Poem of the Week | April 03, 2012

This week we’re thrilled to publish a new poem by Gregory Fraser. Fraser is the author of two poetry collections, Strange Pietà (Texas Tech, 2003) and Answering the Ruins (Northwestern, 2009). He is also the co-author, with Chad Davidson, of the workshop textbook Writing Poetry: Creative and Critical Approaches (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008) and the composition textbook Analyze Anything: A Guide to Critical Reading and Writing (Continuum, 2012). His poetry has appeared in journals including the Paris Review, the Southern Review, the Gettysburg Review, and Ploughshares. The recipient of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Fraser serves as associate professor of English and creative writing at the University of West Georgia.

Author’s Statement:

Karl Shapiro, as the legend runs, once told his workshop that a strong poet could write well about any subject, no matter how trivial or mundane. One member of the class scoffed and challenged Shapiro to write about manhole covers. He went home and did—brilliantly. “The Great Northeast” arose from a similar circumstance. In my intermediate poetry workshop, we were discussing the power of place—of root terrains and sacred geographies. Which is to say that we were talking about old neighborhoods. Two of my students, Blesz and Delicious (I have not changed the names to protect the innocent), pressed me to talk about my own boyhood neighborhood. I backpedalled, insisting that the class needed to focus on their writing, not mine. But then, remembering Shapiro, I went home and gave it a shot. The result cannot compare with “Manhole Covers,” but I tried my best in homage to the master.

The Great Northeast


—for Blesz and Delicious


If they still botch grammar in Northeast Philly,
Lord, let’s leave it that way, at least on the corner
where Givens Market used to squat on its thumb.


The door sign lacked possessive punctuation
but inside offered the musks of garlic and armpits,
near-cost prices on powdered milk, deviled ham.


Eight to eight, that grocery stared from thick
glass blocks—6 x 6 inch cubes frozen by fire—
at the intersection of Ella and East Courtland,


at white kids and black, almost-innocent indigence
and Mayor Rizzos thugs. Twelve and scrawny
as any excuse, I would palm an apple in Produce,


then hurry home to sprawl in my parents bed
and watch the Broad Street Bullies bloody ice
on a black-and-white Sylvania hardly larger


than lunch—just as I had opened wide and let
the tube feed Viet Nam, toy-sized soldiers
crawling brush, for I was born in blood


and bred in blood, like you and all the rest,
for my second brother had spread already
the flaps of mother’s womb, and scrambled


wide-eyed, wounded, from that tent. Mrs. Given
lisped, her husband bore on his back a lump
as large as the acorn squash that never sold,


and while I shelved and bagged after school, buck
an hour—their surrogate boy, sweet un-son, given
to unctuousness and theft—the radio spilled “Baby,


how long / will you keep me in the penalty box?”
It was 1975, the Cup stayed home, and Number 8
kept crooning. Oh, it strikes me now my father,


whose take-home every month went straight to bankers,
might have sung that very chorus, only “Baby”
would stand for men in worsted suits—as in,


“Oh, yeah, Baby, like that, do me like that,
till I drink myself stupid and cough up blood.”
This, you understand, was long before I’d read


anything but “The Raven” and “The Road Not Taken,”
taught by nuns, but Sweet Son of Man, I see it today,
if a hockey enforcer like Dave “The Hammer” Schultz


could belt out public song, why then couldn’t I,
at least from the smooth white rink of a page?
And if the moon looked like a tooth knocked clean


from the mouth of Billy Penn, if my soft employers
survived the Hat-Trick Reich, were given
a second chance to sniff cantaloupes for ripeness,


what could it matter to leave off an apostrophe
that states, “I own this, this is mine”? Better to let
the years keep dipping themselves in honey and fire,


better to put down something—anything—in truth
and barely claim it. Even if it’s a fist to the lip
of Denis Potvin, or a stores hand-lettered door sign.


Why else did the axe-faced glaciers open
envelopes of stone? So we could read
times invitation—right?—and R.S.V.P


with an ardent “Yes, I shall attend.”
Why else would Mrs. Given press a twenty
to my palm each Christmas, a holiday


she couldn’t bend for? It’s no wonder they call it
The Great Northeast. No wonder at all.
Here, old neighborhood. I spit this on ice for you.