New(s) @ Axe

News and Events of the Leonard H. Axe Library, and of the
Kansas Technology Center Library - Pittsburg (KS) State University

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Three from Osage Street

Three poets from Girard, Kansas look back to their childhoods, bringing them to life in a volume about growing up in 1950s Southeast Kansas

On October 1st we are very proud to present a reading by three poets who grew up on Osage St. in Girard, KS. After high school, they moved away and traveled the United States - and sometimes the world - pursuing very successful careers in museum management, education and music before making homes for themselves in Indianapolis, IN, Wayne, PA and Brooklyn, NY. They retired and devoted themselves to writing until they bumped into each other at the 50th GHS high-school graduation reunion of the class of ’56. The result of this meeting is the aforementioned volume of poetry written by Thomas Lisenbee (Red Hook, Brooklyn), a retired professional trumpet player and graduate of Kansas State Teachers College, Kay Z. Myers (Wayne, PA), a retired teacher of literature and creative writing, and Bret Waller (Indianapolis, IN), a retired director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art and several other distinguished museums throughout the United States. Their reading will be on Thursday, October 1st at 7 PM in the Special Collections Department of Axe Library. Refreshments will be served.

Each author has a separate poetry section in the book which includes some family photographs. What I noticed about these poems right away is that they describe childhoods no different from a childhood anywhere in the United States. I grew up in New York, not far from the big city (only 90 miles from where Thomas Lisenbee lives now) and I remember with affection catching fireflies, toads and polliwogs, laying on the lawn and picking out constellations or hanging out at the local movie theater with my smart aleck friends.

When Thomas Lisenbee, our first poet, moved to Red Hook, Brooklyn in 1984, he noticed this about his very citified neighborhood:
...the day I turned onto Van Brunt Street to go take a first look at the house I would later buy, I was struck by how like Girard ...[Red Hook]...was. My god, no traffic lights and there were utility poles strung with all sorts of wires. Wouldn’t you know it, my house had to be on Pioneer Street where, yes, people all seem to know each other, or know to act like it anyway.…Home, after all, is only another way of saying Osage Street.

Lisenbees’s poems mainly touch on the joys of being a boy in Girard: 4th of July firecrackers, the Cozy Theater, church softball leagues and that staple of small town life, the summer band concert. He also expresses the wish to pass the joys of small town life to his children and grandchildren in poems like Campin’ Out. But life in small town Girard had its dangers. In his poem IT, he describes how he nearly drowned in Farlington Lake because he was so desperate to keep up with his physically stronger friends. In his poem Reunion, he describes the sadness he feels at going to a high school reunion where the attendees are so old that eleven of the students are dead, twenty are “missing in action”, and there are no surviving teachers present. His wife rebukes him for not having enough signatures in his souvenir book, but he knows that there aren’t enough survivors. Of course we readers know that this reunion gives birth to the volume of poetry we are reading.

Kay Myers' poems describe her family's tragedies, as well its prosperities and joys. In Judy's Death, her aunt's only child, Judy, who was like a big sister to Myers, dies when just a young teenager. In the three poems Beyond Control, Trees, and Touching Old Scars, we learn about the desperately troubled special-needs child adopted by her family. Zettl's Bakery and The Baker introduce Myer's grandfather, a gregarious, hardworking immigrant who started a chain of small bakeries in Girard, Pittsburg, and Fort Scott—only to lose them when larger competitors could afford the new television advertisement that he couldn't. The Seamstress features Myers' mother, who lost her long battle with cancer at age 58. A loving person and world-class sewer, her mother teaches Myers that craft, though Kay confesses, "Yet always my true passion was/ for sowing words, symbols, and meanings." The Seamstress concludes with Myers passing her mother's sewing skills on to one of her own daughters, whose "passion for/ sewing seems to connect the generations." We're left to decide, however, whether Myers refers to sewing or to writing (or to both) in her conclusion: "It is no little gift: this stitching together/ past, present, and future—/this modeling immortality." Farlington Lake, which portrays a fishing trip with Myers' father, is a more peaceful visit to that neighboring water than Lisenbee's swim. That poem also switches into present time at its conclusion, a technique Myers uses in several other poems, to emphasize the connections of "past, present, and future."

Both Lisenbee and Myers talk about the beauty and smell of catalpa trees, but Waller gives them a whole poem (North Osage). Waller and his buddies tried to use the bean pods for swords in their King Arthur fantasies. They even tried to smoke them, as some kids do with corn silk. Waller describes the tree year round, ending the poem with one of those Kansas ice storms from Hell, during which “like rifle shots/catalpa branches snapped,/came crashing down,/littering snowpacked streets/with crystal shards/ that melted the next day.” Waller’s poems can be very funny, as he describes how phony Superman’s cape looked in a Friday night movie serial (Friday Evening Serials), or his inglorious career as a linebacker (Championship Season, 1953) the high point of which was a single interception. The event is reported in the local paper, where he is listed as an “unidentified player”. He’s especially funny when he describes some fast footwork he performed to outwit a grouchy police officer who caught him skinny dipping (Nightswim).

For nostalgia (Lisenbee), poignancy (Myers), and humor (Waller) come to Axe Library’s Special Collections Department at 7PM on October 1, 2009, and bring your hankies. We’ll have a great evening.