While enjoying George Drew’s new book, The View From Jackass Hill, I was impressed by the fact that so many of his poems addressed others, primarily poets but also his car mechanic as well. George writes about friendship, unlike many of us who write about ourselves. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when he read at the Woodstock Library in early December. Here’s the poem from Love in the City of Grudges that inspired him:
For this merit badge, I reinflated my tires,
rode my Schwinn to Town Hall, chained
both wheels to the bench with the town seal:
General Putnam plunging his white horse
down Putnam Hill to escape the redcoat British.
I told the guard I needed to see the First Selectman.
For archery, I’d nailed five bulls-eyes in a row;
cooking, baked potatoes under coals;
hiking, climbed Rattlesnake Hill;
first aid, practiced tourniquets on a dummy;
survival, sparked birch bark tinder with rock and file;
knots, mastered the hangman’s noose.
The First Selectman asked what I wanted to know.
He wasn’t old, but was so bald I could count
each hair if I wanted to. His varnished desk
reflected his white shirt like spilled milk. I asked
why my father never finished his grapefruit
before rushing late to the train. Why my mother
toasted The Galloping Gourmet with her lipstick
stained wineglass, then heated us chicken pot pies.
Why my brother stayed home sick from school
to watch TV soaps in his bathrobe, growing claw
fingernails and stuffing popcorn down his pipe.
The First Selectman patted down the bump
in his tie-clipped tie and said, “When I was your age
I thought I had it made. Captain of the Webelos,
$4 a week caddying golf. Then certain things
made me realize my family was all I had.
You may not like them. But you’ll learn love
isn’t always easy. When it’s hard is when it counts.”
Riding home, I stopped at the creek rope swing,
stripped to undies. Who cared about citizenship?
I swung back and forth over lazy eddies,
swung so high that crows flew scared from trees.
My body tingled, as if trying to grow feathers.
Letting go, I grabbed at clouds before my great fall.
* * *
Here’s George’s reply:
Climbing Rattlesnake Hill
In one of his poems my friend Will Nixon
mentions Rattlesnake Hill, but he doesn’t have
a poem about climbing Rattlesnake Hill
and I thought there should be. The problem is,
I’ve never been on a hill named Rattlesnake,
never even seen one on a map. I suppose,
things being what they are, there actually are
no rattlesnakes on the one Will mentions;
maybe there were when named, or maybe
not. If not, then whoever named it had
a heightened sense of the macabre—
that, or he wanted to keep others away
by scaring the hell out of them; maybe he
was a rattlesnake hunter and that hill
was the place to be; maybe he just loved
rattlesnakes, which means he was more
than a little crazy; or maybe rattlesnakes
were totem animals and Rattlesnake Hill
sacred ground, off limits, a place for Jesus
or peyote, if you didn’t mind rattlesnakes.
I imagine it to be the hill from Hell,
the hill overlooking Hell, all those feckless
devils writhing like…well, you know…,
the hill once in the mix for Pandemonium.
There are requirements: it would be
barren of trees and bushes; be hellishly hot,
sun-struck on first one side and then
the other every fourteen-hour summer day;
have among jumbles of rocks and boulders
flat outcroppings, ledges for the rattlesnakes
to toast themselves, and between the rocks
holes deep and dark enough to serve as dens;
and hundreds of rattlesnakes, thousands even,
a hellish brood of serpents with no interest
in gardens and naked, fig-leafed people, only
in the hand reaching for the apple, not the apple.
Hell probably wasn’t what Will Nixon had
in mind, just a hill named Rattlesnake he once
upon a time climbed—which is just as well.
There wasn’t one crummy rattlesnake anyhow.