Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Union River by Paul Marion

Union River by Paul Marion.  ( Bootstrap Press)

Review by 
Kate Hanson Foster

Paul Marion writes, “To understand America, a good place to start is where you are.” A true “Poet of Place,” Marion’s Union River is a collection of writing that ranges from prose poems, to micro essays, to lyrical insights—all densely packed with the simple act of existing. Readers embark on a road trip where the concept of “America” becomes more than a country, a city, or spot on a map, but a place for the speaker to dramatize the state of consciousness and recognize the art of human life. In “Colorado” Marion writes, “I’m here but not grounded—a fresh context, Mid-continent, with only a map for proof.” Marion is a constant observer gleaning and communicating knowledge through the eye—giving us a verbal still life of images that comprehends the essence of place and one’s role within it.

“Poetry”, Marion writes, is more like knitting than people realize.” And perhaps that is why the various shifts and transitions in form feel so natural and almost essential when getting down to the bare essence of living. Union River is not a straight-line tour from place to place, not a haunting of the past, but a space in which Marion tries to understand experience in relevant detail, where “Motion is habit, the body moves by heart.” (“Kansas City Stars”)

A constant, dedicated observer, Marion’s writing explores the nature of perception, but does so unequivocally, and mostly without semantic figures such as metaphors or visual symbolic imagery. As a result many poems feel not of construct of the human mind, but instead subtle snapshots that carry their own unique poetic reverie.

In suburban kitchens and dens
Beautiful Californians,
Up from dinner tables and television,
Open windows on Robin Hood Drive
To hear pool filters hum
And watch Mt. Diablo absorb the red sun.
                                                (“Blood Alley, Fat City”)

In any area, one’s location is not a choice, but a place simply handed down through human chain of circumstance. So when Marion shifts focus to the history of Lowell, Massachusetts and his own family roots the writing is rich in fact and honest in memory and history is juxtaposed with basic life values. In “Cut From American Cloth,” Marion delves deep into the city of Lowell’s many transformations from colonial settlement, through the time of Jack Kerouac, to renovations of buildings and infrastructure including the backstory of Marion’s own home on 44 Highland Avenue.

“On mornings when I circle the track at the bottom of the Common’s green bowl, I scan a roster of names tied to the ridgeline of buildings…These names are entwined in history like the signature grapevines of the neighborhood, hundreds of them planted through the decades by Portuguese immigrants—green signs marking the presence of people who turn open space around their modest homes into miniature farms along the narrow, hilly ways. In the right season, waiting a minute before starting their cars for the drive to work, my neighbors, gardeners like Joe Veiga and Natalie Silva, hear the larks and the locomotive pulling toward Boston.”

Like “trees releasing their inner rings” we are told stories through social, historical, and personal observations. We are given anecdotes of Marion’s childhood and French Canadian ancestry. We are told tales of war between the settlers and the natives. Homage is paid to local heroes who have passed such as Paul Tongas,  “…gone to the air, gone to the sun, gone to the waters, gone to the ground.” (“Tsongas Steel”)

What makes Union River so captivating is Marion’s ability to navigate so smoothly within one’s own microcosm while also asking questions about the larger world and our place within a vast universe.  In “Black Hole Paycheck” he writes, “A hot-gas halo loops the Milky Way, smoke from a vast erupted star. This place has been exploding for eons. Will the Kepler spacecraft find another planet that’s just right? Meanwhile, inside our small worlds “People pass away and the trees grow taller, but the song on the wire looks like the same bird.” A question seems to linger as the fabric of Union River comes together—Can we enter into things? Unite with the whole and understand our essence? People can only understand their environment as much as they experience it with their senses, and yet Marion dares to go deeper, peeling away layers of living down to the “atoms in our bodies…engulfed in crumbs of light.”

In Union River, place is more than just a backdrop but the music in our heads, a sanctuary and a point of meditation, or perhaps best described by Marion as “a wide open space to make a verb out of America.” But what does it mean to America? Or to have America’d? What comes out of these locations where we are forced to dwell? Perhaps the mystery of this lingering question is what makes Paul Marion’s diverse work in Union River so powerful and memorable.


Paul Marion is the author of several poetry collections including What Is the City? (2006) and editor of Jack Kerouac's early writings, Atop an Underwood (1999). His work has appeared in The Massachusetts Review, Slate, Christian Science Monitor, Yankee, and others. He lives in Lowell, Mass.