Merrimack and Me

I didn’t go to my college graduation. The year was 1970, and student unrest over the Vietnam War had been boiling for some time. On April 29th, US and South Vietnamese forces entered Cambodia, and demonstrations immediately erupted on college campuses throughout the country.

The afternoon of May 4th was clear, with the jacket-weather crispness of early spring. I had driven up through Andover Center to the Merrimack College campus and was almost to the student parking lot. The car radio interrupted its broadcast; four students had just been killed on the campus of Kent State, shot by Ohio National Guard troops. I remember clearly my first emotion; “they’re killing us.” In the light of history, the categories of “they” and “us” were complex, but for myself, and thousands of other college students at the time, there was no confusion. The shootings were a sharp personal assault, and life just could not go on as before. So by the end of the day, the students of Merrimack College, along with those in over 450 colleges and universities around the country, were on strike.

Marchers leaving the Merrimack Campus.

Merrimack was a small college at the time. It was founded in 1947, just after World War II, by a Catholic order of priests (the Augustinians,) who projected a need for colleges in the suburbs of Boston to educate the returning soldiers from World War II and the subsequent baby boom. In 1970, with 2000 students and 500 in each class, it was smaller than many urban high schools. Classes were small, the professors were accessible, and there was only the large cafeteria and basement lounge in the student union for common areas. There was a real sense of community among the faculty and students.

Students march down Main Street in Andover Center

So when the strike was declared, it was a personal thing, a rift in the family. And it wasn’t just a rift between students and faculty. For two years, I had been part of a loosely organized on-going game of hearts in the basement lounge of the student union. Of the six or eight guys that floated in and out of this game, half of them were older ex-servicemen getting their college education on the GI bill. All of them had been involved in the ongoing war in one way or another. Their beliefs and priorities were very different from those my age who still faced the draft and service in Vietnam.

For me, the rift in the college community was even more personnel. My father began his teaching career at Merrimack College, when the college was a tiny affair operating out of a gym and some other temporary buildings. After several years, he left Merrimack to teach at the University of Maine in Bangor. In 1958, when I was 10, the college had grown large enough to have a separate Mathematics department, and my father returned as the first chairman. I had been in and around the school for most of my life. I knew the smell of every classroom, the rumble of every elevator. I knew nearly all the faculty: the faint Italian accent of the engineering professor Mr. Parotta, the laugh and mannerism of the half dozen members of the Math department. As a child, I could walk past waiting students into my father’s window office, and put my feet up on his desk if he wasn’t around.

The details of the strike have faded. It was much the same across the country; the students formed a committee, a list of demands was created, there were negotiations. Agreements were made about more student input into the college. But the strike was not about the school really. There was a much bigger drama being played out, and this small school was just one little act. Looking back, what I now appreciate was the grace with which the school, the administration and the faculty, handled the whole thing. There was no panic, there was no retribution that I remember. There were meetings. I remember that Dr. Parotta, a native of Italy where the political spectrum is much more vivid and above board than in America, asked a group of us exactly what was it that we wanted. Our lists made little sense; we wanted so much, and really nothing that they could offer.

The “Flagpole Incident,” where marchers lowered the flag in front of the town library.

I don’t remember if classes ever resumed. The semester fizzled to an end. A graduation was held, but I had no heart for it. In my sadness and rage at a deeply divided country, I was walking away from a longtime love, and there were no words or actions that could stop me.

Lummox Number Nine: October 2020

Received this year’s issue of the Lummox Anthology today: Lummox Number Nine. I have all nine of these anthologies, and they are powerful collections of poetry, short stories, interviews and art. In the past 26 years, Lummox Press has published over 200 titles. What a great contribution to the poetry world!

I am honored to have these three poems in this year’s Lummox. More than that, I am honored to have “Morning Ghazal for Poison Ivy” and “Again” chosen for Honorable Mention in the Angela Consolo Mankiewicz Poetry Prize contest.

Morning Ghazal for Poison Ivy

A chameleon glowing green to rusty red, that’s poison ivy
From early Spring to first snow-fall, many shades of threat, that poison ivy

A snake that seeks the sun along a damp road waiting
as walkers pass their boots across the edge, that’s poison ivy

Heat lamp like a desert sun burned the blisters dry as I,
a restless child, lay confined in bed by poison ivy

My brother fell from the elm tree once—
of all the things he learned to dread, it wasn’t poison ivy

At my mother’s funeral, regrets appear
on the edge of words, unsaid, like poison ivy

Listen Francis Xavier, savor the light this morning
through dream-born half-flight, free of ghosts,
and that bastard poison ivy.

after Joy Harjo

No matter what, we must cry to live
a family around a chrome-legged table
farmhouse groaning under winter wind
an empty chair, the sudden end of a world

No matter what, we must eat to live
the world a scared pine table
two of us in a cramped kitchen
that was one beginning
one long ago world

No matter what, we must shed our skin to live
at a maple table a few steps from the kitchen
morning light splashing
across the scratched wood floor
The world can begin here, at this table

where we two can say what can only be said here
as a day, a year, a world long enough to be a life
folds into the beginnings and endings
that stretch beyond our comprehension
perhaps the world ends here
again, and again.

