Saturday, March 28, 2015

Someone from Home

When I was a child we always went to church but only once a year as a family.

My father would rise every Sunday and attend the 6:30 Mass, then come home and read his Sunday paper, every word of it, section by section, saving the obituaries for last.

My mother would stuff my sister and me into our Sunday best and send us off to the Children’s Mass at 10. It was a short walk to the church and times were different back then. We were children but safe in our little neighborhood of brick bungalows where neighbors kept an eye out for strangers or anyone or anything that looked odd. The south side of Chicago in the Forties and Fifties was blue collar, little villages teeming with immigrants and very peaceful, except for the occasional fight that might break out in a neighborhood bar. 

After sending my sister and me off to church, my mother would put the roast in the oven, ask my father to keep an eye on it, and she would go to the 11:15.

This was our family pattern, even on Christmas and Easter. I recall not one variation.

But there was that one day a year when the four of us as a family went off to church together. And that was on Good Friday when we walked to the church, my sister and I in front, my father and mother right behind us, to attend the Stations of the Cross at 3 p.m. Not a word was said as we walked those few blocks. But I was impressed by this family event because if it was important enough to get us to go to church together, I figured Good Friday must be a pretty important day.

The only other time we went anywhere as a family was an Irish wake. Chicago back then was not only home to the Stockyards filled with cattle, swine and sheep. It was also home to large groups of immigrants. And my father would always want the family to dress up and go to an Irish wake, hoping, as he so often said, to meet “someone from home.”

Donal Mahoney

Thursday, March 26, 2015

A Previous Life

It was their wedding night and Priya didn’t want to tell her new husband all about it but Bill kept asking where she had learned to walk like that. Finally she told him it was inherited from a previous life, a life she had lived many years ago in India, not far from Bangalore. She had been a cobra kept in a charmer’s basket.

When the charmer found a customer, usually a Brit or Yank, he would play his flute and Priya would uncoil and rise from the basket. Her hood would swell and she would sway as long as the customer had enough money to keep paying the charmer. She never tried to bite a customer but some of the men weren’t the nicest people in the world. You think they would know better than to tease a cobra.

Being a charmer's cobra was Priya’s job for many years until she finally grew weary of the tiny mice her keeper would feed her so she bit him and he died. His family had Priya decapitated but she was born again later in a small village, this time as a human, a baby girl. After she matured into a young woman, she had a walk, men said, reminiscent of a cobra's sway.

Priya told Bill she had been married many times in India, England and the United States but always to the wrong man. She would give the men time to correct their behavior but none did. As a result of their failure, she bit them with two little fangs inherited from her life as a cobra. They were hidden next to her incisors. Death was almost instantaneous.

No autopsies were ever performed. Death by natural causes was always the ruling. Priya, however, would move to another state or country before marrying again. 

She told Bill she hoped he would be a good husband because she didn’t want to have to move again. She wanted to put down roots and have children. She was curious as to whether they would walk or crawl or maybe do both. But Bill had heard enough. He was already out of bed, had one leg in his tuxedo pants and soon was running down the hall of the 10th floor of the Four Seasons Hotel. He had his rented patent leather shoes in one hand and an umbrella in the other in case he ran into a monsoon.

Donal Mahoney

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Bully, The Psychopath, Libby and Lorraine

Fred was a bully who always bothered Lenny on the way to school. Fred was four years older than Lenny. One day Lenny told him that when he grew up he would kill him. Fred laughed and probably didn't expect to see Lenny that night, twenty years later, when Lenny waited for him in the alley next to his garage. 

As usual, Fred got home around midnight from his work on the second shift. He lived in a different neighborhood by then but Lenny kept track of him because he knew it was simply a matter of when for Fred.

When Fred got out of his car, Lenny said, 

"Hey Fred, remember little Lenny, the kid from grammar school."

Fred said he didn't remember Lenny and that's when Lenny swung the machete his grandfather had brought home from the Pacific after World War II. Then he stood there and admired his work, smiled and watched Fred's head roll a few feet like a bowling ball.

In the morning a milkman found the head and the body and the story was in the papers for weeks as people wanted to know who did it but Lenny couldn't tell them. They wouldn't understand that it was simply a matter of a bully paying the price for what he had done years earlier to Lenny.

The only person Lenny ever told about the murder was a girl he had spent a lot of money on, Libby. It was their first date even though they had known each other for years. He didn't even get a kiss good night and that bothered him but he didn't say anything. 

