Category Archives: Cape Cod Light

Cape Cod Light

[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley. The other parts of this series are here.]

Michael loved Cape Cod. It lighted his life and his poetry, and it was there that he felt most connected to the natural world from which we come and to which we ultimately return.

His will told us to

Cremate me, scatter a bit in the garden, and put the rest of me in the dunes and the sea.

The final poem in Cape Cod Light is the book’s eponym.


Cape Cod Light

Dawn: earth is grey.
Overhead, a seagull catches the sun,
Flames bronze, and dives behind scrub pines.
It will glide low over swamp rushes,
Bank across the dune, and settle at the water’s edge.
Crabs wait, pursed muscles and clams,
To whom the golden seagull feels like death,
A conduit from sea to soil.
It becomes something new with each motion,
Plunging out of the sky.

It is a day to rise and go out to the Cape Cod Light
To watch the water work its will on the land.
We were all led down as children to the beach,
And bound, by a mutual gesture, to the sea.
Our awe: the miracle of light,
Plant light, sand light, bark bush and fire light,
Light on the several blues, greens, and whites of the sea.

Events intervened.
Grey dune shacks crumble into the sand
And more are built, the same. The stubby sandgrass
Creeps from green through yellow into August.
We can descend the dunes only by jumping,
Printing accidental angels in the sand.
By the shore, souls claimed by ocean
Reach up through the waves to take the hands
Of the living, not at all like dead things,
More fluid than bones picked white.
We brush them aside, proceed, do their will.
We inherit what our parents didn’t know.

It grows cool at sunset in August.
The sea blows hot and cold. The stars
That glint in the corners of your eyes
Evaporate looked at straight. Still,
You can chart a true course from them.

When storms spark
And the sky shakes itself like an angry old head,
When fog rolls in over the implacable light,
We calculate our position, and chart an according way.
In time, the full night sky will be lacerated with stars.
The sea will despoil itself on the white shore.
The enormous sandbar will hook around ahead
Into a harbor, where the fishing boats rise and fall.

The cries of the dead are stirring in the surf.
Anger keeps them here, each others’ audience,
Wearing, from time to time, the bodies of the living.
Waves crack and slither on the shore,
Black, white and black. Dunes hunch,
Dark shoulders of earth in the night.
One by one, and graves slide into the sea.
The fat orange moon spills across the water
And the dead are assumed, the unbroken line of them
Moving solemnly as kings to a miracle. They remind us
How we are falling into the future, falling.

Provincetown Harbor by Bret Duback


 

 

Bournemouth, England

[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley. The other parts of this series are here.]

Michael moved around a lot as a child and spent time in England, Germany and the US among other places. After the Korean War, his father’s army obligations stopped moving them around so much, my mother was born, and they eventually settled into suburban life in Connecticut.

The “army brat” life helped shape Michael, especially his relationship with his mother. He liked to tell a story about his strict German piano teacher, a professional musician indignant at having been reduced after the war to teaching American children scales.

Michael, Nessa, and my mother.

The thirty-first poem in Cape Cod Light is Bournemouth, England, about his early childhood memories of living in his mother’s hometown during his itinerant period.

Michael’s mother Valerie in the basement of the Connecticut house, listening to the kids’ music.


Bournemouth, England

Small things open to the rain
With the grace of a child
Who doesn’t know his parents watch
And absorbs a playmate’s hand into his heart.

Then I had a tail, like my water bottle, Miss Tibby,
Whom I carried each night with a candle up the dark stairs.
Inside, I draped it over my arm
Delicately, something entrusted to me for a short time.

In the garden, it reminded me of my connection to the earth
As I walked more gravely down the stepping stones to the hedge.
It worked when I climbed the apple tree
And sat tightly bound to the branch like a wise beast.

The carnival of birds
Acknowledged our kinship and ignored me at the bath
As they scattered water with their wings, wanton.
These memories work powerfully as flying swans in my dreams.


The next poem is here.

America’s Edge: Herring Cove

[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley. The other parts of this series are here.]

A version of thirtieth poem in Cape Cod Light, America’s Edge: Herring Cove, first appeared in Squid with the date December, 1993 (I note the changes to the Cape Cod Light version, below).

America’s Edge is the longest poem in the book, and the most ambitious. Michael’s erudition is in full force here, connecting the full historical arc of Homo sapiens to the ancient cycles of life in the natural world; the fall of empire to the indignities of childhood discipline.

Michael was always a student, of history, of politics, of America’s place in the the world. In college his team won the College Bowl; when I knew him he was a bottomless font of facts. He delighted in the book 1,000 Years,1,000 People: Ranking the Men and Women Who Shaped the Millennium because it let him riff on the author’s choices, quibble over who deserved to be there, speculate on who would remain on the list if you expanded it back another 1,000 years. He loved to champion unjustly-forgotten historical figures, and outré ideas like the historical basis of Pope Joan or the ancient provenance of Kennewick Man and the Ainu.

Michael and the rest of the winning College Bowl team from Swarthmore. Their captain was Nancy Bekavac, who would go on to be the sixth president of Scripps College.

The action in the poem moves around, from the shores of the cove to the deck of the house, from night to morning. Michael added the subtitle Herring Cove to the poem after it appeared in Squid, emphasizing the way the poem is grounded in Provincetown. From the edge of the continent Michael looks out across the ocean, to Europe’s past.

Michael is probably using the phrase beautiful conqueror generically, but knowing him he probably had Alexander the Great in mind. Michael loved the story of Alexander, and it suited him: the brilliant, beautiful, gay, doomed and fierce general and emperor, who conquered half of Eurasia, defied convention, burned brighter than anyone before him, and died young.


America’s Edge: Herring Cove

Last night, the full moon insisted on breaking through.
It spackled the bay like jungle animal
Yearning to turn teeth on its hosts in a sea of blood;
Behind it, the slow blizzard of falling stars.

The predictable glory of a mid-summer sunrise
Rouses us from a bad dream, and the television under your hand
Crackles into anthems and Rothko paintings.
From the deck we watch the birds, and subtler animals slung to the ground,
More acute in their indifference to forging beauty,
Shake, find the first meal, and steel themselves;
They remember the safe spots.

