Friday, August 19, 2016

Poetry in Transit: After the flood

I almost didn't submit for Poetry in Transit this year.

The theme of Poetry in Transit for 2015-2016 was "River," and for my submission I asked myself what I most thought of when I thought about the Susquehanna. I remembered sunrises and sunsets spent on the Nanticoke-West Nanticoke bridge. I remembered blue shadows of the bridge on the ice. But most of all I remembered the haunting images of stains left by book covers on the ceiling of an aunt's house in Wilkes-Barre after the 1972 flood, and the piles of accumulated treasures, trinkets, and mementos, waterlogged and left at the curb in West Pittston for weeks following the 2011 flood.


Books  pressed against the ceiling
a lifetime of memories at the curb
Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" at sunset
unseen fish breaking the surface of morning
girder shadows blue on the ice
thus will I remember you

The theme for Poetry in Transit 2016-2017 was "Flood." But I felt like I had already said what I wanted to say about floods. Anything else might feel forced, even redundant.

Besides, I wasn't feeling very poetic around the time the call for submissions came out. I had recently lost my muse, and I was in a pretty bleak mood.

For the past few years I have had a muse in my life. She was young, beautiful, and an amazing poet and writer. I was infatuated with her from the first time I had read her writing. I met her in person nearly a year later, completely accidentally, almost but not quite completely at random. We had a story together that was long and complicated or painfully simple and trite, depending on your point of view. We were never really a couple, but we did a lot of things together, and I got a lot of poetry (and several short stories) out of the deal.

Everything came to an abrupt end earlier this year. My muse was out of my life.

The aftermath hurt like hell. The past few years I had spent catering first to her needs, then her wants, then her whims. I had prioritized her above everyone and everything else in my life. When it was over I looked back at the wreckage of my life and realized what a mess I had made of my relationships with my friends and my family. I remembered the happy, fun things she and I had done together, places we had gone together, and now those memories all seemed tainted, ruined. I remembered how I had felt about her, and wondered if I would ever allow myself to feel that way again about anyone else.

As I tried to think of something to say with the theme of "Flood," nothing came to mind. I was blocked. I kept coming back to what an idiot I had been for imagining things might turn out differently than they had.  Any damn fool could have seen from the beginning that this was how things would end. It killed me to realize that everyone else had been right and I had been wrong. The worst part was how inevitable it now seemed. How predictable.

As predictable and inevitable as a flood coming to a community built on a river.

I knew then that - perhaps not for the last time - she had once again served as my muse.

I jotted down some lines. Revised them. Revised them again. Agonized over one word. Changed it. Changed it back. Erased the whole thing and started over.

Eventually I was done. I submitted it. Then I contacted a friend and told her I had found my poem.

This is dedicated to everyone who has been through a flood and survived, looked at the destruction it left, picked up the pieces, and got on with their life. It's especially dedicated to every person who sees it while riding the bus and thinks, "Yep. I knew someone like that."

After the flood

She tore through our world
turned homes into rubble
covered memories in muck
ruined all that we loved
But we have survived
We have rebuilt

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Poetry in Transit Rollout, August 19, 2016

The Poetry in Transit 2016-2017 Rollout will be Friday, August 19 at 5:00 PM at the downtown Wilkes-Barre Barnes & Noble on the Square (near Boscov's.)  This will be the third year that one of my poems will be featured as part of the project, which posts short pieces by local and regional poets in the advertising space of LCTA (Luzerne County Transit Authority) buses. This is a tremendous honor, and it's very exciting to know that someone may look at my poem and be touched by it, or be inspired by it - especially if that inspiration is in the form of "Hey! I can write something better than that! Next time they do one of these things, maybe I'll submit something!"