Libby really didn't think Lenny was telling the truth about killing some guy with a machete. He was always exaggerating about one thing or another and Libby thought this was just another one of his tall tales. He was probably just trying to act like a big shot.

Lenny knew that Libby had never enjoyed good health, living as she did with a congenital heart disease. But he was afraid that she might some day call the cops and tell them about Fred getting it with the machete. The cops keep good records about stuff like that. 

Still concerned that Libby might tell the cops, Lenny asked her out for a second date and when she went to the powder room, he put a dose of strychnine in her coffee. When Libby complained about feeling sick, he took her right home and didn't even try this time to get a kiss good night. 

Libby's mother found her dead in bed the following morning. The family was very upset but it was not an unexpected event what with Libby's history of poor health. The family buried her without much ceremony after the doctor signed the death certificate. The cause of death was listed as heart disease.

It was a year before Lenny dated anyone else. Then he met Lorraine, a waitress at a bowling alley. He liked her and asked her out and she said yes. After dinner and a movie and a few drinks at Lorraine's apartment, Lenny told her all about Fred and the machete and then about Libby and the strychnine. He loved the look in Lorraine's eyes as he rolled the stories out. Finally Lenny finished his fourth martini, leaned over and whispered to Lorraine,

"And now the question is, what should we do about you." 

Donal Mahoney

Monday, March 16, 2015

A Disgusting Thing

It's a disgusting thing but Paddy Gilhooley, who knew better as a child, had begun farting in church very early in life. He started in grammar school, many decades ago, long before the nuns selected him in fourth grade to be an altar boy to serve Mass. 

The Mass was then said in Latin with the altar boys' responses also said in Latin. The nuns picked Paddy because he was tall and was able to memorize things rapidly. By training him in fourth grade, the nuns believed Paddy would be able to serve Mass for the next four years till he graduated from grammar school. 

Paddy was less than thrilled to be singled out for this honor. He had nothing against God or the Mass but he knew that fourth-grade altar boys were always assigned to serve the Mass at 6:30 a.m., way too early in the day for Paddy.

Being selected to be an altar boy, however, helped Paddy's grades even if more than once the nuns had to summon his father to the school about some aspect of his behavior that did not live up to the code at St. Nicholas of Tolentine School. 

St. Nick's was a fine school whose mission was to educate the children of immigrants whose fathers had jobs good enough to buy small bungalows in the neighborhood known as Chicago Lawn. This was back in the 1940s when food was cheap, houses were cheap and salaries were commensurately low.

Most of the immigrants were from European countries--Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Italy and Ireland. Parents were interested in their children getting an education good enough for them to pass the entrance exam at one of the parochial high schools in Chicago. These high schools were renowned for offering college preparatory curricula. Tuition was around $250 a year. That was a big sum in those days but Paddy Gilhooley's father, an electrician, and a non-drinking Irishman, had already saved the $1,000 required for Paddy's four years of high school. Now Mr. Gilhooley was saving to send Paddy to college. 

Paddy's father wanted the best for his son. Once he had enough money put aside for Paddy's college education, he planned to save more money to put him through law school. Mr. Gilhooley didn't emigrate from Ireland to have his son work with his hands. No sir, his son would go to law school and work with his mind. That much was settled. 

Paddy, however, was a bit of a scamp when no one was looking. He discovered early on, for example, that one way to square the score with the nuns who required good behavior at all times was to fart in church, preferably in serial fashion, one missile after another, silent but, as his classmates aways said, deadly. 

He started doing this in first grade when he had to sit with his classmates in one of the first three rows in church. These were the pews reserved for the first-graders at the Children's Mass. Right behind the first graders were three rows of second graders. And behind them, three rows of third graders--and so on. The procession continued, three rows at a time, all the way back to the eighth graders who occupied their own three rows in the rear. 

The eighth graders were monitored carefully by the nuns. One false move and any miscreant child would be led by the ear out into the foyer of the church, where he--and it was always a boy--was dealt with summarily by the principal, usually the toughest nun in the convent at the time and always an immigrant from Ireland. In fact, the whole convent consisted of 16 nuns imported from Ireland to deal with these children of immigrants who were not, by any means, a refined group. Quite the contrary.

Paddy realized the nuns were only doing their job--trying to maintain order in God's House. But he enjoyed getting involved in devilment and looked forward to being in eighth grade when he'd be able to sit in the rear of the church where the nuns kept a close eye on boys like Paddy, most of them feisty to a fault, ready to do anything at times to create a little commotion.