Gradually, the insides and outsides blend
Into a language invented for today.
Scores replicate
In patterns of dried moss scriven on beech limbs.

Morning thunder
Means the life or death of tropical weather
As recent cuttings ripple across the asphalt and into the sand.
The whole world can sing;
Watch the choke cherries throw down their hair in shades of green and yellow,
Becoming, against their wills, the stalks of another summer.

When the old words change their meanings,
We adjust, in the face of grandmothers and grammarians.
Even the ancient capitals submitted
To the syllables of a beautiful conqueror, more arbitrary
Than the barriers thrown down by rivers, oceans, deserts, or mountains.
Membranes strain around every sound:
“I, too, have come further than expected”
Like the markings of Napoleon’s soldiers in Egypt,
“I’ve crossed into a new province, and forced
Guidelines down from the sky.” These dot
Our memories like heroic statues or megaliths.

Places are made sacred by work:
The work that builds a relationship or rears a home out of the dirt,
The work of a prophet against disease, or a king who secures new borders.
These are all written down into verses or laws, and result in trials,
Just as Neanderthals brooded over the end of the Ice Age,
Regretting what they had taught us, and worrying about their children,
But proud in their dying that they had never succumbed to words.

Insects in amber, reconstituted skeletons
Explain how to live in the present. They say:
Walk back into that argument with your loved one,
Muscles rigid with the knowledge that you were right,
Try the whole truth; eventually anyway,
It will erupt out of the flesh.

Nevermind. I’ve decided to confess
Memories of three decades ago: parental extortions,
Denials, dead animals, love and hatreds. All
Crossed into new territory named for the suffering conquerors.

We were supposed to forget
Dislocations, reprimands, unapproved influences;
Only then could we turn them into anger and use them.
So too the misguided affections of adolescence:

Some of the music, all of the friends,
A late dawn, even the horror movies
When the child walked out and sat trembling on the steps, believing.
We did forget, for a generation,
Until our lives became as boring as suburban lawns.

Children are right
In their urgency to get on to the next thing
Like generous puppies with their noses to the ground
Or eunuchs helping the monarch to appreciate a new toy.
Left to itself,
The living fabric will try everything.

The more willing, the more willing to believe,
A mammal, twitching on the edge of the road,
Sticking to its ideology till it dies.
In the end, the corpse cracks, and forms tiny splinters, like dust.
It’s the need to restore things to how they were.

This is the time to inhabit the village,
As if watching it made all the same world.

At the ocean, Permian remnants
Swirl around the feet of the children
Like an alphabet scrawled on the tideline.
Plenty or lack gets recorded in the ancient language.
Every interpreter has its own reading
Of how neutral the ocean can be
In its retreats and assaults,
How brutally alive the slipping of the fierce lines.


Herring Cove Tide by Bret Duback


The next poem is here.

The version in Cape Cod Light differs from the version in Squid, with many additions and some line break changes. I have corrected the lowercase i that begins the fourth line in the second to last stanza; other than than I have deferred to the Cape Cod Light version.

David’s Dead

[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley. The other parts of this series are here.]

Uncle David was a computer guy, and as children we loved to play the few games he had on his PC when we visited: a simple flight simulator when we moved into their apartment in Brookline; later an old Star Wars MS-DOS port in the Provincetown house; we tried to figure out the questions at the beginning of Leisure Suit Larry so we could see what the game was about. We loved Pool of Radiance.

But it was Michael, not David, who loved computer games, and he would eventually overtake us in his obsession with Nintendo games, especially the ones we brought with us from Seattle. To keep his mind off of David’s illness he would play Kid Icarus for hours, going through the game over and over again, racking up huge scores.

David Harkins

Michael and David shared domestic duties; Michael cooked, David cleaned. David was close to his family; his parents, sister, niece, and nephew were regulars at the family gatherings in Provincetown.

David and Michael

Medication, doctors, the Provincetown AIDS Support Group, and Michael’s care kept the disease at bay for years, but it slowly took its toll on David’s body. As he grew more lean and tired, they made sure David could spend his last days in the home he loved.

David finally gave up the ghost in his chair in the living room. Michael called my mother and told her “it’s over,” and we rushed up the Cape to help him manage things.

I remember the business of the family that distracted us the day of the memorial: the hastily arranged service at the UU church downtown, the last-second scrambling to avoid the attention of the Westboro Baptist protestors, in town to cause trouble elsewhere.

Michael and David visiting the beach, towards the end.

The twenty-ninth poem in Cape Cod Light is David’s Dead. It’s about Michael’s preoccupations in the days just before and after David’s death; the memorial service; the cremation; the paperwork.


David’s Dead

The adjustment occurred
And a ghost began to rise up
That would be the business of another Sunday.

Shuffle the weightlessness of it
Still innocently stained and floppy
Into a crisp white zip-lock bag for the burning.

At the end
He wasn’t into the big picture.
Details were enough, TV or a cigarette.

Junk the chair he fouled and died in.
He never spoke directly to Death
As he slipped into it. It just fit.

Somehow he’d managed to unbundle
The complaints, the indignations.
This chemical peace could be allowed,

Almost comfortable.
Nature displayed no conspicuous shudder.
The words came later, at the gathering of lovers

Where unintended bits of him cropped up
In the stories, gestures, and absences.
The paperwork is finished.
Mix his grainy dust with the dune.


The next poem is here.

 

In Sight of It

[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley. The other parts of this series are here.]

After he retired from Harvard to Provincetown, Michael got involved in town affairs, helping manage the community theater company, going to town meetings, running friend’s campaigns for selectman. It was a far cry from his days in New York City and Cambridge, but it’s where he wanted to be.

The view of the monument from Michael and David’s house during construction.

The twenty-eighth poem in Cape Cod Light is In Sight of It. It’s an ode to Provincetown springs, about the vacillations in the transition from the winter to summer, and about the cadence of small town life.

Michael on the deck of the house in Provincetown, surveying his domain

Lots of Provincetown characters make appearances here: his friends Robert and Ron, a local indigent, the town Moderator, and the first summer tourists, bringing the Key West party back north, surprised by the cold Atlantic water.