Coffee Cup Rosary
after Juan Felipe Herrera

Our Father who sat in silence
hallowed by thy thoughts,
thy troubled times,
they meditations,
that haunt those who go on without you.
Give us this day thy spirit,
as we face our doubts and transgressions,
filter them through thy coffee and smoke,
let us find the strength you found,
in the dark of the early morning,

Hunger, Migration and Ballinrostig

Today I’m going to talk about the second major topic of Irish history, “The Hunger.” Outside of Ireland this is sometimes called the “Irish Potato Famine,” but in Ireland is viewed a little bit differently.

The English had ruled over Ireland in one form of another since 1168. The form and strength of this rule ebbed and flowed, and many books have been written about the details. There were many rebellions. But in the 16th and early 17th century, a policy of confiscation, in which Irish land was given to English “landlords,” shaped the history to come. The protestant Oliver Cromwell was particularly brutal. After yet another rebellion, Cromwell re-conquered Ireland in 1653. By the close of his campaign, around half of Ireland’s pre-war population was killed or exiled as slaves.

By the mid 1800’s, most Irish were poor tenant farmers, and like sharecroppers here in the U.S., they grew crops for sale to pay rent. When the potato crop failed, hundreds of thousands of farmers were evicted for their land. Nearly a million people died of starvation, and English landlords for the most part turned a blind eye to the catastrophe. As an example, the export of food to England remained high while so many were dying of starvation and disease.

Faced with such a situation, just as in Guatemala and El Salvadore today, anyone who could leave, left. In 1841, before the worst of the crop failures, the population of Ireland was 8.2 million. Twenty years later is was 5.8 million, and by 1900 the population of Ireland was less than 4.5 million. By ancestry I am three-quarters Irish, descended from people who left Ireland in the 1800’s.

When returning from a trip to Ireland, Irish-Americans are often asked “did you find out where you are from?” My father traced one branch of our family to a Maurice Kearns, who, as a child of two, came here with his mother, Betsy Kearns, a twin brother Frank, and five older siblings on the ship Parliament. Courtesy of, I have an image of the birth record of a Maurice Kearns, born about the right time in Cork, Ireland. I could never make out the scrawled name of the town.

Colb Heritage Center1200

Colb Heritage Centre

Our tour bus took us down to Colb to visit a renouned cultural heritage center. Colb sits on a beautiful protected harbor, and was a major departure port for Irish Immigrants, as well as the last stop for the Titanic on her ill-fated voyage. There, a docent took one look at the illegible handwriting, and said “Oh, that’s Ballinrostig, not too far from here.”

I found the name Ballinrostig on Google maps. It is no not even a village, but rather a “T” intersection in the peninsula that protects the harbor of Colb. It is less than a mile from water in three directions: the ocean to the South, the outer bay of Lough Mohan to the North, and the channel from the bay to the ocean on the West. The entire peninsula, about 2 miles long and almost as wide, is flat, and now covered with a puzzle patchwork quilt of small farming plots roughly the size of one or two football fields.

In the left corner of the T at the intersection is a cute white pub with a sign “Poc car Buile.” A reviewer on google maps writes “Lovely rural country Pub, olde worlde style but with some modern touches, owner ran, very friendly, great music.” Another writes “Nice little country pub with Gunniess like cream.”

Ballinrostig Pub 1200 x 675

Poc car Buile

If you take a right, past a couple of small houses on either side of the road, you come to the Ballinrostig Organic Cheese company. It looks like yet another home, only slightly larger than the rest. Their website features shades of yellow and orange, the smiling couple who are the proprietors, and wheels of cheese of many types, stacked in a small storage room.

There are so many uncertainties in this whole genealogical chain that there is no way that I can claim that this is really the town where one of my ancestors was born. But now that the English are gone, it looks like a peaceful enough place—with good beer and cheese readily at hand, and music too. A mile or so of farmland in every direction, and the Irish Sea to the South. So for now I think it will do.

Ballinrostig Satellite 1200Ballinrostig

Casting Deep Shade

This posthumous book by the poet C.D. Wright defies all my expectations of what a book of poetry (or any genre, for that matter) should be. And yet I am entranced by it.

When I pick up this book, it has the weight of a sculpture. And a haunting photo of a Beech tree, which is the starting point of the book.

The inside cover. C.D. Wright and another glorious Beech.

