesses rivers.
They in turn possess the land and carry it
in one clear stream of thought to drink from
or water gardens with.

I learned that I must first talk to myself,
retelling stories, muttering a few
remembered lines of verse, to make the earth
substantial and to bring the sunlight back.
I thought of all the bones out on the prairie,
of Mrs. Kress who came aboard our train
in a tight corset, so my sister Beatrice

said she looked like an ant. I thought of land
that flowed far out beneath us like a river
turning the dead face-upward in the wake
to talk to us of all their ruined lives
in a Babel of tongues. And then I knew
I worked to keep these troubled dreams at bay
and keep the talking dead from drowning me.

"It rains across the country I remember."

                         *

When spring came, Mr. Jenkins offered me
employment of another kind--a ring
along with all the duties of a wife.
He'd put his best suit on when he proposed
and I could see why others might have faltered,
fearing nights alone, but I was expert
at saying no and hardly knowing why.

I told him I would move to California.

 

 


from The Country I Remember
1996 by David Mason.