In Sight of It

It’s a gray dawn, and the future is filled with meetings
Where we have to pay close attention and can’t smoke.
Provincetown sleeps all around in its early spring potential
Though you can feel the bulbs plumping in the ground
And old Popeye is back out in the streets gathering his cans.
There’s no spring here;
For a couple of months it’s either summer or winter.
Robert and Ron will remember the Memorial Day
When it almost snowed as we were spilling out of the bars.

Yesterday I took my shirt off in the garden,
Today it’s a cold drizzle. One thing about meetings,
They get you out of the house in a drizzle.
You can stand up not knowing the consequences of what you will say.
Unexpected allies or opponents emerge.
People even change their minds or vote against their interests
And a shudder runs through the sand from Commercial Street to Race Point;
An entire community has been changed by wastewater management.

It’s early enough so we still really welcome the summer people
And shift our complexions like chameleons. We enjoy watching them
Shivering in swimsuits and ordering generous rounds.
At last year’s Town Meeting
A poet read a three page Ode to Affordable Housing
And our Moderator allowed as it was relevant to the discussion.
Things begin to feel like their happening in a Provincetown April.


The next poem is here.

Snapping the Bars

[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley. The other parts of this series are here.]

When Michael moved to New York City he worked on political campaigns and served as assistant director of public affairs for the New York State Urban Development Corporation.

I don’t know a lot about his work on political campaigns. A lot of his understanding and appreciation of politics came from the trenches; I know he helped manage one failed primary campaign for some minor office, in New York City perhaps, and apparently the winning opponent was so impressed with him that he took on a role in their general election campaign as well.

In 1984 there was a lot of planning to redevelop Times Square, which had fallen into disrepute (in 1978 Mick Jagger famously complained that he couldn’t “give it away on 7th avenue / This town’s been wearing tatters”). The UDC was involved in efforts to revitalize it, and also to create a major sports complex for the New York teams. These negotiations were filled with power plays and politics among the businessmen who saw opportunity for profit, power hungry politicians, and among the competing interests of New York City, New York State, and New Jersey across the river. And so Michael got to be involved in a lot of work announcing plans of great local political importance. He’s quoted in the New York times here about the UDC’s role in the Time Square development plans.

Then in January of 1985, the chair of the UDC, William J. Stern, abruptly resigned. Stern was a millionaire businessman and ally of Governor Cuomo, and it was big news. I know Michael was there at the announcement because he took pictures:

William J. Stern’s resignation press conference January 1985

William J. Stern’s resignation press conference, January 1985

I am 99% sure that’s what these pictures are of. It took a lot of sleuthing to figure it out: the date on the back of the photos is January 1985, and the framed New York Daily News article in the background is what finally clinched it. I asked Twitter to help out, and my wife Julia and others eventually were able to decipher this headline:

“City plays an ace to trump N.J. with new sportsplex”

And a tweep identified the source:

Yes, that’s Donald Trump, because of course it is.

The twenty-sixth poem in Cape Cod Light is Snapping the Bars. I’m not really sure what it’s about or what the title refers to. I can imagine that it is about notoriety, and the unsolicited opinions, flattery, and accusations that come with it, about the false self-importance that comes from being well known or powerful. The title may be a reference to snapping open prison bars, escaping from the confines of fame.

It could be about his fleeting brushes and associations with fame, perhaps about his decision to leave the high-powered political world and retreat back to the Academy at Harvard.  Or, it might be one of the few or only non-autobiographical poems in the collection. It’s possible it’s written from the perspective of one of the candidates he worked for, or perhaps even that of Bill Stern.


Snapping the Bars

Doing nothing takes the most time.
All these explanations
Dashed off at the kitchen table, that assure our fame,
Even the passionate colloquies
In which we are incredibly noble or depraved
Are the foreign parts,
What we’ve decided to become.

True, everything is evolving
Towards some distant, divine event.
But someone has recognized an infidelity
And is knocking at the door: it is not you,
He says, that was meant to know this.


The next poem is here.

Falling in Love Again

[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley. The other parts of this series are here.]

Falling in love is a thrilling ride, when the real difficulties of sharing your life with someone are still invisible, irrelevant. The fall is that of a playground slide, a swimming pool springboard, a sky dive.

The twenty fifth poem in Cape Cod Light is Falling in Love Again. It’s about a different kind of fall.

The opening line, “When you’re dying” is ambiguous: at first it reads like he is using the third-person, generic you, as if what’s to follow is advice from one who is dying (so, really, the first person I).  But the later use of we makes it clear he really does mean the second person you: he’s writing about his relationship with David, living with AIDS.

Having spent a lot of time with Michael, I can’t read the phrase traveling companion without involuntarily mentally completing the line from from his favorite album Graceland (“My traveling companion is nine years old / He is the child from my first marriage.”) There, too, Simon is using the phrase to mean a companion in one’s travel through life, a constant reminder of the unintended consequences of an earlier relationship, an earlier fall.

Michael and David at Christmastime an Michael’s mother’s apartment in 1982.

Like in Provincetown, December 5, 5:00 A.M. Michael is on the deck of the house, at night, looking out at the weather, the dunes, and contemplating his place in it all. But here instead of projecting the sentiment outward, connecting stormy weather to world politics, he is introspective, connecting raindrops’ action on the dunes to the emotional pangs of confronting the hard realities of life and love.

The view at dawn of Truro across the Bay from the back deck of the Provincetown house.

The mood of the poem is one of estrangement: the mutual unanswered questions and promises; the eye as an abyss of shame to be avoided during sex.

But even as he is contemplating the aftermath of the “final argument” with its “irrevocable statements,” the title tells us how the story will end: falling into that abyss, falling into a deeper kind of love, and in the final lines Michael steels himself to make the jump.


Falling in Love Again

When you’re dying
Other tensions become trivial,
A device to remain involved in life.
We have been introduced in youth
To our traveling companion, death by sex, and
Bit by bit my substance leaks away through my eyes.
From the residue, fear flies up, flicking
Sharp notations across the dunes.

If I turn to you and open my eyes while we make love
To meet yours, spying on me in the low light,
I read a promise based on a question.
My body can answer on its own terms,
Cutting through to the calm across desire,
Stepping stone by stone down into sleep
Without entering the eye, the abyss, the answer
In a magical enchantment of shame.