The inside covers unfolded. The pages of the book sit like a tablet on the inside covers. Every time I open this book it creaks like an old house in the wind.

The pages: words, and amazing photographs.
To be clear, these are not poems in the classic sense. And if you are looking for a 3-act narrative arch, take a pass on this.The book is a meditation on the Beech tree, and her life, and our place on the planet. Just beautiful.

October is the Orange Month

I was looking through my electronic pile for poems about Fall. I found this one, written a few years ago and lost in the mist of time.

October is the Orange Month
Across the back field to the woods
October is the orange month
and when the low sun lights the leaves
after a long September rain
the glow is almost like a fire
that fills the air with what one could
mistake for warmth, but no—
more like the colored sunset
that celebrates the leaving of
the light, the heat, the life itself
the bonfire of the long green day
Come take the October foliage cruise
come see the spasms before sleep
the end of photosynthesis
for all that is deciduous
those of us that still remain
will shelter with the evergreen
whose bitter sap and needle points
stand head bent when the winter comes
to scrub the landscape clean

Grandfather Poem

One of a series of meditations on the arc of our lives.

John T. Wrinkle (1883 – 1973). Born in Missouri. Contracted polio at 3 years old, orphaned at 8.
Won a scholarship to MIT, graduating in 1906 with a degree in architecture.

If he thought at all
about social standing
and what it meant to
work at a desk
and wear clean suits
it was probably just
in the hazy way
that most of us stumble
through teen-age years
he wasn’t much for
horsing around
a teen-age boy
is a boy apart
when his body has
let him down
but he was bright
as bright could be
If he felt at all
out of place
in the Boulevards
of Copley Square
the halls of university
if he did he carried it
tweed wool suits
every picture a tie
a cane
always seated
pipe thin legs
shielded by trouser creases
modeling peace
modeling slow and steady work
laid out before us to
take and hold or not
a quiet place to start the ride
into our own tumultuous age.
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Nineteen Forty-six

One of a series of meditations on the arc of our lives.

Ellen Wrinkle and Donald Kearns: Ellen’s Senior Prom at American International College, Springfield, Massachusetts. 1946

She and he wrote letters

across miles of New England that—
viewed from here
are always gray
and white and black
looming trees by every house
narrow streets with
sputtering Fords—
the trees were green
in forty-six
the railroad between
Springfield and New Bedford
was soot-silver and
blue cloth seats
red signal lights
sun-lit hours
that stretched across
the Taunton Woods
past Providence and Boston
and roared toward infinite
days and months and
years and years ahead

Welcome to SoCalYankee, writings by Frank Kearns. Thanks for reading!
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Charles Dickens on Christmas

There are many Christmas poems, and I’m always on the lookout for new ones. What I really like, though, are poems that reach out beyond the obvious Christian message to something more universal.

 I would love to hear about your favorite Christmas Poems!

The popular Carol “I Heard the Bells On Christmas Day” comes from a poem “Christmas Bells” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807 – 1882). Written in 1863 during the heart of the Civil War, it reflects world turmoil similar to what we all might feel today. Omitting three dark stanzas about the Civil war, it goes:
 I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
    And wild and sweet
    The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
    Had rolled along
    The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
    “For hate is strong,
    And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
    The Wrong shall fail,
    The Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good-will to men.”
This is still a little sappy for me, depending again on the mighty hand of God to make everything right again. My current favorite Christmas “poem” is actually a poetic section from a Charles Dickens essay, What Christmas Is As We Grow Older.

                                  Welcome, everything!
                             Welcome, alike what has been,
                                   and what never was,
                               and what we hope may be,
                         to your shelter underneath the holly,
                       to your places round the Christmas fire,
                           where what is sits open-hearted! 

And here is a link to the complete essay. Enjoy!

What Christmas Is as We Grow Older; Charles Dickens

Best Christmas Ever (in response to a writing prompt)

Best Christmas Ever 

                        Like asking which of your children you love the most
There was the first Christmas
when I was the prince
unknowing head of the grand-kids brigade
There was Christmas in Maine
warm house         a turkey
a small model train
There was grandparents Christmas
loving old man         silvery woman
polished wood floors        light in the windows
There was growing boys Christmas
with pairs of real skis
endless days in the snow for my brother and I
There were years of dark Christmas
not too many I guess
sitting in quiet and counting the losses
There were Christmases      children
my wife’s loving tree
home-made decorations placed to cement
our hearts to our family
to ancient ancestors 
to dim winter evenings
to bonding of campfires
after a low-passing
sun has gone down
now Christmas is lights
strung up on the houses
ornaments carefully tended and hung
and after all of the parties have passed
along with the crowded living room mornings
Christmas comes as it will            year after year

and rests on our shoulders     a dusting of snow
© Frank Kearns 2016