In the late 60’s and early 70’s Pittsburgh was, for me, a place of unrealized dreams. Neighborhoods were segregated. Martin Luther King had just died. The steel mills were closing down, and the fathers of my contemporaries were laid off, their modest dreams of owning a split-level home and raising multiple well-fed children vanishing in a puff of acrid smoke. In the kitchens, our mothers were experiencing the first precepts of second wave feminism but had no avenues for undertaking the transformations suggested. The arts were rudimentary at best: the Pittsburgh Public Theater was just a thought; Heinz Hall opened only in 1971; the museums (except for the dinosaurs) were lackluster. And me? With a BA in English, several graduate credits from the University of Pittsburgh, a passion for theatre, and a lower middle-class background, the best I could hope for was a job as a secretary. I’d rather be a secretary in New York City than here, I thought. At least I’d be able to go to the theatre. So, I moved. And much to my surprise, I was able to cobble together a career in the theatre as a lighting designer, union card and all. After that, I found a place as a librarian at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Those were realized dreams I never dared imagine in Pittsburgh. Now I’m in New Paltz, pursuing the poetry path (dream mostly unrealized) and curating the literary series Next Year’s Words (dream realized). (Did I mention I was an English major?) I am in good Pittsburgh company: Michael Chabon, Damon Young, Jan Beatty, Lucie Brock-Broido, August Wilson, Augusten Burroughs, Jack Gilbert, Gerald Stern. I don’t personally know any of those renown souls, but there is one Pittsburgh exile I do know, and that’s the editor of this esteemed magazine, Larry Carr. He and I share Pittsburgh, theatre in NYC, retirement, and a passion for the craft of poetry, but we didn’t meet until a few years ago, in New Paltz. So, we lived in parallel, in Pittsburgh and in New York City. Now it’s time to explore the perpendicular—how did our lives unknowingly intersect? To start, we thought we’d present a pair of poems about our Pittsburgh lives. Will we harmonize? I can’t wait to find out! —Susan Chute //////// Poor in Pittsburgh, 1972 If it was free, you taught, I ought to grab it—Ned Balbo, The Sugar Thief Gone from the soot-stained city of a triangle cut out of the hillside a gasoline tower high in the sky monument to workers now interred, stepped pinnacle flashing steel red or ice blue. Gone from the soot-stained city with three rivers to a trihedron of tempers, iron city belching its beer through smoky red-light streets, city so wounded that hospitals provide the primary means of support. Gone from the soot-stained city with steep cobblestone streets and freight trains the blind child, red-haired climbing cement stairs while the dog barks and gritty black dirt with grains of white fertilize green beans and dahlias in the backyard garden. Because the front door is always locked Because the coal cellar shelves are lined with plastic flowers Because the artificial Christmas tree is stored with trimmings intact Because the unopened sheet sets are in the attic though the beds are threadbare. Because the piano is out of tune Because you can find a pencil but not a sharpener Because the desk drawer is stuffed with brochures for trips not taken. Because the old man peers through bifocals at Worldwide Wrestling Because the lover lost his laughter. Because the cars on the boulevard are going somewhere else— Go from this soot-stained city scrape through sour beginnings get away find somewhere else make something of yourself bootstraps and all that but we can’t buy the boots Rubber pull-ons will have to do. —Susan Chute //////// Pittsburgh Remains by Laurence Carr The memory surfaces slowly, image by image. Of going downtown or “dahntahn” as we would say and seeing the men in suits in the obligatory broad-brimmed, high-peaked hats, and the women gloved and hatted in Sunday best, hose, and dresses, many with colors long before any thought of retro. Some wore pearls. All of them walking with purpose to work or shop or to meet a friend under Kaufman’s clock, one of the large department stores. And there, my aunt worked in Kaufman's shoe department on the third floor. Sometimes her sister, another aunt, would take me there and we’d all lunch at the Tic Toc restaurant on the fifth floor, where ladies took an hour from their busy days to chat over Waldorf Salad. I sat there at the height of adolescent sophistication. It was a time, gone now to that place where the past ends up but still can be reeled in, never on command but in those moments when our minds have cleared and like an old toy train (Lionel or American Flyer, you choose) comes wobbling down the track to make a station stop at your quiet, days of youth. And thanks to my friend Susan Chute for connecting a few of our Pittsburgh thoughts and poems. /////// where streetlights glowed 1. in the milltowns in the valley where streetlights glowed at noon like ashy stars and chickens romped in sooty suits men trekked their way up cobbled streets away from the blasts of open hearths toward their brick oven homes their weedy garden wheelbarrows rusting from sleep deprived shiftwork they stop time to enter their oasis the corner tavern to quench in the waters of Iron City one step out the door the time clock ticks them home and back again down to the hell that pays the bills and offers boiler maker dreams 2. so much depended on those steely furnaces and rolling mills that we had no time for poetry although I wonder if Dr. Bodkin wrote imagistic verse about us his fledgling patients after shooting us up with polio seeds Laurence Carr
Read Susan Chute’s poem, “Her: A History”, here in Lightwood. She is a poet and the curator of Next Year’s Words, an online and live reading series.
Laurence Carr is the publisher of Lightwoodpress.com. His new book of poetry, Paradise Loft, is published by CAPS Press and Lightwood Press.