“Pastel Snowfall” by Richard Marion (c) 2013
See more artwork at www.richardmarion.net
We need beauty. We need it badly. On a day when we grappled with our grief over the enduring evil of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, on a day when we learned more from the media about the heinous attack on a young teacher, Colleen Ritzer of Danvers, Mass., on a day when we made our daily deal with the commonplace threats that we know are out there—on such a day more than 600 people gathered in Durgin Concert Hall at UMass Lowell to celebrate the good brought to us by a young president whose vibrant spirit burns like the eternal flame at his grave. The UMass Lowell Music Department’s University Orchestra, University Choir, Chamber Singers, and special guest narrator state Senator Eileen Donoghue of Lowell presented “Remembering JFK: 50 Years.” For the occasion, conductor Mark Latham loaded up the program with a Super Bowl of composers: Beethoven, Gershwin, Mozart, Martini, Brahms, and Copland.
We need water more than we need art, but art is basic to our humanity. At a minimum art can level off our angst for a while, and we all have a measure of dread because of our human term limit. At best, art raises us to orbits above our working rounds, giving us an experience of beauty, harmony, balance, grace, emotional release—even a brush with eternity in the form of the perfect, reached through superb composition and expression. All this was in play last night on stage and in the seats at Durgin Hall. I have been to many cultural events in Lowell in the past 40 years; last night’s concert was one of the most inspiring I have been fortunate enough to witness.
The evening’s program culminated in a dramatic performance of Aaron Copland’s “A Lincoln Portrait,” with guest narrator Sen. Donoghue, whose reading of the profound text moved everyone in the hall. A slideshow of images prepared by Patty Coffey of UMass Lowell accompanied the music. The piece built toward the concluding words of the “Gettysburg Address”—”. . .That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain. That this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.” Every selection was a highlight, leading to that powerful finish, from Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 1″ and Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” to the astounding joined voices carrying Brahms’ “Ein deutches Requiem.”
Speaking at the dedication of the Robert Frost Library at Amherst College in late October 1963, President Kennedy said, “I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well. . . .I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty.”
The morning began with dark purple clouds bumping in the sky lanes above a sherbet-rinsed sunrise of raspberry and peach. Wind kicked the brittle leaves every which way, and the frigid air made you feel extra alive in your skin. All good for a big day in Lowell. Spirits were up for an event that doesn’t come often in a lifetime: the dedication of a permanent bridge over a serious river.
It was no ordinary time at 10 am at the northernmost curb on Merrimack Street. These folks could have been gathered for the launch of spaceship. The scene turned majestic when the milling-around crowd of hundreds was signaled forward by the construction workers who waved everyone ahead towards the middle of the span where a podium was set up for the ceremony. What a collection of people: political figures, public administrators, writers and reporters, photographers and filmmakers, ardent citizens and family members of the honoree, university personnel, neighbors from the Acre and Pawtucketville, the bridge builders themselves, state transportation agency officials, the kids kept out of school, along with the proud, the curious, and the devoted locals.
City Manager Lynch said this bridge has been coming for decades. Decades. He reminded us that former City Manager John Cox and his team outlined a vision for this bridge at the head of Merrimack Street. It was fitting that the man who in January is expected to be the community’s next mayor, City Councilor Rodney Elliott, had made the motion to name the bridge for Richard P. Howe. History was cycling in the wind.
Today we honored a man who became a kind of monument in front of our eyes as Chancellor Meehan praised his courage and integrity, describing how he had saved local control of the city’s school system at a critical moment, Rep. Kevin Murphy extolled his legal acumen, Rep. Golden brought congratulations from state Sen. Donoghue and saluted him as the true dean of city’s political brotherhood and sisterhood, Rep. Nangle thanked Mary Howe for sharing her husband with us and counted out the 2,000 Tuesday nights on which he made “government” an action word in the Council chamber, Mayor Patrick Murphy spoke for every citizen in recognizing the contributions of an uncommon man, Congresswoman Tsongas sent a flag flown over the dome in Washington DC—and his daughter Martha called him a living bridge for the public work he had done as a representative of the people and a leader of the people. She said his example illustrates how politics can be a noble profession. All this was said about a high-grade baseball player, honorable family man, and dedicated attorney who made time in his life for civic duty. A record of 40 years of service, including four terms as mayor of his city, shows up about as often as a new huge blue bridge across the Merrimack.