In first grade Wally learned early on that farting in church was especially troublesome to his classmates, especially the girls who seldom if ever misbehaved. It took awhile for the nuns to identify which child was stinking up the first three pews at the Children's Mass. But when several little girls sitting behind Paddy began pointing at him, the jig, so to speak, was up. Sister Mary Lorraine led Paddy down the aisle by the ear and placed him in the custody of the principal, Sister Marie Patrick, a stout bullet of a woman who did not suffer misbehavior happily. 

"Why did you do that, Paddy, at Mass, especially? Surely, you must know better. Your parents will not be happy when I tell them."

Paddy, though only seven years old, had learned to keep a straight face and deny anything he was accused of. But it didn't help that despite great efforts by his mother, there was no way to comb his hair since it featured seven cowlicks--the barber had counted them for his curious mother. She had tried gobs of the most popular hair tonic of the day, Wildroot Creme Oil, but the cowlicks always popped up, often in the middle of Mass and just about the time Paddy would let the first of several farts fly. 

"Sister, I didn't do nothin' at all," Paddy finally said. "I think it must have been Stanley. He eats Polish sausage and sauerkraut. Ask him."

But Sister Marie Patrick knew better so she led Paddy into the little office in the back of the church until Mass was over. Then she waited by the doorway to see Paddy's parents after Mass so she could discuss the problem with them. She really didn't know what to say to them but she figured it out by the time Mass was over.

Upon hearing of the charge against Paddy, Mr. Gilhooley, in his best suit and tie, was outraged. How could anyone, especially a nun from Ireland, say a thing like that about Paddy, who was going to law school in a few years. 

Paddy himself, standing off to the side and watching the proceedings, enjoyed everything immensely but kept a stoic face. Even at this age, with his spectacles always slightly askew, he looked a little like a very young James Joyce or maybe George Bernard Shaw. 

He never smiled or laughed when he was in the vicinity of people of authority, especially his father or the nuns. His mother had seen him smile several times and had told his father that Paddy was not as serious a child as his father thought a lawyer-to-be should be.

Finally, however, Sr. Marie Patrick, after mentioning to Mr. Gilhooley that she was from the same county in Ireland that he was, convinced him that indeed Paddy had been stinking up the front of the church during Mass. 

"Where did he learn such behavior," Sister asked Mr. Gilhooley, who said he had no idea and looked at Mrs. Gilhooley, who knew full well that young Paddy had grown up in a home where his father not only farted with bravado but also used to sing, after each fart, an old ditty that was famous in the neighborhood:

"Beans, beans, the musical fruit. The more you eat, the more you toot."

Mr. Gilhooley was especially apt to fart and sing on Saturday afternoons while listening to the radio as Notre Dame stomped on some lesser foe in a football game. The more points Notre Dame would score, the more Mr. Gihooley would fart and sing. 

And when Paddy's mother would complain that her husband was setting a bad example for Paddy, Mr. Gilhooley would explain once again how many farting matches he had won as a young man in Ireland. As the story would have it, Mr. Gilhooley would show up at the pub for the matches held late on a Saturday night. His presence was frowned upon because he didn't drink anything stronger than ginger ale. 

Finally, Mr. Gilhooley decided to agree with Sr. Marie Patrick that young Paddy was guilty of what might not be a mortal sin but certainly qualified as a venial sin at the very least. He was also afraid his wife, an innocent woman if ever there was one, might pipe up and say Paddy had learned to fart from his father while they listened to Notre Dame games on the big console radio in the living room. 

"Sister, I tell you this," Mr. Gihooley said. "If Paddy ever farts in church again, you smack him with that ruler of yours right across his keister and don't stop till the little bugger starts crying. Then you call me about it and when he gets home, I'll wallop him again. You and I will put a stop to this once and for all. Paddy is going to be a lawyer and no Irish lawyer farts in church."

Sr. Marie Patrick appeared mollified and released Paddy to his parents. His father led him out of the church by the ear for the long walk home. Paddy knew what he was in for once they got there. His father would take him to the attic door and open it and show him the big black belt that hung drooping from a hook. Mr. Gilhooley had even spliced the end of the belt so it would look like a serpent's tongue. 

Whenever Paddy acted up around the house, Mr. Gilhooley would take the belt off the hook, wrap it around his fist and smack the tongue of the belt against his palm while telling Paddy if he ever did it again--whatever it was the boy had done on that occasion--the belt would be applied to his keister till he couldn't sit for a month. Paddy would immediately show sheer terror and say that he would never do whatever it was again. 

