Jack McCarthy is a Boston-area working guy who’s been writing poetry off and on for 40 years. In 1993, for her birthday, he brought his daughter to a poetry open mike at the Cantab Lounge in Cambridge, MA, and got himself hopelessly hooked. He was a member of the 1996 Boston National Slam Team featured in the film SLAMNATION; winner of Connecticut Invitational in 1997 & 1998; and currently holds the title “Champion of Champions” in Providence, RI. He has published a book, Grace Notes, a chapbook, Too Old to Make Excuses, and a cassette tape, Poems for Hannah. Jack hosts a cable TV show in Billerica on which he has traded poems with guests like Patricia Smith, Thomas Lux, and Donald Hall. In November, 1999, the Boston Phoenix named him “Boston’s Best Standup Poet,” and in March, 2000, the Boston Poetry Awards honored him as “Best Love Poet (Male).”
Jack was a member of the 2000 Worcester Slam Team that
competed in the National Poetry Slam in
Samples of the poet’s work:
for my wife Carol
The Quincy Group liked to let Charlie drive
on their commitments. He was a careful driver
who stayed a mile or two under the speed limit,
and he liked to leave a little earlier
than other people would. But he never
missed a turn or had to ask for directions,
and he always got the group to the meeting on time.
Sometimes a newcomer would ask
why they had gone from Quincy to Brockton
by way of Neponset Circle—
there are back roads into Brockton, short cuts.
An old-timer would whisper, “Shhhh.
We know that there are quicker ways.
But Charlie likes to drive.
And he can get us anywhere in the world—
as long as he starts from Neponset Circle.”
Most of us see the world as spiderweb,
all sorts of intricate connections,
alternate routes. A good sense of direction
and a roadmap and we’ll always find our way.
Charlie saw the world as a bicycle tire,
spokes crossing each other here and there,
but all of them running straight
to and from one heart.
Over the years a lot of people got
too impatient to put up with Charlie’s ways—
he wouldn’t even take the Squantum Street cutoff,
they’d complain, and you could almost
see Neponset Circle from both ends.
Sometimes they’d maneuver themselves
into the front seat to make suggestions:
“Charlie, this right goes straight to Hancock Street.”
“Yup, I know,” he’d reply, and cruise right by
while the oldtimers puffed serenely in the back.
“Insane,” the dissidents called Charlie, or “anal,”
if they’d had Psych 101; “compulsive.” As though
we all weren’t. But he drove them crazy.
Eventually they’d take their own cars,
thank you, trust their own internal compasses.
And for awhile, they would look good.
They’d leave a little later and be
sipping coffee smugly when Charlie’s cadre
of oldtimers and newcomers sauntered in.
But sooner or later they’d get lost
and a commitment would go by the boards, unmet,
and if it was a prison or a hospital,
there’d be no meeting there at all that night
and that was serious. The oldtimers
knew that it would happen because all
the alternate routers had to go on
was their own sense of direction.
Charlie had Neponset Circle.
Carol, my love,
you’re my Neponset Circle.
Talking about the adolescent succubi
who possessed our dreams and fantasies,
we digressed to one of them’s unlovely sister
and were surprised to learn how much all of us liked her.
She was sweet and funny, real easy to be with.
Somebody—maybe it was Josh, maybe Soupy—
admitted that he’d like to take her out,
and one by one,
we all confessed that we would like to, too.
Then why hadn’t any of us asked her?
It fell to me to find the words:
I’d love to go out with her;
but I’d hate to be seen with her.
For all the less lovely sisters
who might have wondered
why we never asked them out:
I hope you know by now it wasn’t your fault.
You let us talk about ourselves, you liked
us first, you did everything right—
all the things that all the columns said would work,
that never did.
Because we couldn’t face the prospect of
some hip insider, fashionable,
who might say, Look at him—
the best that he can do is the unlovely sister.
Or even think it.
What became of all those girls?
Oh, I know there are a hundred ways
that women find fulfillment without men;
that single women have better lives than wives,
while married men are healthier by far than bachelors.
There’s one woman out there
was doing fine until I washed up on her beach,
intending only rescue.
One-sided is the nature of the game—
and God knows, Josh and Soupy were no bargains.
One girl’s father called us little weenies
traipsing around behind huge erections.
We took it as a compliment.
But I know too
that we all carry scar tissue from high school.
Like the fearful moment in the cafeteria
when we would turn from the cash register
naked in our need, feeling every eye,
wondering if there was a place for us at any table.
And there were a lot of girls back then
who thought they’d never want more out of life
than to be someone’s mother, someone’s wife.
I know a spectacularly attractive woman
who chaired her high school’s twentieth reunion.
When she opened the festivities,
she concluded with a personal announcement:
I just want all you guys to know that all through school
not one of you ever asked me out, and if you had,
I would have gone all the way on the first date.