After the irrevocable statements of the final argument,
The catalogue of admissions I never made to myself,
I walk out into solitude, moonshadow.
A sheath of cloud changes the climate
And the raw, surprising cold slips inside.
Big drops score the sand, and I think:
We can accommodate knowing these things about each other.
We must.

The heart bumps back together again for a moment,
The heart at the center of circles:
The night, the house, the body.


The next poem is here.

Taking the Century by the Throat

[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley. The other parts of this series are here.]

Michael was a Baby Boomer.

The title of the twenty-fourth poem in Cape Cod LightTaking the Century by the Throat, comes from the final line of his masterpiece, Provincetown, December 5, 5:00 A.M.  Like that poem, this is a meditation on his generation’s role in the world and the rise of the American global dominance.

Michael and his sisters as children

Like in that poem, Michael weighs the burden of being the somewhat reluctant heirs to the empire built by his parents’ generation. As children, they absorbed the lessons of their parents, learned the heritage of their European intellectual forebears, and the canon of American myths.

Michael and his sisters a couple of decades later.

He charts his generation’s rebellious hippie phase in their twenties, and the counter-reaction that was their role in the Reagan Revolution in the 80’s. The central portion of the poem echoes the 90’s liberal perspective in Provincetown, December 5, 5:00 A.M.

Michael and his sisters in the driveway of his house in Provincetown a decade later.

The poem probably written in the mid to late ’90’s, when Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man was popular. That book argues that the rise of Western Democracy might be “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” The poem was probably also written as he watched his father, an officer and veteran of World War II, and his mother, a British expatriate, becoming old and frail.

In the final, hopeful stanza, Michael identifies his prodigal generation’s return to take up the mantle of the Greatest Generation and lead the world to peace and prosperity.

Taking the Century by the Throat first appeared in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse.


Taking the Century by the Throat

We swallowed it all:
The zip haircuts, the 25 cent movies, the Sunday Schools,
The education, the need to beat the Russians in space.
Most of all, we absorbed the promiscuous beauty,
The poetry our parents knew we should love,
The pantheism of converted Puritans,
The Romantic land- and sea-scapes of fairytales,
In rebellion, the leather attitudes and pop Buddhism,
The confessed self-revelation and self-awareness,
The antibiotics, psychedelics, vaccines.

We thought it all:
Classical nobility, medieval faith,
Humanism, with its glorification of the body,
Enlightenment, with its glorification of the mind.
We whispered with dark intellectuals
About anomie, and the collapse of the West.

We’ve crisscrossed America in jalopies,
Been propositioned by strangers in California,
Danced till dawn amid the sleek bodies of New York,
Retreated to Alpine glades in the Rockies,
Belonged to all parties on the great issues.
We went to bed socialists and woke up on the supply side.

We’ve seen the world and it’s seen us.
It likes what it sees.
It’s only partly the appeal of a frayed affluence.
We’ve fought for freedom, and if we flirted with bigotry,
We vote and manage with a weary tolerance
Born of being a majority in opposition,
Codified by the music and movies we still believe in.

Now that we’ve half-raised our children,
Now that we hold mortgages on some big houses,
Now that we run the Russian economy
And China only waits for a few old men to die,
We could become that gallant royalty,
The true reason two generations fought and died.


The next poem is here.

Our Loss

[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley. The other parts of this series are here.]

In 1984 Michael joined the faculty at the Harvard Business School teaching Management Communication, and became cochairman of the program. The course heads taught via case study, looking at a specific communication challenge faced by a particular business and discussing them.

Michael let me sit in on a class when I visited him once (I must have been 11 or 12) and I was struck by how this graduate course (I didn’t know what a graduate course was at the time) was very different from elementary school. The entire class time was a discussion, and students were expected to come prepared having done the reading about the case, which Michael or one of the other course heads had written.There were no answers, only good and bad analysis.

Michael did not actually teach at HBS all that long; he was already transitioning to life as a writer on the Cape with David full time when we arrived in 1989. His first big project was writing a textbook with a fellow course head, containing many of the cases they had developed. The first edition was published in 1997 it was successful for a while, especially the Chinese translation. It still has its value, but it was written when email was still a novelty (there was a short, rather naïve section towards the end about how formal emails should be). It’s on the third edition now; we in the family have thought about updating it posthumously to revive it, but even revising a textbook is a lot of work.

While he lived in Boston, Michael developed a circle of friends; one of the most frequent visitors to the apartment included Robert Kent, his fellow cochairman at HBS, who became a good family friend of ours. Robert and his partner Ron were his and David’s regular bridge opponents in the evening. Michael also became friends with Richard Schneider, founder of the Gay and Lesbian Review, where Michael was a regular contributor.

The twenty-third poem in Cape Cod Light is Our Loss. It appears to be about another Harvard colleague—or at least about someone he knew for a long while, including in Cambridge—but we are not sure who it is. “You spent ten years writing about how you’d set yourself against the elements for three weeks” is a very characteristically Michael way to disparage a one-trick-phony.


Our Loss

You knew how to play. That’s what vanished over the years.
Now that you started taking yourself seriously;
You’d always done that.
I remember when you were a dancer, and, even at the end, they say,
Among strangers, you could crank yourself up to be the life of the part.
Something was denied.
Nothing could reach the essential betrayal.
When you had love, it was wrong.
When you’d thrown it away
You were the victim of a tragedy.
No more thoroughly urbanized American
Was more determined to pose as a child of nature.
You spent ten years
Writing about how you’d set yourself against the elements
For three weeks. Now you’re dead,
Crushed into the tarmac of a country road,
Now that you’ve been dead four years,
Why am I still angry at you
As if we’d just had a tense lunch in Harvard Square?
Maybe it’s the methodological determination
With which you strangled the playful child you loved and despised.

 


The next poem is here.

How You’ve Helped Me Grow

[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley. The other parts of this series are here.]

In 1982 Michael left the faculty at Muhlenberg and moved to New York City to work in industrty, specializing in business communication. There, he met a computer wiz named David Harkins. A New Jersey native with a thick accent and a an easy laugh, David was involved in making some of the first computer-generated television programming for public access television in New York City.

