by Sean Enright
Now it’s the Oracle skyscraper
but it was Peoples Drugstore
back when I bought Raisinets,
lighter fluid and label-makers,
just a low building next to
the pioneer-woman statue,
silent stone town founder,
a child gathered in her skirt folds,
bonnet cinched tight,
her birdlike chin, her stovepipe throat.
Across the street, my father
thrusts out his glazed
rooting out hornets nesting
in the loosed mortar
of Pumphrey’s Funeral Home,
he’s slipped out of there, unorganized,
for one more smoke,
one more poke at the living.
The pioneer woman in the poem and photograph is the first of twelve identical statues placed along National Trail Roads from Maryland to California. The Madonna of the Trail monuments honor the mothers who journeyed west, mothers who, as Harry Truman said, “were just as brave or braver than their men because, in many cases, they went with sad hearts and trembling bodies.”
This statue frightened me as a child. Growing up in a D.C. suburb, I was accustomed to statues of men on horseback or seated king-like in traffic circles and parks. Madonna statues were even more familiar—gentle, delicate-featured Mary’s wreathed in fresh flowers or surrounded by candles. But this 10-foot big-boned gal was both a warrior and a mother, fierce with her rifle and urgent stride, almost unaware of the frightened child clutching her skirts. Her sidewalk home seemed chosen at random, and her relevance to our community a mystery.
For the speaker in the poem, however, the Madonna of the Trail is a more comforting presence—at least compared to the wily specter across the street.
The poem is structured to mirror the landmarks it describes: two stanzas, two sides of the street. The street in question is Wisconsin Avenue where it meets Old Georgetown Road, a busy intersection at the heart of tony Bethesda, Maryland. But it wasn’t always so. Bethesda used to be sleepier, with smaller buildings, less traffic, and decidedly less glitz.
In the poem, that sleepy past is crumbling or erased altogether. Pioneer days are so long gone the representation of them seems incongruous. The speaker’s teenage years and the lives of the folks in the funeral home rest in the same past. People’s Drug, the Everyman of small town shopping, has been replaced by a pretentious skyscraper whose very name calls to the future.
The poem’s first stanza is devoted to the speaker’s youth and to the mother figure who shelters a child. The mother is solid and strong, but frozen in time, inactive. Perhaps I’m projecting too much of my own experience of mothers I have known, but that stovepipe neck and her stony silence suggest repressed feeling and squashed outrage: fire, smoke, and bilge to be swallowed or expelled so as not to un-cinch a bonnet or ruffle a feminine, birdlike demeanor.
The second stanza moves across the street to the speaker’s paternal side. Here is a past that forces its way into the present, a past that hasn’t been erased, a past that unnerves rather than comforts. The ghostly father smokes and pokes at hornets’ nests, no doubt activities he enjoyed while living. I love the surprise of the adjective “unorganized.” It softens and humanizes the menace evoked by all that thrusting and poking.
Physically and emotionally, the speaker seems to stand on the mother’s side of the street. And yet in the very act of writing the poem, the speaker aligns himself with the father. Rooting out nests, poking at the living, slipping out from where one is supposed to be contained: what an apt and arresting metaphor for the work of writing. Like the ghostly father, writers go where they aren’t supposed to, they stir things up, they poke at the living and the dead. Without such poking, stories would be dull as greeting cards, sans conflict, sans insight, sans specificity.
Sean Enright is a Maryland novelist, poet, and playwright. His novel Goof was the Baltimore Sun’s Editor’s Choice in 2001. Link here for more of Enright’s poems and here for some of his videos to hear English spoken properly. I’ve long forsaken my Maryland accent for a Michigan one, but it’s still music to my ears.
Disclaimer: I read this poem a priori, at least I tried to, but I grew up down the street from the poet. His family, the Enrights, were one of the many medium to large-sized Catholic clans from our parish, St. Jane deChantal. I don’t remember Sean specifically, but I did know his sisters, all very funny people, and his mother, our music teacher and church organist who could deliver a side-mouth quip with the finesse of Groucho Marx.
Finally, a question: Why would kids in the 70’s buy lighter fluid? I get the label maker—useful and coveted in a time where people owned less and had to share more—but I’m stumped by the lighter fluid.
When I read lighter fluid I thought he was one of those such as myself who used to own a Zippo lighter and flaunted it along with the leather hard cigarette case that held my Marlboros. I never smoked more than a few cigarettes a day. I loved the sound of it when you snapped the lighter open and then the just-as-pleasant sound of it being snapped closed. I can even recall the scent of the lighter fluid. When I lived in Georgetown in 1966 my boyfriend and I used to go to the Lodge on Wisconsin Avenue for pitchers of beer and I’d take out my lighter and feel very adult flicking it open and closed. That summer I even got a job waitressing there and it was one of the best if not THE best job I ever had. I put my hair in pigtails and danced around with the skinny-as-a-rail cook to “Wild Thing” and “Little Red Riding Hood” blasting out of the jukebox. The two-pitcher guys became oblvious to everything and left me ten-dollar tips….
Back in those days, I was also being sent to the local drug store for lighter fluid for our old fashioned grill (could this be the kind of lighter fluid he is referring to?). This was back before the fancy grills and outdoor kitchens of today. We sure used a lot of lighter fluid trying to ignite that charcoal or should I say my father did. Why didn’t they ever sell it in a larger container? I guess because Costco did not exist. B. Moran
I came across this poem as I was perusing your blog. Although I am not a DC area native, my wife and I lived in Northern Virginia for several years during the first years of our marriage, and we still think of the DC area fondly (although I don’t know if I could deal with the traffic there today). But I do remember going regularly to the People’s Drug on Columbia Pike in Arlington. I recall purchasing lighter fluid for the Zippo lighter my wife gave me for my 25th birthday — thankfully I put down the cigarettes a couple of decades ago.