Where quiet praise and deep grief meet

Poet David Livewell grew up in Kensington.
Poet David Livewell grew up in Kensington.
Posted: January 06, 2013


By David Livewell

Truman State University Press. 75 pp. $18.

David Livewell's Shackamaxon, winner of last year's T.S. Eliot Poetry Prize, takes its name from the Lenni Lenape word meaning "gathering place of chiefs."

Shackamaxon was also the name of a Lenape village along the Delaware where, legend has it, William Penn signed "a treaty of amity and friendship" with the native inhabitants of Pennsylvania. The village transmogrified into the Philadelphia neighborhoods of Fishtown, Kensington, and Richmond.

Livewell's work, both elegy and eulogy, is a meeting place of its own, where quiet praise and deep grief mingle: praise for the gritty streets and crusty characters of Philadelphia neighborhoods, grief for the passing of friends, family, and even the neighborhoods themselves.

"Specimens at Shackamaxon" puts almost all of it together: the "vacant lots that gaped through blocks/of Kensington like stab wounds," the houses "with their punch-drunk faces-toothless, raw/with shattered window panes," "the fumes from factories,/the yeast and hops of Ortlieb's brewery," "electric power plants and sugarhouses/belching their smoke across the Delaware."

But in the park, "the very earth where Quakers, led by Penn,/devised a treaty with the Lenapes, . . . each treetop blazed a headdress through the air,/old trunks as worn as leather moccasins . . . as if our own parade/of spirit chiefs were summoned from the depths."

Livewell, who grew up in Kensington, has an appreciative eye for the characters a city neighborhood can spawn, and he can limn them in a clutch of lines. And so, in "The Fireplug," we meet the "old woman who used an axe/to chop apart the vacant corner house/until the L&I ball leveled it." In "El Bar Patron," he captures the pathos, too, without patronizing it:

. . . Dotty Homer, sandwiched between two old-timers

half asleep on stools, lowers old eyes

that swell above her target-rings of rouge

until her drowning thoughts swim effortlessly

in an amber lake of Schmidt's. No lucky numbers,

her old address a loser.

These poems are filled with sentiment, but never veer into sentimentality. Livewell avoids that simply by presenting the occasion for the sentiment and not editorializing about it. Take, for instance, "The Firehouse":

One summer night we saw their flag at half-mast,

And my dad spoke the lilting Irish name

Of a dead fighter. Then our car drove past.

Like a torched floor, his voice began to crack,

And my dad coughed hard to find his own way back.

Livewell also avoids sentimentality by connecting things you might not think have any particular connection, as in the closing lines of "Landfill":

Each car that passes catches Spring


The highway's blurred guardrails,

As when

My dying father

Concealing cancer with his coat and tails,

Stood tall to dance without a bother


As though his youth returned

To sing Approval for

Our wedding day - with steps that bloomed and burned

In us, and on the polished floor,

Like Spring.

Note the subtle rhyme scheme gracing those lines. These are very technically adroit poems - so adroit, in fact, that one is apt not to notice that one is reading a sonnet or how supple those lines of blank verse are.

The book also has a narrative arc, starting with the history and geography of the neighborhoods, segueing through memories of childhood and adolescence, and concluding with a series of love poems addressed to the poet's wife and children. And there is heartbreak: ". . . the wired jaw that flashed a plated smile . . . the bloodied knuckles squeezing Marlboros/in a locked ward that couldn't bandage fear . . . the bald-headed Marine kicked home to us/as a scarred pirate."

There is, in fact, a lot packed into these pages, and for anyone familiar with these neighborhoods - as I was once, long ago - the emotions generated can be unsettling.

Henry David Thoreau once said that he had traveled a good deal in Concord. Well, David Livewell has traveled a good deal in Fishtown and Kensington and Richmond. And not just round and about, but deep, deep inside their spirit of place.

Frank Wilson is a retired Inquirer books editor. Visit his blog, "Books, Inq. - The Epilogue." E-mail him at presterfrank@gmail.com.

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