Seven Steeples was written after a long walking tour of North Adams. Empty House was inspired by a vacant blue tenement house I saw in a rundown neighborhood. Elderly Housing was written while I was sitting across the street from a former Catholic School. Sprague’s referred to in the poem was the former Sprague Electic Company factory.
I stood on the railroad tracks
and stared south at the gray mountains.
I started walking down the tracks,
carefully avoiding the broken bottles
and tangled weeds.
I picked up a rhythm when I figured out that
one long stride equals two railroad ties.
I got tired after a while,
and started walking back.
I counted seven steeples.
Parts of red brick factories peeked over row houses
and around the corners of buildings
and down from wooded hills
and from across the river.
Big houses were stacked on cliffs,
and it seemed a miracle
that they hadn’t tumbled end over end
into a pile of lifeless sticks.
Now I know how it looked a half century ago
to all the young men
who disappeared into the valley
on their way to war.
Three stories high
and six families short,
The empty house
at the bottom of the street
fades into its final century,
while the big yellow machinery watches nearby.
For those who knew its dark walls,
it is still a living house.
The sharp bang of radiators,
the whistle of winter winds,
the squeak of stairs under scruffy shoes,
the sighs of a thousand long sad looks out the window;
They will not be carried away
with splintered wood
and crumbled stone.
For those who care,
there is another house,
up the street
and around the corner,
with plywood nailed across the windows and doors,
as if blindfolded
for the execution.
I had my chance…when I was nineteen.
Earl wanted to go to California
when we got married,
but I wasn’t sure,
so we didn’t.
He wound up at Sprague’s,
but he died before he could retire.
And now I live in the school
I used to walk to every morning.
They call it elderly housing.
My window looks west on Route 2,
and when I stare at the New York mountains,
I wonder what would’ve happened
if I had listened to Earl.
And so we eat at the dining hall every day
and talk about the grandchildren
and that nice young priest at St. Francis.