Visiting Wheeler Hill

In late June I drove more than four hours due west through the Catskills and across the southern tier of western New York to visit Michael and Carolyn Czarnecki of FootHills Publishing at their unpainted house in the back corner of hay fields on Wheeler Hill, a gently raised loaf in the rolling landscape that offers views for miles. Behind the house stands a forest woodlot, providing a leafy green curtain that hides the family outhouse a short walk from the front porch. A restaurant-sized wood-burning cooking stove heats the house as well. Plastic jugs lined up along low shelves by the wall provide drinking water. It’s a spartan life, but a good one. In 1994 at age forty three, Michael decided to emulate his beloved classical Chinese wilderness poets, who retreated from corrupt court societies to become reclusive mystics. Michael quit his job at a Finger Lakes winery to spend his days as a poet. Since then, he’s divided his energies between traveling near and far to give readings and workshops, and staying home to publish FootHills books, unique paperbacks that Carolyn hand stitches at the rate of ten copies per hour. In this digital age they’ve stuck to the handmade. In recent years, they’ve released two books of mine, My Late Mother as a Ruffed Grouse and Love in the City of Grudges, for which I remain grateful. So when they invited me to a Wheeler Hill poetry gathering, I was eager to go. After several turns onto dirt roads along the broad hilltop, I came to a weathered sawhorse with a “Go Slow” sign beside a narrow two-rut drive off into the hay. Just to be sure, I asked the three young Amish boys in straw hats who were walking their roller scooters up the dirt road if I’d reached the Czarnecki’s. They confirmed that I had. Carolyn later told me that the boys are allowed roller scooters but not bikes, one of their community’s many conflicting interactions with technology. Elsewhere in those woods on the Czarnecki’s land stands an Amish phone booth. They’ll make calls, so long as the phone isn’t on their property .

A good dozen of us hobnobbed on the front porch, then inside over the table spread with a late lunch/early dinner of pasta salad loaded with fresh peas and carrots, and other hearty fare. About half the crowd came from Rochester, an hour’s drive north, while others lived out in these rural hills. Many held brown beer bottles, while Michael poured himself glassfuls from his green bottle of sake. I stuck to spring water from the jugs. Luckily, I didn’t discover the lemon squares from a nearby Amish bakery until late in the evening, or I would have had a sugar binge. The first floor of this house raised with the help of the Amish is an open space divided by bookshelves. The big black stove anchors the kitchen area. A computer alcove in the back is the headquarters for FootHills Publishing, though evidence of the business lies in piles everywhere. A week earlier, Michael had gotten back from a five week road trip across the country on Route 20, adding 7,000 miles to his old Honda Accord already pushing 300,000 on the odometer. Though he sees himself in the Chinese tradition, I fancy him as a Johnny Appleseed traveling the rural byways of America to bring poetry to schools, libraries, and other venues off the traditional poetry circuit. I’ve also come to appreciate him as a type A hippie, a guy who may have a big woolly gray beard and woolly gray hair to match, but not one who knows how to sit down or stand still. At our gathering he was inside and out, serving as host. When I mentioned how worn out I felt from my four hour drive, he smiled and said that he’d left Minneapolis at four in the morning to reach Wheeler Hill at ten that night with little more than an hour’s break. Then he’d gone for a skinny dip down at the pasture pond under the stars with his son. I didn’t mention that I’d taken an hour’s worth of stops just on my four hour jaunt. But Michael has the road in his blood. After growing up as a blue collar kid in Buffalo, he’d hitchhiked 30,000 miles across America in the early Seventies, changing his life forever. On this latest trip, he added, he’d often bartered for accommodations, staying in motels by promising to mention them in his forthcoming book about the journey which he’d also send copies of to cover the cost of the room. That’s what I admire about Michael, his enterprise. How many people do you know who’ve paid their way across America with poetry books? I can’t even get half my relatives to buy mine.

Our special guest for the gathering was Daniel Kerwick of New Orleans, another vagabond poet, but one with an irresistibly friendly type B temperament, a raconteur who, I suspect, hasn’t passed up a good bar in his life, especially not one with music or poetry. Not for nothing does he live in New Orleans and love Chicago, two great music towns that have kept him up past the wee hours for years. “Fred Anderson pockets yer 10 spot/at the door of his Velvet Lounge on Indiana ave/his journey from Monroe Louisiana/blues to bop in blood up alleyway delta/to southside chinatown/where he throws charlie parker ghost notes/at the younger players,” Danny writes in an homage to Chicago. Nowadays, though, he rises with the birds while staying on Wheeler Hill.