Men moaned audibly, their wives eying them coolly.
She’s the extreme, I grant—
and I’m not sure that I even believe her.
But where to look today for all the others?
There aren’t enough nuns any more,
there aren’t enough unmarried women in my generation
to reconcile the army of high school girls
who would have liked to date,
but had to wait.
All I have to go on is this disparity in numbers.
I hope it means that the day came, Betsy Kerr,
when someone looked at you with stranger’s eyes,
and it was your day to be beautiful.
And he will always see in you
that quirky beauty that eluded us.
And he said to himself, “I’d love to go out with her,”
and there was no but, and you married each other quick
and both of you still cannot believe your good luck.
I hope that if you ever think
of Josh and Soupy and me,
it’s with nothing more than a vague sense
that in some distant past or other life
somebody might have had a question about us
that turned out not to be important.
What we didn’t do wasn’t right,
and we never made amends.
But to have done better
was light years beyond us then,
we came to it much later.
Still, if there is a record
let it show that even then,
there was that moment
when we were ashamed.
And if we’re married now to women who
are sweet and funny, easy to be with
and beautiful to us in non-conforming ways
and bring us other things
we never even had the sense to hope for,
things we never knew existed,
then we cannot believe our good luck.
Maybe we owe that to you too;
to you and to the grace
of stranger’s eyes.
THE SWAN ON NUTTING LAKE
for Thomas Lux
Among the geese and ducks
on Nutting Lake this spring,
a single swan appeared,
southwest of where
the Middlesex Turnpike
bisects the lake.
I look for him each day
as I roll through on my way
to work, from work...
He frequents the little island
in the southmost corner,
but sometimes my eye’s betrayed
by a white plastic K-Mart lawn chair
that sits on a dock on the western shore
not far away from the liquor store.
I keep hoping to see a second swan,
and I bet our singleton is thinking
the same thing, scanning the sky
for some foxy female
happening to overfly
look down, spot him, and think,
hey, that stud’s got
a lake of his own;
and her biological clock will sound
a shrieking Mayday alarm
and all her nesting hormones
will seize control
bringing her around and down
in a long slow gliding arc
but it hasn’t happened yet.
And more and more often lately
our Singleton is turning up
in the area of that
windswept lawn chair,
so that I wonder if his eye
betrays him the same way mine does me,
if that peripheral flash of white
says “Swan!” to him too
but he likes that white lie,
the way that solitary men
find comfort sometimes
in airbrushed images of women.
And why am I so sure it’s a male
waiting for a female anyway?
Why not female? or gay? or bi?
I guess because I
populate its head
with foolish masculine fantasies.
Thomas Lux has a poem about a guy
who hung upside down
from a bridge over a highway
to paint a message of love
for his sweetheart
only to perpetrate a particularly
of a critical word.
After a reading someone asked
what made him so sure
the painter was male
and it’s not often words fail
Lux, but on this occasion
all he could say was,
“You've got to be kidding.”
Point being that the right to make
a public and spectacular fool of oneself
over a potential mate
is a deeply cherished
So if our swan isn’t a young male,
must be he’s an old one.
They say swans mate for life—
though as for that I was watching
PBS about coyotes
and they said they mate for life
but later on they showed
this renegade young male
attempting to scale
the hindquarters of the alpha female
and I couldn’t help noticing she
wasn’t exactly desperate to escape....
Maybe animals mating for life
isn’t a rule, exactly,
it’s more like a guideline,
they’re not fanatics about it.
(Actually, I wasn’t really
watching that show,
my wife was and I
just happened to be going by.
That would be my
second wife, Alpha Carol.)
But getting back to our swan,
(now that we’ve established it’s a he)
maybe he’s old, and lost his mate.
Maybe he hasn’t come
to Nutting Lake
to await a mate,
he’s come to die—
much the way that I felt after my
first marriage broke up when I
said to Grandmother Read,
“My life is very exciting
I’m doing lots of interesting things
there are terrific women at meetings
but part of me can’t help feeling
that my life is over.”
She said, “A chapter of your life
is over. The next chapter
hasn’t started yet.”
And I guess that’s what
I’d like to say to our swan.
Bide your time, shining brother.
Keep putting one webbed foot
in front of the other.
Find solace in your solitude.
And mark the day
when you hear yourself say,
“Hey, this ain’t bad.
I eat when I’m hungry
I drink when I’m dry
and if moonshine don’t kill me
I’ll live till I die,”
you’ll know you’re ready
for some female swan
foxy and real
to overfly Nutting Lake and wheel
into a sudden long
when she spots you.
No swan is an island;
don’t drive her away.
Guidelines are okay,
but there’s no percentage
You’ve lake to share;
don’t settle for the company
of geese and ducks,
a plastic K-Mart lawn chair.
Remember Thomas Lux;
remember the immortal words
of Dustin Hoffman: “K-Mart sucks.”
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