Michael and David in New York City in 1984, shortly after they met. Photo © Marcia Weinstein.

In 1984 they moved to Boston, where Michael drove a cab until he got hired at Harvard Business School teaching Management Communication, and David worked in the IT department at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. They eventually built their dream house on a vacant lot at the top of Miller Hill in Provincetown where they would spend weekends and vacations.

As they slowly relocated to Provincetown full time, and Michael got to work making the dunes bloom. This was not purely aesthetic: the roots of the plants held the sand in place, delaying the need to get a bulldozer to push the sand back up the hill to keep the house supported. Both Michael and David spent the rest of their lives in the house they built together.

Michael and David in the garden.

The twenty-second poem of Cape Cod Light is How You’ve Helped Me Grow. The title is a simple, almost corny pun, reflecting the poem’s straightforward conceit: their love has grown like the flowers in their garden. This is the second poem in the book about the garden; that and a few of the other poems of Cape Cod Light are about David, but this is the one love poem in the collection Michael wrote to David.


How You’ve Helped Me Grow

(for David)

The flowers I gave you are wilting.
They now stand for nothing but time.
Every representation of love
Changes meaning
Like diamonds locked in a drawer.

We’ve sustained
The one plant you owned when I met you:
A philodendron that hasn’t gained an inch
Over a dozen years.
It doesn’t mean we haven’t.
It’s still alive.
Nothing important we’ve sheltered has perished.

As soon as we built our home
I started filling the yard
With junipers, marigolds, petunias,
Earnest to make the dune bloom.

Some failed, or vanished into the grass and ivy:

Conventional roses, lily of the valley, delphinium.
Most thrived: bleeding hearts, daisies,
Promiscuous carpets-of-snow, rakish cosmos,
Gladioli, dahlias, and spruces,
Chrysanthemums, beach plums, peonies, seapink, and milkwood,
Even the aloe and hibiscus we take in every winter.

Every spring, we’re surprised by the early green:
Crocuses, daffodils, and tulips.
We found each other in bars and apartments.
We gravitated together over thousands of miles.
We’ve tolerated the intolerable.
It’s a lot to grow from a one night stand.


The next poem is here.

*I’ve put a comma after “conventional roses,” even though it’s a period in the book, because I think it’s a misprint: “lily of the valley” is not capitalized, and a comma is more consistent with the rest of the poem, where no other line has an internal period. The one-line stanza also seems out of place to me; it’s possible it belongs in the next stanza, but it is hard to say because it is separated in the book by a page break. In this case, I’ve given the benefit of the doubt to the typesetter.

Pink Floyd Played Berlin

[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley. The other parts of this series are here.]

I learned politics from Michael in the ’90’s.  The Berlin wall fell about a month before we moved to Boston, and Michael and I watched the renaissance of liberal politics under Bill Clinton on TV together; I was in grad school when it all came crashing down during the Florida recount.

Michael’s trip around the world and addiction to politics made him very well versed in world affairs and the ins and outs of domestic politics. He was a font of political wisdom and minutiae, collected across his the sources of his daily political fix—the New York Times on paper, CNN on cable, The MacNeil Lehrer News Hour on PBS. He watched the 1992 and 1996 elections like a sports fan watching a playoff run. He rooted for a contested convention just for the sheer drama of it all.

A true baby boomer, Michael’s politics were very mainstream-1990’s liberal, befitting the gay son of a WWII and Korean War veteran. He saw America as a benevolent empire, deeply flawed but constantly improving, spreading the promise of prosperity and democracy around the world through just the right balance of soft and hard power. His support of Bill Clinton never wavered, and he was elated by Obama’s rise and election.

Michael’s parents Van and Valerie, Michael, and David, picnicking on the cape.

Michael’s politics are on full display in the twenty-first poem in Cape Cod Light, Pink Floyd Played Berlin. The iconic images of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Eastern Bloc are the people on the top of the wall cheering, the pieces coming off as they ripped it apart. Michael’s title refers to an event from eight months later, when Roger Waters performed The Wall at a huge benefit concert attended by 350,000 people where the wall once stood.


Pink Floyd Played Berlin

When they ripped down the wall and danced on it
First we wept, then we were taken aback
By a certainty crumbling or, more deeply,
A fear for America with the pressure off.

No one asked us to take charge.
Elders don’t. It happened by accident.
History needs to be made as well as read.
That’s what was frozen by the cold war.

We didn’t seek it. Neither did Rome.
The world just kept throwing itself into our arms.
What estate could resist those images on television?
Look how you pay for making rock and roll.


The next poem is here.

Music Men

[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley. The other parts of this series are here.]

Me, presumably on a visit of ours to see Michael (or vice versa), wearing what is presumably a gift from Michael, a not-so-subtle encouragement to aspire to attend his alma mater (I did give a talk there once!). We’re >99% sure that’s Aaron on the floor.

When I was first reading the canon of Western poetry in high school, some of my early favorites were  Ozymandias, Kubla Khan, and The Tempest; I liked the rhyme, the carefully crafted turns of phrase that stuck in your mind. Later I became of a fan of The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock and Bob Dylan lyrics; I enjoyed how their words’ meanings were elusive and how their elliptical style rewarded re-readings with fresh interpretations and revelations. My senior year final English paper was on visions of cosmology in The Divine Comedy, The Wasteland, and Paradise Lost (did you know that Milton met Galileo?)

Michael was my guide, of course. We talked about the poems I read and he gave his favorite interpretations of them.

He tried to get me to appreciate the virtues of unrhymed poetry. I was happy to embrace the rich blank verse of Milton and Shakespeare, but I found most modern poetry hard to access. I struggled with The Wasteland; even with Eliot’s extensive notes, the references were too obscure to have much meaning for me, and I lost interest in “difficult” poetry.

Michael once capitulated and wrote a poem in rhyme for me: I think it was called something like For Jason, Who Likes Rhyme, At Christmas but sadly I don’t know of any existing copies. Teenage me did not have the maturity and foresight to realize how it important it would be to keep that poem safe.