In my mind I keep coming back to the crowd. What a tribute in the form of showing up. Not only quantity, but quality. Talent attracts talent, and the senior Dick Howe brought out a highly enriched collection of admirers. None of us there today will probably ever stand again in the middle of that bridge, which for its first few open hours was a scenic overlook. We feasted on spectacular views of the rushing rocky river, the new Saab building for emerging technologies on the north campus of UMass Lowell, and the glassy University Crossing under construction on the opposite bank. At our backs was the long stretch of Merrimack Street as far as we could see. On the open roadway, we, the people, occupied the structure, railing to railing, lingering a bit to remember what it felt like as a pedestrian way. Once the cars and trucks get at it, the vehicles will shape the experience of going over the water. This is something new for Lowell. We have been cutting a lot of ribbons these past few years. Historians will notice the beginning of the 21st century in this city. We got a new bridge today. We dedicated it to Mr. Howe of Lowell.
Following are excerpts from a seqence of poems titled “Purple Ritual” in Joseph Donahue’s first book of poems, Before Creation (1989). The sequence in much longer and more complex than these passages suggest, but today it seemed important to me to share part of this composition for the record. At this blog, we always tell people that Joe is from Lowell, which is true, but also true is that he holds a prestigious academic position in the South—as the Helen L. Bevington Professor of Modern Poetry at Duke University. He is the author of several books of poetry. This spring, he will be featured in a reading and talk sponsored by Lowell’s Hellenic Culture and Heritage Society at the Whistler House Museum of Art. Watch this blog for details.—PM
from “Purple Ritual”
. . .
The plane alighting, at Love. The king pausing. The carpet unfurling. Is it only in retrospect that this arrival affects me? My lack of legend the drama’s first cause?
I was in Dallas when Kennedy was shot, I tend to confess when talking about my past. Against that most silent afternoon others clamor for a telling. Days, entire years, ask to be spoken of with appropriate emotion, but the narrative dwindles into aimless incident, or fantasies of flight and stealth. . . .
. . .
from “Kennedyana I”
In 1960 my uncle, a veteran of the JFK senate campaigns, joined the White House staff as a liaison to Congress.
That Christmas we received a portrait, from my uncle’s family, and of my uncle’s family. Uncle, blonde wife, six blonde children, arrayed in a ritual pose. At the focal center, like a truer father, that most dapper of chieftains.
The portrait fed a secret pride in me which fed, in turn, my envy. I wanted to enter that corona, to stand amid my glittering cousins, which I did, briefly, in June of 1962.
Kettledrums and brass shook the cool Virginia air. Evening, awash with crowds, festooned with banners. Enroute north, age eight, I waited with my cousins as the President completed a speech.
JFK worked his way toward us, down a flagstone path. Excitement blurs the details. What I recall, and who would not recall his first radical flux of identity, is the President shaking my hand and calling me by my cousin’s name.
. . .
from “My PT109 Tieclip”
In a sleek cabin the crew no doubt crouches, intent at their weapons. So gold a warship should have come from an Egyptian tomb. Token of an assured transport. A glittering coffin adrift on a river.
Too portentous, that this campaign relic should suggest no more than Kennedy’s closeness to death.
The gold bow cutting the silver froth reminds me of Texas heat, of solitude, of nothing to do, of a boy lying in window glare, pushing a tieclip through blue carpet fiber, cooled by the pitch and roll and exuberance of war.
—Joseph Donahue (c) 1989
Today’s New York Times. Page A-13. National section. Full-page ad. UMass Lowell Is Rising. There’s more to the ad, with quotes from Forbes, US News & World Report, PayScale, and Washington Post attesting to the momentum and results at UMass Lowell as a result of recent growth, expansion, and rising excellence. Alumni earnings at mid-career is one strong piece of evidence that UMass Lowell is worth it.