Here's an article about the event, which surprisingly features me pretty heavily:

Wilkes University, LCTA launch Poetry in Transit at Wilkes-Barre Barnes & Noble (Gene Axton, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader)

Homes turned to rubble, memories landed in muck and beloved locations ruined — rather than addressing the events of a flood directly with his contribution to this year’s Poetry in Transit collection, Nanticoke resident Harold Jenkins’ “After the Flood” aimed a spotlight at the corners of life that encroaching waters run into and disrupt. 
The 48-year-old writes from experience, letting memories of the 1972 and 2011 floods break through to his six-line poem. “After the Flood” is one of 15 works by local writers chosen for the flood-themed 2016 Poetry in Transit collection... (read more here, including a sneak preview of my poem for this year!)

UPDATE, August 18, 2016: The Citizens' Voice published an article today. I'm not mentioned in it, but my poem is used as the photo for the article! Mischelle Anthony, Sara Pisak, and Maddy Brozusky (aka Maddy Blake) are all interviewed:
Another local poet is Crestwood High School senior Maddy Blake, 17. Despite her age, Blake is an accomplished poet in her own right — a two-time “Poetry in Transit” veteran and long-time creative writer. 
“With this year’s theme being ‘flood,’ I was far too young to remember Agnes, so I chose to attack it from a much broader topic, bringing hope,” she said. 
Blake, who plans on enlisting in the Army after her final high school year, loves the uniqueness brought by the project that she believes “is missing from many other art endeavors.” 
“With ‘Poetry in Transit,’ you’re reaching an audience you never would’ve normally gotten,” she said. “Typically, with art-related things, you have the same crowd attending and patronizing ... With this, it’s exposing a brand new group of people each and every day to the writing, and it’s awesome that it’s in public spaces like this.”

A look back at my pieces from previous years:

My 2014 submission was an excerpt from "Hands," a poem I had written in November 2013. At the time Mischelle Anthony, who runs the program, knew me from my association with the Northeastern Pennsylvania Writers Collective and our readings at The Vintage in Scranton, so she assumed I was from Scranton. (I didn't notice the error until it was too late to correct.)

My 2015 submission was custom-written for the project, which that year had the theme of "River." I made a list of all of my most pressing memories of the Susquehanna River, and then recast them as a poem.  (I expanded the piece and read the longer version at the 2015 Rollout. You can see it here.) Two of those memories have to do with floods - the flood caused by Agnes in 1972, and the damage of the flood of 2011 - which made things difficult when it turned out the theme for 2016 was "Flood." But I found a way to deal with that.

To see how, you'll have to wait for the post that will appear after the Rollout!

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Baby Boy, 200? - August 3, 2016

Romeo, Baby Boy, and Hershey, the three animals we inherited from the neighbor when she died.
As of this writing, August 3, 2016, only Romeo is still alive.
We lost another cat today. This was one we inherited from the woman next door when she died back in 2011. She had given him the appalling name of "Baby Boy," which we kept, though I mostly called him "Mister Baby Boy."

I don't even know how old he was - at least 11, possibly as much as 14. Her husband died in 2001, and she had gotten herself some pets in subsequent years - first the pug Columbus (died in 2011, possibly causing the downward spiral in her physical and mental health that led to her death later that year) and the chocolate lab Hershey (who died in June of 2015), then the cat Tinker (ran away, presumed dead), the longhaired cats Romeo (still with us) and Juliet (died sometime prior to September 2011, when her mummified remains were discovered) and the tuxedo Baby Boy.

I had met her cats, though most of our encounters took place through a window. My first meeting with Baby Boy took place in the weirdest way. It was perhaps sometime in 2009 or 2010. I was on the phone with a friend, in my basement, when for some reason I looked up and saw a cat staring down at me from the rafters. "What are YOU doing here?" I asked. I caught him, and dropped him off at the neighbor's house. I have no idea how he got into the house. He may have slipped in while the garage door and the door into the garage were both left open at the same time while someone was packing out some stuff.