The twentieth poem in Cape Cod Light is Music Men. It has the elliptical quality I enjoy in poetry, and just enough concrete imagery to keep you grounded in a mental image of what’s going on. I imagine a low-budget public music performance at the beach, with the sea in front of them, the trees behind them, rain threatening, Michael and a friend attending but not really participating or paying much attention. Or perhaps it’s all indoors, and it’s the music that sweeps them into outdoor imagery? In the final stanza, the poem dissolves into haiku.

I love the line “brings to bear more honesty than facts can support”—it’s one of those turns of phrase you wish was famous so that you could drop it into a polemic to show off both your rhetorical skill and your erudition at the same time.

Michael, his sister Vanessa, and (not-so) little baby me.


Music Men

The singers and players arrive at last
As someone adjusts the lights, and the crowd
Drifts one-by-one into the hastily assembled chairs.
What sustained us today is lounging
On the fringes, where the occasion trails off
As someone with a tray walks by saying, rain.

The tuning of the instruments brings to bear
More honesty than facts can support,
Net after net floating to the water
Just when it appeared
We would hear the single note predicted
In all the charts.

Suddenly we have been fleeing
Downhill, by air. The musicians
Are suggesting how much west there is, and
Behind the banners, the domestic trees
Clump into pathless forest.

Jim Shoulberg at Conwell Street by Bret Duback


The next poem is here.

Lady

[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley. The other parts of this series are here.]

Michael’s understanding of the female half of the human species was shaped by competing forces. He was very close with the women in his family—his mother and his sisters. It is because of that close family bond with my mother that we came to live with him, and that his sister Vanessa lived in the mother-in-law apartment in the Provincetown house for years.

Michael and his sisters

He had great esteem for many of his women colleagues, and there were plenty of women academics, writers, and artists he admired. The political and social alliances between gay men and lesbians are complex, especially in a gay mecca like Provincetown, but he always respected lesbian activists and recognized and appreciated their common cause for equality and justice—he was the one who taught me about the Frank Kameny/Barbara Gittings partnership as an effective template for gay rights.

But his closest friends and his lovers were all men, and this meant that many aspects of women remained mysterious to him. For instance, after I started seriously dating it became clear to me that his understanding of even basic facts of women’s biology was comically underdeveloped, an ignorance which he apparently never had any particular interest in remediating.

Michael’s mother Val started showing signs of Alzheimer’s in the ’80s, and by the time we arrived in Boston it was getting obvious. She developed emphysema from a lifetime of smoking, and she had to be hospitalized for a heart condition shortly after we arrived. Alzheimer’s is a fatal illness, but despite it and all of her medical conditions she hung on until finally succumbing at age 78 in 2001, 5 years after Cape Cod Light was published and almost a year after Van died of congestive heart failure at 84.

Michael with his mother and sisters

The nineteenth poem in Cape Cod Light is Lady. The title, the reference to Lot’s wife, the phrase “across the Atlantic”, and the sense of a women losing herself make my mother and I suspect it is about Valerie. “He would have liked calling her a lady,” says Mom.


Lady

You say: you are coming apart like an old doll,
Cards scattering across the Atlantic.
We say: you are sticking and spilling on things
And rush together to preserve some surface,
But as surely another drips
Off a counter or down the drain.
What mouth is opening, what words
Like musical notes might emerge
To evaporate some cherished piece
Of furniture, or melt
The entire poised figure
Like water hitting a statue made of salt.

The Seal Pond, a drawing by John Andert. Photo by Bret Duback.


The next poem is here.

Facing The Season

[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley. The other parts of this series are here.]

Michael always had a Christmas tree, always invited us all up for a Christmas gathering. We would spend Christmas Eve distracted with anticipation, and Christmas Day mastering the video games we had gotten under the tree. Christmas morning, one person would get the hat and play “Santa,” passing out the gifts agonizingly slowly so we could all appreciate each one as they were opened.

Christmas at the house in Provincetown. Valerie (Michael’s mother) is laughing. That miiiight be me in the lower left sporting the mullet.

The grownups, I now realize, had a similar relationship with it all. It isn’t all fun and games when you have to erect and trim the tree, cook the food, clean the house, and so on. But especially when life is dealing you a bad hand in the background, it’s wonderful when you finally get to the good parts: that moment distant family walks through the door, sitting around the fire playing games, telling stories, singing, laughing.

The eighteenth poem in Cape Cod Light is Facing the Season, and it features my younger brother Aaron delivering containing the most quoted phrase in the book within our family: “knock me over the head” to get across to the good times.

Michael celebrating the season at his Provincetown house with his father Van, a somewhat less enthusiastic vocalist than Michael. If I had to guess, I’d say Michael is hamming up some especially religious Christmas carol playing on the CD player.


Facing the Season

The leaves are flying backwards like dead birds.
I could tune in “Morning in America”
But if I picked that up I’d crack.
Overnight a huge green object
Reared itself in our living room
Forecasting family, heavy lifting, and snow.
Last Christmas Eve
As we were hanging the stockings in our conspiracy
Aaron, twelve, said
“I wish you could knock me over the head
So I could come to and it would be Christmas.”
That’s how it is
Getting across to the good times, knock me over the head.


The next poem is here.

Provincetown, December 5, 5:00 A.M.

[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley. The other parts of this series are here.]

Michael was a political junkie and a weather junkie. He obsessively tracked elections and Atlantic storms on cable TV with the same enthusiasm, switching between the Weather Channel and CNN. During the day he could take the pulse of the atmosphere from the balconies of his house, overlooking Cape Cod Bay in one direction and the Atlantic in the other; and by night he would take the pulse of the polis at the Atlantic house and Commercial Street.

Michael enjoying a storm at the beach (I would guess Herring Cove) while his photographer and ride stays dry.

In 1991, Hurricane Bob was heading straight for Cape Cod. Most residents that were able heeded the warnings, boarded up, and evacuated. When it was clear Bob would be a direct hit on Provincetown, we got the call from Michael: if you leave Boston now, you can probably make it across the bridge before they close it, and be here in time for the main event.

So of course we showed up.

Hurricane Bob, 1991
Left to right: Me, Justin, my mother Victoria, Michael (top), Aaron (front), David, Vanessa. This photograph appears in Cape Cod Light after “Facing the Season”, but it belongs here.