Back home, he rides a bike, having lost his driver’s license in a snafu over a forgotten fine from South Carolina, but he enjoys peddling the side streets, waving to neighbors. What he resents is the newcomers trying to improve New Orleans with bike lanes. But gentrification is not his to stop. On his current trip he’d traveled by train and bus to his old haunts in Chicago, Cleveland, and Rochester, where he’d grown up in the Seventies and now visited his eighty seven year old father, patriarch of an Irish Catholic family of six. (“I’m not white, ” Danny claims in a poem. “I’m Irish.”) An older sister works as a corporate lawyer for Kodak. A brother is a prominent college lacrosse coach. Which makes Danny the black sheep, he admitted with a grin, or at least the Beat influenced poet. With his blue cap worn backwards so the visor covered his white hair combed straight back, Danny had the cafe poet style down pat, with the added touch of a rolled green bandanna knotted around his neck. “I knew Gregory Corso,” he told me. “He owes me twenty bucks.” That Corso died in 2001 was the punchline. The Beats were not gods. Yet Danny recommended Allen Ginsberg’s The Fall of America to me, a travelogue that I heard echoes of when later reading Danny’s new FootHills book, Attach It To Earth, which bops from place to place, character to character, vision to vision. His poems read like collages of hip phrases picked up from his travels. He once heard Kerouac suggest that his French surname derived from an older Irish family name, Kerwick. At that, Danny raised his large dark eyebrows for the Groucho Marx affect at the thought he might be related to Kerouac. Yet Danny has great tales about everything. His account of the Katrina aftermath began with his donning a stethoscope for the first time in his life to sneak through the “medical personnel only” checkpoint to return to his apartment after the flood waters receded. He still has boxes of old plays written when he lived in Los Angeles pasted together by the water’s humidity. He’s not sure he wants to restore them. Life is meant to be lived forward.

Danny’s reading began out on the lawn in front of the vegetable garden. But two or three poems in, fine rain droplets started appearing from the gray sky to threaten his book pages, so we carried our chairs up to the porch. Danny stood in the corner by the bird feeders, so every few minutes a buzzing hummingbird stopped several feet behind him to flash its ruby chest like a sheriff’s badge then needle dart in to sip from the hanging red cannister of sugar water, all unbeknown to Danny. Chickadees also swept in under the porch eave to nab seeds from a high wooden tray. Michael, who sat beside Danny as the host, had once written a poem about feeding chickadees from seeds placed in his beard. But this afternoon was Danny’s occasion. He explained that he collects phrases in his notebooks which he fills one side of the page spread at a time. Then he returns later to fill the other side, creating unexpected juxtapositions between pages. As he read aloud, savoring and isolating phrases with his slightly raspy voice, the poems became a kind of jazz. The words sounded meaningful without being bound to a story line. One poem particularly suited our gathering. It described an earlier trip to the Czarnecki’s.

Visiting Wheeler Hill

off to the word-mountain
see signposts
from New Orleans
to there and back
never the same
(in reverse)
place or you
I (essentially)
same as living
(breathing at least)
to the top of the hill

Carolyn and Michael
at their respective desks
manufacturing poem-vessels
to be sent out of Kanona

I (on porch)
watch rain clouds
bluster onto Wheeler Hill
hear whoop-whoop-whoop
Of FootHills Publishing Printer

O what a wonderful storm
to choose this life
or as the old japan man says
it chose you

soon we’ll say goodbye
with all the hellos
that implies

* * *

moving out of Ohio
the horizon bows down
to Lake Erie dozes off
past Buffalo
Lake Ontario orange
and grey thumb of
western New York State
train tracks my father
helped survey (war behind him)
first sight of my mother
on Ithaca sidewalk

* * *

clouds like islands
low on skyline
Ontario beach in Charlotte
Rochester NY
ducks huddle by pier
waves climb up
crash over
purple blue bands
of feathers
like hands-in-pockets
are they waiting
on the train to florida
I move inland off sand
past closed-up carousel
hear echoes of calliope
and hot dog vendors

* * *

as we hike to his beaver pond
Micheal farts
–it’s the pills he says
–yea if it was I reply
(he’d recently had surgery)

we sit on a make-shift bench
plank on logs by the mirror water
silence and deep breath
a bat skitters past taking sips
along the surface
–good to see the bats are back
micheal says
and tells me of mysterious fungus
that invaded their faces a few years back
made them leave their caves too early
to perish in winter
–what about the beavers I ask
and he tells me of traps
and an Amish neighbor
a tale better told by Michael himself

* * *

O America the junkyard
how did we forget

outside Jackson Mississippi
sleeping (or dead) automobiles
hoods like tongues ripped out
someones lunchbox or sexbox
rusty sign block and a half away

“Dixie Beer”

who opens door
leans on splinters

* * *

in Chicago I met poets
both joyous and angry
big-shouldered gregarious
smoked mara-hoochie in the alley
ate mexican food at 4 AM
checked out 19th century architecture
at first light

* * *

on Wheeler Hill
lightning along the ridge
three valleys away
ancient glaciers signature
now green illuminated
like giant fireflies flash
last days of september
threads of dirt roads visible
then plucked up into the sky

* * *

Carolyn drives hill bee-line
second nature on Finger Lakes roads
gave me slight willys
then realize these are her roads
I am a lucky visitor
she knows what she’s doing

today I walk down Magazine Street
in New Orleans and am touched by
her love and concern for her brood
Motherhood I say outloud
to the moon

* * *

headed home past Memphis
mother south holds me
says be who you wanna be baby

remember Lake Ontario
purple brush stroke of clouds
to the west
lone fisherman on pier

Wheeler Hill not far away
a place to return to

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