Year later, Paddy, now a retired attorney, could laugh about all this as he told the story to his grandchildren. It was especially funny to Paddy because his father never hit him with the belt even though Sr. Marie Patrick had called his father several times to report that Paddy had continued to fart, albeit in the classroom and not in church. 

Notre Dame in those years won several national football championships. As a result, Mr. Gilhooley continued to fart proudly and sing his heart out on many Saturday afternoons in autumn. 

In eighth grade, Paddy was allowed to join in the farting himself but he would never join in the singing. His mother would never have allowed it. The poor woman couldn't tell one fart from another so she knew nothing about Paddy's participation at that level. But she always told neighbors that when you compared Paddy and his father, the apple didn't fall far from the tree. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Back Then and Write Now

When I began writing in 1960, there were no website "magazines." Print journals were the only place to have poems published. Writers used typewriters, carbon paper, a white potion to cover up mistakes and “snail mail” to prepare and submit poems for publication. Monday through Friday I'd work at my day job. Weekends I'd spend writing and revising poems. Revising poems took more time than writing them and that is still the case today, decades later. 

On Monday morning on the way to work, I'd sometimes mail as many as 14 envelopes to university journals and "little magazines," as the latter were then called. Some university journals are still with us. Some are published in print only and others have begun the inevitable transformation by appearing in print and simultaneously on the web. 

"Little magazines," especially those published in print without a presence on the web, are rare in 2012. One might say, however, that their format has been reincarnated in hundreds of website publications that vary in design, content and frequency of publication. Depending on the site, new poems can appear daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, semi-annually or annually. For many writers, these websites are a godsend. Some "serious" writers, however, still feel that a poem has not been "published" until it has appeared on paper. 

I can't remember what postage cost in the Sixties but it was very cheap. Nevertheless, it would often take six months or more to hear back from many editors of university journals and little magazines. Sometimes I would get no response despite my enclosing the mandatory stamped self-addressed envelope (SASE). 

Submission etiquette at that time required that a writer send nothing other than the poems, usually a maximum of three, and the SASE. What's more, simultaneous submissions were universally forbidden. I don't remember any editor wanting a biographical note until the piece was accepted and sometimes not even then. All that mattered was the poem and how much the editor liked it. 

Today, in contrast, some web editors want a letter from the author up front "introducing" the poems and/or some aspect of the author's life. I've never been comfortable providing that kind of information in front of poems I'm submitting. I can't imagine lobbying for poems that I hope speak for themselves.

In the Sixties, my average acceptance rate was roughly one poem out of 14 submissions of three poems each. Two or three poems accepted rarely happened but my hopes were always high. 

The rejected poems I'd revise if I thought they needed it; then I'd send all of them out again to different publications. Often the poems would have to be retyped because the postal process or some editor's fondness for catsup or mustard would result in messy returned manuscripts. I followed this pattern of writing, revising and submitting for seven years. I loved it because I didn't know any other way. I had no idea that in 30 years there would be an easier way to submit poems, thanks to the personal computer. What a difference. No more carbon paper. No more catsup or mustard.

In 1971 I quit writing after having had a hundred or so poems accepted by some 80 print publications ranging from university journals to hand-assembled little magazines. I even made it into a few commercial magazines and received checks for as much as $25.00. I was on a roll or so I told myself. 

The reason I quit writing poems is because I had accepted a much more difficult day job as an editor with a newspaper. Previous editorial jobs had not been that taxing. I still had enough energy to work on poems at night as well as on weekends. But the new job wore me out. The money was good and helped me deal with expenses that had increased as my responsibilities had increased. Other demanding jobs would follow in subsequent decades. As a result, I didn't return to writing poems until 2008 after I had retired. 

I hadn't really thought about working on poems in retirement but my wife bought me a computer and showed me where I had stored--37 years earlier--several cardboard boxes full of unfinished poems. It took a month or more to enter drafts of the 200 to 300 poems in my new computer. It took longer to revise and polish them. Finally, I sent out the “finished” versions by email to both online and print publications. 

It took a few weeks at the start but eventually lines for new poems began to pop into my noggin. Alleluia! I was ever so thankful to "hear" them because it answered an important question--namely, could I still write new poems after such a long hiatus? 

