Saturday, March 14, 2009

Searching the Past

A few months ago I was invited to read at an event celebrating the cultural backgrounds of poets living in and around Lowell, Massachusetts.  Each of us was asked to read a poem about our own family's stories or traditions.  I realized as I prepared for the reading that even though my French-Canadian heritage on my father's side is a very important part of my identity, I have never written very much about it.  I began sifting back through memories I still have of my father and the stories he would tell us about growing up in Old Town, Maine.  Even though I spent many a Sunday afternoon around the table of my memere and pepere's kitchen in Old Town, the stories seemed like myths from a distant time and place.  Now that decades have passed since my father died, those old tales seem even more mythical, so I decided that I needed to try to write about them.  

Before I began drafting, I scoured the internet for history and pictures, focusing especially on records of logging on the Penobscot River, since I remembered my father telling my brother, sister, and me tales about the log drives.  The more I read, the more fascinated I became.  In my wanderings, I came across an amazing archive of photographs collected, organized, and cataloged by a group of former and current residents of French Island, a small river island that is part of Old Town.  The collection is called Nos Histoires de L'Ile, or Our Stories of the Island. Most of the photographs date from the late 19th century, but some are from as late as the 1930's and 40's.  I began looking up family names, hoping to find photographs of my grandparents or their parents.  Instead, I stumbled upon the photograph above, a picture of my father, John Thibodeau, serving as an altar boy in the 1940's.  Of course I have seen photographs of my father as a child before, but to find one on the internet nearly a quarter century after his death was a profoundly moving experience for me.  I felt like I was reaching back through time and loss and layers of the past--all the way back to who he was as a person--not just my father--but his own person, John, with most of his life yet to live.  Later that night I drafted this poem.  

The Log-Drive Lessons

For years before he died,
my father told the tales
of how he dove
when he was young 

beneath the drives 
with the Old Town boys
who learned to swim
in the dark and cold
under the massive logs
come down by the thousands
from the Penobscot's four fingers
to feed the pulp mills' 
sulphurous rolls.

There was no secret method:
just hold your breath, 
open your eyes
and search beneath the floating shoals
of spruce till sunlight shone
between two logs
and you could rise
through the surface,
streaming silver, a river
god, king
of summer, lord
of bark and pitch
and filthy water.

There was no going home
until you'd tried.
Boys who paused on the riverside
were tied round the waist
with rope like writhing bait
and tossed by the log drivers
or their own fathers
into the dark and cold.  
They never knew,
my father said,
how far they'd have to go,
how long their lungs
would have to hold
until they found the light
on their own
or the men instead would have to haul
them back to shore,
where they'd stand alone,
rope-burned and cold,
while the others dove
ever deeper, 
disappearing for countless stretches.

The shape and depth
of the lessons
fit no measure 
they'd learned in school,
where there was nothing to prove.
Here, on the river,
there were legends to forge
in the dark and cold,
like Lenny Cote,
whose eyes were the copper
of river water--he could
make it all the ways from the boom
at the mill to the dock
at the rail yard, diving
down and rising,
his body a needle
stitching the river's flow;
and Francis LaPierre
who pierced the river's skin
and held his breath longer than
anyone could ever know,
and then never found
the space or light or strength
to rise again.
My father and his friends
dove after him,
but he was gone,
leaving them to swim to shore,
leaving them a tale to tell,
a fate to count
as the measure 
of what they'd learned
beneath the logs,
how much they'd risk,
how much they'd lose,
how far they still had left to go.


  1. I love this poem, Gigi--the way it immerses us so completely in a world now lost.

    I do feel compelled to point out, however, that water isn't copper, it is blue. ;-)

  2. I nearly wrote "the blue shade of spruce trees, but then thought better of it!"

  3. Oh my heart.

    I am at a loss for words. Such beauty...


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