A Common Threads Delight: Treasures and Shivers on a Winter Night

by Jacquelyn Malone

Fred Marchant; John Hodgen

Fred Marchant; John Hodgen

At first the January reading at Suffolk University seemed an inauspicious kick-off for this year’s Common Threads events. The downtown streets were grimy with battered snow, and walking through the Common you had to wait for a break in the giant snow banks to see the gleaming gold dome of the State House. But braving the slush and cold winds paid off. The cozy room where Fred Marchant and John Hodgen read their poems, two of this year’s Common Threads selections, held the audience in a shiver of enthusiasm – well, several shivers.

Seated at a table in front of the audience were not only John and Fred but Alice Kociemba, this year’s Guest Editor, and Laurin Macios, the Managing Editor. The goal of the evening was not just a poetry reading but an exploration of the poems and the poets who wrote them. Alice introduced the evening by thanking Fred and Jennifer Barber for arranging the place to meet at Suffolk. It was Alice’s role to make the process exciting and to make sure the exploration deepened our appreciation of the poems. With Fred and John that wasn’t a problem.

Fred talked about sitting in a deli in the area we’d just walked through, under much the same conditions – mid-winter, slush, salted ice. But his poem, “The Salt Stronger,” is not a landscape piece; it is instead a setting for questions about the gravity of the work of lawmakers under that gleaming gold dome and elsewhere, and war. It is also a poem about the uses of poetry as he addresses a friend who is a peace activist and a doubter of the value of poetry. Fred’s energetic presentation style made his words even more bracing:

“… if my tongue alone could talk
it would swear
in any court that poetry
tastes like the iodine in blood,
or the copper in spit, and makes a salt stronger than tears.

Fred also called attention to the two sections of his poem, the first a description of the day and the place and the second the address to his friend who at the time was a “witness for peace” in Baghdad.

As we in the audience spent time with the poem, it evolved from a poem we’d simply liked. It became one that, as Pinsky says in his short essay in the introduction edition to this year’s Common Threads poems, entered the “mind-body frontier.” We began to feel the poem in our “mind’s voice,” expressed as one of the several shivers we felt that evening.

Dinner after the Common Threads event, clockwise from left: Laurin Macios, Fred Marchant, David Ferry, Joseph Hollow, Mitch Manning, Alice Kociemba, Jacquelyn Malone

Dinner after the Common Threads event, clockwise from left: Laurin Macios, Fred Marchant, David Ferry, Joseph Hollow, Mitch Manning, Alice Kociemba, Jacquelyn Malone

The weather affected John Hodgen’s discussion, too; coming from Worchester he was late arriving as he drove through the snow-clogged streets. But his appearance had an unusual note of cheer. As a gesture of thanks for all her hard work on Common Threads, he presented Alice with a lovely red rose as he took his seat at the front table. 

After John read his poem, “For the Man Who Spun Plates,” Alice also asked him to talk about the circumstances that lead to the poem. He spoke about being a child and watching the old “Ed Sullivan Show” with his family. A repeat guest to the show was “a man who spun plates on long slender poles.” But the memory didn’t suggest a poem until one day he thought of the plates as halos. Halos led to the Last Supper, and the Last Supper led to Jesus trying to keep Judas’s halo from falling. But like the man who spun plates, Judas’s halo shattered “like crystal all over the stage.” From there the poem turns to something else that shatters – a friend whose daughter drowns.

He tries to lift her up again, get her life spinning,
as if he could raise her from under the waves,
the waves that keep falling, one after another,
like shimmering plates on the sea.

The poem is in two stanzas, the first, a verbal rush toward Jesus and the crashing plates, and the second, a much shorter one that culminates in the powerful four lines above.

To suggest a taste of other Common Threads treasures, Alice read Richard Wilbur’s “Love Call Us to the Things of This World,” and Laurin read Mary Oliver’s poem “The Osprey.” Neither commented on the poems they read, as though that were a delight to be experienced later. But the audience seemed to want more. They lingered, talking in small groups before they finally dispersed into the winter night.

Lead your own Common Threads discussion
We encourage you to contact your library or your senior center about leading a Common Threads discussion. It’s easy (the Common Threads edition includes questions, suggestions and information on the poets and poems), it’s exciting, and it’s fun. Sign up now.