Michael loved elections, he reveled in the Clinton victories; he was reinvigorated by Obama’s mandate. He longed for the political renewals they promised.

For my money, the seventeenth poem in Cape Cod LightProvincetown, December 5, 5:00 A.M., is the masterpiece of the book. Its dramatic, sincere optimism is something America could use right now.


Provincetown, December 5, 5:00 A.M.

Tonight I awoke, unexpectedly,
To a rainstorm turning suddenly to snow:
Not the typical transition
From sleep to remembered dreaming,
From vague, lofty possessions
To embarrassing distortions of yesterday,
Then to a reluctant acceptance of morning,
But to a bold stand.

I think it was Keats,
Reading again, twenty years later,
How the sea was a revelation
Banging against the rocky chambers at Margate
Rather than whispering as it does here,
Rising silently, stealing buildings, seeping through the sand.

Everything comes back:
The poets that haunted me in my youth,
The struggle for sensation,
The hard work of friendship,
Worry attaching itself to trivia,
The achievements: lover, family, home.

All was of a piece.
Suddenly, the language wasn’t exhausted.
So many things that cried out for poetry
Had been neglected, things
That must be incorporated, or we die.

Some of religion’s strict fantasies have caught up with us
In daily life, even
As we’ve become more comfortable without it,
Because pestilence has gilded our hours.

The wind has turned,
Southwest to north, and a depression
Struggles to form over Nantucket.
I root for it.

I long for a great storm
To move majestically into the gulf of Maine and stall,
Bludgeoning us with wall on wall of snow,
Transforming the dunes into a whitescape,
Making the day new.

Upstairs, my loved one sleeps.
History haunts him
With the inevitable success
Of a movie villain with metal fingers.

There may be too much to absorb.
I fear the snow will subside to drizzle.
But if we can fill every rift with ore, and
Fight the insistence to refuse meaning
Who’s to say we can’t take the century by the throat?

Ordinary Provincetown Winter Street by Bret Duback


The next poem is here.

David’s Day

[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley. The other parts of this series are here.]

We’re arrived at the emotional core of the book, the most autobiographical parts, the ones that remind us most of life with Michael and David.

He was Uncle David as long as I can remember, long before we moved to Boston.

David (top), me (left), Michael, Aaron (goofy), and Justin (right) in my grandparents’ apartment.

David was diagnosed with AIDS around the time we moved to the East Coast and into their Brookline apartment until we got our own place. He had been HIV positive for many years without knowing it, since before he and Michael got together.

They soon relocated to the Cape house in Provincetown, where David worked remotely and Michael spent long weekends around his teaching duties at Harvard (Michael stayed in our spare bedroom during the week.)

Michael and David during a birthday celebration for Michael at the Provincetown house.

The drive to P-town for Christmas, Thanksgiving, or just a long weekend became a regular feature of our lives. David’s illness fell into the background after he recovered from his initial bout with opportunistic infections.

For a few years, life was “normal”; and we began to associate trips to the Cape with endless games, feasts, family and fun.

Bret DuBack, Michael, and David in the kitchen in Provincetown.

The sixteenth poem in Cape Cod Light is David’s Day, and it was written during this period.


David’s Day

Once the inevitable happened
And we got through the first life-or-death weeks
We stepped back, and began adjusting
To the evil angel lurking constantly over our shoulders.
For a full year
You were mad at me, mad at the world,
Mad at my sisters, your doctors, your mother,
Mad at the God who retained a shred of your belief.
The recovery began with mania,
When household chores weren’t too much for you,
And you needed a project a day to keep you sane.
Games became crucial, and we turned weekends into festivals:
Bridge and Pictionary,
Trivial Pursuit, Dr. Mario, and Balderdash,
Christmas for twelve and Thanksgiving for twenty-seven,
All recorded on videotape. This is the third year
That you’ve had AIDS, and we’ve never had a better.
To see you plump and strong, wrestling
With the ordinary tasks of daily life
Reminds me of times that will come again:
The endless evenings a breath away from death at the hospital,
The trembling, step-by-step recoveries, leashed to an I.V.,
The fainting into a lug of flesh down the long stairs.
Your immune count is four, down from twelve hundred.
We worry in person and by phone over your rashes and your vision.
We organize our lives around this illness,
And we play. We play. We play.


The next poem is here.

How It Returned: Tripping In Vinnie’s Garden

[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley. The other parts of this series are here.]

Michael’s drug of choice was the cigarette; he was a chain smoker and I can’t help but think that his was one of the many lives saved by flame-retardant furniture. Later, especially after David died, he added the screwdriver to his regular diet.

It all eventually caught up with him, but to some degree that was intentional: he always appreciated Mick Jagger’s notorious line about rather being dead than sing “Satisfaction” when he’s 40, and, unlike Jagger, I think Michael meant it. He watched his parents get old and die and I think he never wanted any part of it.

The core of the “Fern Circle Bridge Club” (as they called themselves) in the basement of my grandparents’ house. Michael is in the lower left, his sister Vanessa has the cat, my mother is in black on the right, my father David is in white at the bottom. Beverly Boehmke is in the center; Gary Oleski is to her left, Larry Gill is behind her, and Eric Dautel is back right. The phosphorescent paintings on the back wall lit up under black light.

Michael was no stranger to the other drugs, though, and was certainly a fan of pot. Being a poetic child of the 60’s, I suppose he was obligated to write about one of his trips.

The fifteenth poem in Cape Cod Light is How It Returned: Tripping In Vinnie’s Garden. Vinnie was a friend of Michael and Nessa’s in Provincetown. Bret Duback, who would have been right there tripping with him, tells me the poem was probably written either in the late ’70’s or mid ’80’s.


How It Returned: Tripping In Vinnie’s Garden

What they stirred into the wine
And poured into beakers on the oak table
Was so we might not be lost to them
Living in disguise in their own world.

The stone ducks on the lawn
Preserved someone’s idea
Of grace under pressure; lying down
Among them I was a picture nobody took.
The furniture of earth and sky encompassed me.
Something stopped. It was
Orchestrating itself, and watching.