The neighbor actually turned the cats out of her house sometime around then, possibly even before he found his way into our house. After she went into the hospital in September 2011, never to return, we brought them back into her house while we were taking care of Hershey. After we moved Hershey into our house, we brought over the cats, too, though both Romeo and Baby Boy had habits of escaping back into the Great Outdoors. Romeo stopped doing that fairly quickly, but Baby Boy kept it up until he had a tussle with the local feral Tabbies, an encounter which left him with his scalp sliced open. (It healed quickly with daily applications of Neosporin, though the eyebrow whisker on that side never grew back, making him look like a lopsided Martian.)

He had the most striking eyes. That was the thing I noticed when I saw him looking down from the rafters. They were a yellow-green almost exactly the color of glow-in-the-dark stuff glowing, or the color of a firefly's light. I saw that glow for the last time today at the vet's. When the vet brought him back to us wrapped in a blanket after he had been put to sleep, the light had gone out.

Baby Boy seemed to have the worst reaction to the fireworks this past Fourth of July. He came to bed with me, something he had dome sporadically before Hershey died, but only rarely since Nikki died. He was panting hard and his heart was racing. He slept on my head, and by my side, and on my back, and on my hip.

Other than that I did not observe any major change in his behavior until recently. He continued to come to me during my morning ablutions for his treats, something he had been doing since long before Nikki died. But in the last week he had been coming back to bed with me, showing the same sort of restlessness and panting and racing heartbeat he had shown on the night of the Fourth of July.

In the last few days he had been panting even during the day. At first we thought it might be because he was hot - temperatures have been in the 90s lately. Then we wondered if maybe being near the air conditioner had brought on respiratory issues. He eventually moved from his perch near the air conditioner to a cool bar covered in linoleum - kicking off everything that was already there.

Today was the first day of my "weekend." After I made breakfast, fed the cats, and did all of my other morning routines, I Googled the phrase "cat keeps panting." The information I found online was not encouraging. In short: if this is a real issue, it will not get better on its own, and even with treatment, the prognosis is very, very poor. My mom observed his tongue-out panting today and decided to make an emergency appointment with the vet for 3:20 this afternoon.

Baby Boy was calm - and not panting - as we got ready to take him to the vet. He didn't complain much when I put him in the carrier. He stayed calm as I set the carrier on the lawn to make room for him in the back seat. He didn't cry until my mom got into the back seat with him. But the whole way up he has perfectly calm - no panting. He didn't pant as we waited to be taken in for our appointment until I took him out of the carrier to hold him. After I put him back, he didn't pant until we took him out again for the vet tech to do a preliminary assessment.

The vet saw us at around 3:30 and quickly took Baby Boy in for X-rays. He confirmed that the panting the last few days was a symptom of fluid filling up Baby Boy's pleural cavity, making it increasingly difficult for him to breathe and for his heart to pump. The prognosis was grim: imminent death, possibly any minute, probably before we could get  him back home, certainly within the next week, or an extremely expensive procedure involving a tube into his pleural cavity to drain the fluid, followed by an extended stay in an oxygen tent, followed by imminent death.

When the vet tech brought him back from the X-rays his condition had worsened drastically. His breathing was audibly labored and seemed to be through liquid. His tongue was turning blue, and a few times he just lay on his side and stretched his legs out while gasping. The decision to opt for euthanasia was emotionally wrenching, but as his condition rapidly deteriorated we realized it was the right one, and the only one - unless he didn't last until the procedure.

He did.

He's gone now, and we'll have another box of ashes to add to the stack next week.

He was a good boy, a nice boy. He got along well with the other cats. He loved treats in the morning, and would often jump into my bed to wake me up if he thought I was sleeping too late. In addition to his striking eyes, he had the hilarious habit of lying on his back with his legs in the air, prompting the question "Baby Boy, are you dead?" How ironic that that question is now a happy memory of a cat who has died.

"O, I die, Horatio."
"Ummm, my name is Hershey. Can I eat your treats?"