The spring the Methodist church
lost its steeple—no pointy tip
but a kind of cupola, octagonal,
with eight unglazed arches,
and on its top a carved scroll finial
signaling the tip of the builders’
skyways ambitions—a huge crane
plucked the tower like an ornament
from a cake, and lowered it to the grass
lightly. A minor revelation,
after looking up at it all these years;
who expects to get that close
to what points to heaven? Now
we could study the salt-peeled paint
along the spindled balustrades,
and peer inside, and see—who knew?—
the bell, not heard to ring
since the Methodists decamped,
their severe white ark become
a museum instead. Two, actually:
first a temple of the arts, and then,
when the wealthy patron blew town
taking his de Koonings with him,
a historical museum, locally run,
reliably dusty. I liked especially
a sentimental poet’s cluttered
dune-shack study, recreated
in diorama, down to his sandals
and heaped, discarded drafts.
Up in the building’s highest reaches
—huge thing, how many Methodists
could they reasonably have expected?—
the Historical Society placed its prize,
a replica of the Rose Dorothea,
a schooner that brought this town fame,
in the old century’s lean years,
a source of pride so sorely needed
a dedicated citizen devoted years
to the making of a model unlike any other,
half the size of the ship itself. Immense.
Skeptics might say the point of a model
was diminution, but never mind,
knock out the ceiling plaster, make room!
Up there, sheathed now under tarps,
the grand gesture sails nowhere still.
The building’s scaffolded, closed—
not a moment too soon:
beautiful capitals peeled away
from their columns, the whole thing
sagged alarmingly to the left,
and we’re lucky it becomes,
righted and redone, the new
Town Library. But not yet:
the headless steeple’s crowned in blue,
plastic bandage to a strange wound …
My friends bought a place
on a side street in a quiet part of town
once mostly Portuguese
though quickly gentrifying,
and set to work on renovations;
soft plaster replaced by Sheetrock,
floors sanded to a luster they maybe
never had, new wire strung
where the dangerous old knob
and tube had snaked for fifty years—
and that was just the main house.
Out back, beside the garden,
a derelict boathouse, capstone
of our tour, will be a studio;
blueprints show round windows,
French doors, a wedge of waterview.
Gutted now to the bare boards,
raised to pour a new foundation.
Simpler to start over, but town regs
say keep at least the walls
and you’re safe from restrictions
meant to honor the historical.
Just this week excavations turned up
a clutch of antique bottles, shards of china,
and a human femur—
evidence of some old grave site,
or a family burial plot, save
that it had been sawn neatly in half.
The contractor says don’t tell a soul;
investigation could drag on
for months, who knows how deep
they’d want to dig? My friends say,
this stays here, in the garden,
and lift from scraggly peonies
sectioned segments of someone’s thigh.
Half the town away, a peeled,
scumbling red: an old barn,
in my neighborhood, slated for demolition.
Until this year a sign sang on rusty hinges
cape cod school of the arts,
and year after year the summer painters
trooped out with folding easels
for still lifes on the lawn
or portrait studies by the bay,
or scattered on the streets to paint
what charmed them. Out of earshot,
we’d laugh at their sweet renderings
of our garden gate, uniformly hued
as if some impressionist Midas made
all he touched glow lavender and tangerine.
They learned from Henry Hensche
who painted here three-quarters century ago
when that barn was a rustic studio,
and local boys posed as fishermen or fauns
while exiles from Boston hammered out
some path outside a bland American mainstream.
Their varnish dims, and distance gives
a strange stiff glamor, but something kindles
in those paintings still: authentic pulse
of an idiosyncratic flame. I was startled,
near sunset, when I first saw the shadows
in the sand were blued lavender,
and all the white houses on my block
were fired a subtle orange by the fierce
light-bending agency of the bay—
They were right, the Sunday painters,
but someone plans to raze
those high ceilings, north light,
my delicious boards—undertone
of vermilion, powdery
surface, burnished, varied, a shade
no one ever learned to mix
at the School of the Arts. You can’t,
unless you have fifty years: and an exact
alchemy of brine air, sun and fog.
When I say I hate time, Paul says
how else would we find depth
of character, how else grow souls?
I don’t want to agree, but then
I see the scoured, particular signature
of that red, the mortal push
that corrodes and rewrites.
Nothing makes the world more lovely.
I’ve done my share of fixing up;
I bought a house here, years ago,
stripped the place of shag and formica,
shingled the roof in cedar shakes,
strove for a patina of age, planted old roses
and thrived on the equity.
Am I just one more crank
lamenting better, vanished days?
Just this morning, rounding the curve
near the salt marsh, we came upon a shocking pile—
that old restaurant that moldered there
for years, looking out over the moors,
with its fishnets and its glass globes,
beams hung with implements of the sea—
just a blare of wood and concrete now,
and soon to be—what else?—condos.
The new scours singularity away.
Weathering Heights, an empty nightclub
that brooded on a crest for years,
bulldozed—along with its dune—
to make room for a liquor store. Paul says,
There’s renewal, and then there’s murder.
Blanche Lazell’s studio, Jo’s waterfront Souvenirs
—which sold the same dozen things
three dozen years, and claimed, always
a new shipment on the way—
scoured, knocked flat, torn down
to make way. Anthony Souza’s place,
Anthony of the woolen army uniform
worn all seasons and weathers,
entirely deaf, deeply gregarious,
who lived seventy years in the mossy house
he was born in—now freshly turned out
in chocolate stain, roofed in copper,
with halogen lighting and a pond.
And Butchie’s old place—
Butchie who used to wander the streets
in his glittery blue motorcycle helmet,
shirtless, belly domed and hard,
pulling a red wagon, saying salacious things
to tourists, and who one midnight stood
on the sidewalk holding a hapless turtle
he’d found, waving it in people’s faces,
until a girl who worked at the pizza shop
and I bought it from him, because we knew
he’d drop it, and crack the captive’s
mottled house apart—Butchie went
from the home to the grave;
his house scrubbed clean of him
and on the market. Well,
what do you want? Would you rather
the Methodist steeple tumbled down?
Which is worse, decay or restoration
that turns the past to a model of itself,
out of scale, new materials gleaming?
Should we save a rotting barn,
or a scatter of murderous evidence
turned up in the sand beneath
a sleek new studio? Who wouldn’t want
such a lovely thing? Though it is, in fact,
a rental cottage, slipped past
the zoning laws to help with the mortgage
on the house. Quick, make it new,
before anyone finds the dirty evidence
of the bones. Anthony, Jo, Blanche Lazell:
we murder to renew. Won’t time ruin
the boathouse rehab just as nicely?
This spring the weather’s erratic,
chilly, dry; last winter it didn’t snow at all.
The Times says in fifty years no more
coastal marshes, no more of the scent
on the air that indelible summer night,
fog-rubbed lights of the pizza parlor
starring out onto the street, and Butchie
weaving and carrying on. Nameless,
that midsummer marsh smell: acrid
and alive, equal parts fresh and curdling,
decay and setting out, shit and Shinola.
Once it was a world without end,
dense with instruction in the arts
of revision and persistence,
sharp concentrated saw grass tang
inking the dark, while the town slept,
or some of it did. Odd sense of enchantment,
almost palpable. And Butchie was saying
to everyone, Twenty bucks
for a turtle. Who’d pay twenty bucks?