Just when I thought I was revised
They retrieved me, merely by being themselves.
My resentment was nothing personal;
What permanence, after all, had they displaced:
The pigments of faces assembling in the dusk
Looming down towards me, like moons.


The next poem is here.

Changing in Place

[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley. The other parts of this series are here.]

Michael took a few years off of graduate school at Yale to get out of his bubble. After serving two years as an orderly and counselor at a psychiatric institute working with heroine addicts, he decided to see the world. So he booked a flight to Hawaii, then to Tahiti, then to New Zealand, and then he backpacked his way westward at his own pace, spending weeks or months at a time in Bali, Java, Singapore, Nepal, India, Iran, and many points in between.

Michael on his trip around the world, presumably somewhere between India and Greece based on the locations depicted in other photos in this part of his photo album. Perhaps someone can identify the language of the graffiti on that wall?

Eventually his sister Vanessa joined him in Turkey, and my mother joined them in Greece. Michael became very ill from his journeys and flew home. But my mother stayed on and worked their way to France with Vanessa, before returning home to New Haven (my aunt Vanessa fell in love in and with France and wold not move back stateside for many years).

So much of Michael’s worldview is literal, coming from his well-earned views of much of the world.

The fourteenth poem in Cape Cod Light is Changing in Place. Its five aphorisms provide a nice summary of Michael’s perspective on life and relationships, which has a sort of “Eastern”, dissociative quality to them. They are good words to live by.


Changing in Place

If it lives on the edge let it fall.
Even a piece of yourself
Can crash to the pavement without permanent loss.

If it seeks the depths, let it sink.
Even an old conviction
Can be cut off your neck like an albatross.

If it dies to be with you let it die.
You didn’t pledge
To play your part in someone else’s scheme.

If you cease to believe let it go.
You didn’t lie
To preserve the pretender who conceived the dream.

If you love, let it be.
Let it destroy what you were:
Productive, lonely, warped, false, free.


The next poem is here.

Parkway

[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley. The other parts of this series are here.]

Michael, in his Mick Jagger doppelganger phase while teaching at Muhlenberg

After graduating from Yale in 1976, Michael taught English for 6 years at Muhlenberg College in Eastern Pennsylvania, about an hour north of his undergraduate alma mater, Swarthmore. In the Muhlenberg yearbook the students said of the English department “Hattersley: original, challenging, and much more.”

In 1979 he founded the Valley Arts Council, becoming a “town and gown” bridge and cultivating the arts in the Lehigh Valley area (I think it still exists).

Michael aways always a teacher. After leaving Muhlenberg he spent two years in New York City working in business communications before ending up in Cambridge, MA teaching at Harvard Business School.

Michael was always a poet. I suspect Parkway, the thirteenth poem in Cape Cod Light, is one of the oldest poems in the collection. Quite the opposite of the previous poem, is a straightforward idyll, probably written in his Muhlenberg days, about a rainy day on the Little Lehigh Creek.

From the Muhlenberg yearbook


Parkway

On wet wings; the earnest birds
Brake, settle, fold themselves
Into the water. Floating limbs
Bump the margin of fat leaves.
Someone has planted these steps
Down to the Little Lehigh River.

The depression that built these parks
Bloomed in the slow care
Stone was shaped to stone.
Old fishermen keep their eyes
On the ripples. Young ones
Smoke by poles propped on the bank.

The river carves out an island:
Bent pine, syringa, forked grass.
People gather. Some vanish
Into the woods. Squirrels scatter.
The voices of the children
Have been driven away by this rain.

The cloudy light at nightfall
And the sound of friends
Coming back from the storm
Mingle at the island’s end
As a bat flaps slowly
Out of the window.


The next poem is here.

Like the Unfinished Souls in da Vinci’s Adoration

[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley. The other parts of this series are here.]

Many of Michael’s poems are obviously autobiographical, if not about actual events or people then about real places in his life. That has let me use them to riff on elements of his biography and character.

The twelfth poem in Cape Cod LightLike the Unfinished Souls in da Vinci’s Adoration, is not one of those poems. It is more modern than his other poems, with a shifting, dream-like quality. The full title of the da Vinci work it references is Adoration of the Magi, an unfinished painting in the Uffizi.

The paining uses true perspective, with a vanishing point on the horizon, and combines many scenes in a single work, including a battle in the background. It is extraordinary in its presaging of many elements of modern art, including the Escher-esque staircases in the background and the unnatural coloring (blue trees!).

I presume Michael saw Adoration on one of his visits to Italy. The poem seems to be a walk through the painting: wandering the “back alleys,” witnessing the luminescent veneer lain down, visiting the “hunched pedestrians” and “cornices.” This journey has metaphorical significance: you are guided, your course “charted like the future we reject”; “strategy is required,”, until finally nightfall surprises you.  Perhaps it is you, the reader, that are like da Vinci’s unfinished souls, trying to discern meaning and plan your future amid beauty, complexity, and fate.

Michael at the Colosseum in Rome

[Note: I made one alteration to the poem: The word alleys in the first stanza rendered allies in the book, which I think must be a typographical error. “Back allies” does not make sense in context, and although I suppose he could be using the very rare variant of the plural of alley intentionally, that’s not really his style, and he uses the conventional spelling in the second stanza.]


Like the Unfinished Souls in da Vinci’s Adoration

The reverie guided you
Across the fields, into the back alleys, and among
The first low houses, violating that clean line
Between a village and its apron of countryside,
Curious that no resistance must be crushed,
Refreshed by the receding infinity of precisions.

Alleys unfold into avenues, and that
Has been charted like the future we reject,
But lingering here allows
A yielding gesture in the face of confusion
Any simple idea could clarify.

Dust lifts and settles on the pavement.
Here and there a shade is drawn over the light.
A streetlamp flickers, then the whole block
Is illuminated. This is no revelation,
The veneer spread luminescently over everything,
No plan of action that could make life easier, hence
The one state in which you could turn to it,
Become salt, shifting, indistinguishable from sand.

Some strategy is required, some evaluation
In a calculus to be learned from the following course.
Afterwards,
No ceremonial motions can be exacted, no
Public denunciations of the self, rare
Collection of external phenomena, as various
As cornices or hunched pedestrians. There it is
Again, nightfall has surprised you.


The next poem is here.