I found submitting by email a joy. For a while I sent an occasional poem by snail mail to journals that did not take email submissions. But in six months I stopped doing that. I did not want to lick envelopes any longer. Looking back over the last four years, I'm thankful for the response my work has received from various editors in the Americas, Europe, Asia and Africa. 

Since I am an old-timer writing and submitting poems, I'm sometimes asked if I notice any difference in the "market" for poetry in 2012 compared with the Sixties. I'm also asked if I would I do anything differently if I were starting out today. 

Yes, I notice a difference in the "market" today, and, yes, I would do some things differently if I were starting out now.

If I were starting out now, I would revise poems even more than I did when I was young. I revised a lot back then and I revise a lot today. I believe strongly in something Dylan Thomas once said—namely, that no poem is ever finished; it is simply abandoned. 

It's taken four years for me to gain some sense of how the "market" for poetry has changed over the last 40 years. In preparing my own submissions, I have had a chance to read a lot poetry by young writers, some already established and many unknown. Sometimes I compare their work in my mind with the work of poets I remember from the Sixties. 

Although Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, among others, had their followers back in the Sixties, and still do today, I find that in 2012 "confessional" poetry has become even more prominent. Some of it strikes me as good, both in content and technique, but that is a subjective assessment. Much of it, however, strikes me as "raw," for want of a better word. In some cases I also find it difficult to distinguish certain poems from prose disguised in broken lines. I don't remember "prose poems" as a category unto itself when I started out. Today prose poems seem to be very well accepted in some circles but I suspect they would have been a hard sell in the Sixties.

I suppose as a stripling and now as a codger I have written what some might call "confessional" poetry, both good and bad. Nevertheless, I think a young writer does well to write about someone or something other than one's self. Observing other people carefully and writing about their mannerisms and aspects of their behavior can help to develop one's craft. This is important because as most writers know, writing poetry or fiction is as much a craft as it is an art and without craft, writing may never reach the level of art.

Perhaps it is my imagination but it seems that over the last couple of years there has been an increase in poems written about broken relationships or other distressful matters of the heart. The writers of these poems seem to be primarily women who sound very angry and no doubt with good cause. 

Apparently male poets find it easier to move on from a break-up and seek love or companionship in all the right or wrong places. I don't think that's a new development, men being who they are. I hope it's not chauvinist of me to suggest that the power to motivate a man to behave better usually lies with the woman. I feel that a woman has a gift she should not unwrap too quickly no matter how eager a man may be to undo the ribbons. Not many ribbons were undone in the Fifties prior to vows. In that era, of course, women were old-fashioned by current standards. The ones who were not "old-fashioned" were called a lot of things but not "liberated." 

There are other types of subject matter common in poetry today that didn't appear too frequently in the Sixties. Graphic sex, science fiction and horror seem to appeal to many male writers, although some females also like to write about these subjects today. 

I've never been interested in horror and I doubt that I would have the imagination to handle it well. I never fantasize about anything that even borders on science fiction. Sex, on the other hand, is a different matter. But sex has always struck me as the easiest subject to write about. I could write about sex well, I believe, but why should I? Why should I make my wife angry? Even if I were single, I suspect I'd be restrained by a line from Emily Dickinson that I first read it in college. Ms. Dickinson wrote, "how public like a frog." 

In contrast with my early years in writing, I am never satisfied today with a poem even when it has been published. If I go back and re-read a published poem a year later, I am certain to find something "wrong" with it and I feel obligated to fix it. Sometimes I can't fix it but in the process of trying, I occasionally find that I am suddenly in the middle of writing a different poem, an offshoot of the original piece or something entirely different. I've found benefits and problems in that.

Rodin's "The Thinker" is set in bronze and marble and not subject to revision but few if any of my poems acquire that status in my mind.  And if one of them does, I eventually come to feel the poem could be improved, even if at that moment I might not know how to make it better. Maybe in six months I'll read it again and hear something errant in the lines that I will suddenly know how to fix. It doesn't hurt, I believe, for a writer to listen to a poem the way a mechanic listens to a motor. Both want to get everything right.

My purpose in writing this piece has been to record "for the ages" what it's been like writing and submitting poems in two distinct eras. I certainly like the ease with which technology today has enabled me to compose a poem. The "delete" key is wonderful. But there is something to be said for the anticipation caused by finding an envelope in the mailbox from an editor, the way a contributor might have done back in the Sixties. One knew immediately by the thickness of the envelope whether all three poems had been rejected or one or two of them had been accepted. That was a wonderful time for a young writer to cut his or her teeth.

Donal Mahoney