My husband Bruce and I drove to his hometown last weekend to attend a poetry reading by one of his high school mates, the poet Tom Lux. Tom has published more than a dozen volumes of poetry in his illustrious career, including New and Selected Poems, 1975-1995 for which he was a finalist for the 1998 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and Split Horizon for which he received the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. Two great online articles about Tom and his writing can be found here and here. He is currently the Bourne Professor of Poetry at Georgia Tech.
At White Square Books, a charming little book store, on a Sunday afternoon, Tom read poems that he had selected for the occasion that were autobiographical of events and people in his hometown of Easthampton, Massachusetts. Most of these poems were nothing short of extraordinary. One of his newer poems, which I believe hasn’t been published yet, is haunting. Tom called it “the most autobiographical” of all his poetry. It’s a recounting of a time as a 15-year-old, when he used his shot gun to kill a small brown bird. Through the narrative and detail of the poem, it was evident that he had researched the habitat and habits of the type of bird to show how much he had thought of this bird in the more than 50 years that have passed since the day he killed it.
The poem ends with the bird’s talons and little legs remaining attached to the tiny branch, after the rest of the bird had been blown to smithereens. Tom watched the result of his mischief and saw the talons still clinging eerily and upright on the branch and, after a bit of wind, swinging down, still attached.
You could have heard a pin drop for more than a few moments after Tom had finished reading the poem. Everyone in the room was shocked into thinking about Tom’s dead bird and then, perhaps, some casualties of their own childhoods. I briefly mourned this bird, and then recalled one my brother Billy had killed with his BB gun when I was 6 and he was 8, at our Pépère’s hunting camp in Tinmouth, Vermont.
I think it was my cousin Kelly who dared him to shoot the young woodpecker which was in the tree down behind the outhouse at the camp. In the dense fog of childhood memory, I had thought that it was my more mischievous brother, Wayne, who was the bird executioner. To my surprise, the answer to my text to Billy this morning “Do you remember at Tinmouth camp the time Wayne killed a bird with a BB gun?” was this: “That was me. A small woodpecker. I cried. It was very traumatic for me. I still think about it.” And, then, he added in a second text: “Pépère consoled me and taught me the importance of not aiming a gun at something you do not want to kill.”
I see it vividly in my mind now. Billy killed it with his first shot and it fell dead with a thump. We all ran over to it. Kelly and I immediately began crying and ran to find the adults to tell them of Billy’s mischief. I also remember clearly that Billy and Wayne both cried too, as they followed behind us up the hill. When I shared these memories with Billy this morning, he replied: “It is funny about childhood memories, I don’t remember anyone else being around. It was me. My BB gun. A live woodpecker. An excellent shot. A dead woodpecker. Me crying because of what I had done. Pépère imparting that valuable life lesson. The burial ceremony.”
The incident was so memorable for my brother that he had saved photographs from that day and knows the exact date, October 20, 1974. Incredible. A few of those photos are below.
In the moments after Tom had finished reading his poem, I thought more about the old hunting camp. More than a few of Tom’s autobiographical poems involved boys with their hunting rifles. It was easy for me to relate to these childhood stories. I had grown up in a similar fashion in New Hampshire and Vermont, although a few decades after Tom’s upbringing in Western Massachusetts.
My brother came up to Vermont a few months ago and we decided to tool around a bit and found ourselves heading through Wallingford on Route 140, on our way to Tinmouth. Billy hadn’t been out there since childhood. I, on the other hand, had gone out a few summers before with Bruce to show him the land that was a part of so many childhood memories. I used to call the annual rite of going there as a very young child, “going to Vermont.” When I was nine, we moved to Vermont. Pépère died shortly thereafter and the camp lasted just a few years following that, until Mémère died when I was 12.
When Billy and I pulled up to the old cemetery in Tinmouth, we parked the car on the opposite side of the road, jumped the gate, and headed into the field, in search of the old camp and the outhouse. The trailer was there, a caved in pile of trash, and the outhouse was nowhere to be found.