Apr/May 2003 Poetry

The Saugus

by Tom Sheehan


The Saugus


The river here
heaves up on the bank
like an old man getting into bed.
Birds cry downstream.
A gull perfects a theft,
executes a drastic turn in air
that could break bones.
I do my walks
dutied like perimeter guard,
shoulder walking cudgel
the way I carried a carbine
back there at twenty-three,
know the pound of it to an ounce;
knowledge of the scabbard hangs on.
I'd rather the river
and the tired water's run
as seventy-four years weigh heavy as a canteen.
Nothing's like a river's
to and fro against the sea,
tide-wash, catch of kelp, air sting
full of briny sea's salad smells,
perpetual anger, always earth-dig,
sand-flush and rock-wear, drag on the moon,
where ship ghosts and canvas call.
The river's never lonely:
dancing grass by bank and levee
keeps nests of redwing blackbirds
hidden away like keys in a pocketbook,
holds scum of illegal drain, used rubbers,
cat-o-nines high and proud as Fourth of July
rockets ready for the final match to strike,
rats waiting for the ultimate revolution,
artifacts of time like Ford fenders, Chevy wheels,
down behind the minister's house where the slope
is steep and you don't have to work hard to belabor
a river that's been harder at living for longer than we.


I measure all the contributors
the Saugus has from here to the sea;
computer cops say garbage in garbage out:
and I think the birds die,
a river dies, bank grass gets burned
without flame ever on the make,
silt is sludge of tune-up residue,
dance of dark foam makes images
needing little imagination.

The mill turns its back
when the chemicals burn even the spigot,
coarse landfill the contractor brazened out
is sour where fish hesitate to cast their lot,
old service station leaks into the underground
where roots linger and grease takes its time.
Neighbor gives his gifts in direct pipe drop,
turns his back like the mill does,
pretends he doesn't hurt the Saugus.


My Saugus hurts.
Dashed blue trout have gone,
birds move away from oily contributions,
people pass by and don't know the river's terror
and that hurts more than all.


Some nights,
grant me my mystic choice
when wind's blowing out to sea
and I am on my perimeter walk at river bank,
there's no other joy. Upriver comes down,
pasture and field fall on me, woodland walks,
new cut hay hurries itself, a new salad of smell.
Porcupine and rabbit and deer and such merry folk
of talk and tale crown the river air, give hope,
ride over me, say river does not die.


Everything smells here.
Going away. Losing. Six o'clock Fridays.
Monday departure for work. Wood choppers.
Police escort and ambulance. Town Hall offices.
Riverside Cemetery in May like popcorn.
Not having enough money at the checkout counter
(and hardly enough food).
A deep breath any place on the Turnpike.
Park Press halfway burned down.
The men's room in McCarrier's.
Tumble Inn Diner at six Monday morning.
Any doctor's waiting room. MBTA buses.
People who don't believe me. Viet Nam veterans
because of their eyes. The whole town the night
Odd Fellows Hall burned right to the bricks.
VFW carnival. Pop Warner refreshment stands.
Saugus High locker rooms for a thousand years.
Back rooms and back stairs at nursing homes.
But most of all the river smells.


We speak of alternatives.
I know of none for river place.
Have seen upriver dredging fall
away to politics and budget stress.
But in the bottom of my tackle box,
having worn hook and worm and salmon egg,
lies a picture of the 17-incher from years ago.

Now I wait for crystal dreams, the flow
of white waters, earth being lapped clean
the whole sing-song length of banks,
a flashing beneath arching alders
as boulders ease in their washing,
as bones of the old river
come up like trail skulls,
and trout find their memories
ripe and turbulent and explosive
all down the river's curves.


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