Are orphans worthy? If so, how much?
To what purpose? Who is asking,
and who is answering
depends on so and thus.
Yet there he was an orphan,
determined to learn what was needed
to earn his keep
in a world where motherless children
are too often kicked to the curb
and blamed for their fate.
Mama’s memories soon faded
while Papa’s zoomed too clear.
The gentle touch of Mama’s hugs
clouded to uncertain dreams; where
Papa’s distance shortened, to shrinks
and flees from knuckle-rapping fear.
Aunt Jeannie, the town rebel,
smoked a big cigar and
burned her bra on All Saint’s Day.
She made him practice his poker face
and said he was really Geronimo’s son.
She got his vow to go out West
when his colleging was done.
He swore he heard Mama laugh with his aunt
as he stepped out of the city limits.
First stop Cincinnati, then he walked to L.A.
to the deserts of New Mexico to expose cartel slime.
From the Pueblo Nation’s welcome,
to a later menage a trois; later to become
a champion against “Indian Schools” and
for preservation of Spanish Mission landmarks.
Then off to ten months in Peru, to come back
to L.A. In solidarity with Cherokee, Sequoya,
and Hopi against Indian Agent Charles Burton.
From there he was a writer, poet, publisher,
City Librarian, temporarily blind, and a founder
At sight’s permanent fade, Mama’s face comes
close again, Aunt Jeannie beside her. He asks,
“How did I do? Did I earn my keep in this world?”
They smile as they carry him home.
I first came across Charles Fletcher Lummis a few years ago, while reading, “The Library Book,” by Susan Orlean. Orlean’s book is an origin story for the Los Angeles City Library (and for libraries in general.) She does multiple mini-biographies in the book and Lummis is one that captured my attention. He was the Los Angeles City Librarian from 1905 – 1910, but he was so much more than that.
Charles Fletcher Lummis was born in 1859, in Lynn, Massachusetts. He lost his mother at age 2 and was homeschooled by his father, who was a schoolmaster. Lummis enrolled in Harvard for college and was a classmate of Theodore Roosevelt’s, but dropped out during his senior year. While at Harvard he worked during the summer as a printer and published his first work, Birch Bark Poems. This small volume was printed on paper-thin sheets of birch bark; he won acclaim from Life magazine and recognition from some of the day’s leading poets. He sold the books by subscription and used the money to pay for college. A poem from this work, “My Cigarette”, highlighted tobacco as one of his life’s obsessions.
In 1884, Lummis was working for a newspaper in Cincinnati and was offered a job with the Los Angeles Times. At that time, Los Angeles had a population of only 12,000. Lummis decided to make the 3,507-mile journey from Cincinnati to Los Angeles on foot, taking 143 days, all the while sending weekly dispatches to the paper chronicling his trip. One of his dispatches chronicled his meeting and interview with famed outlaw Frank James. The trip began in September and lasted through the winter. Lummis suffered a broken arm and struggled in the heavy winter snows of New Mexico. He became enamored with the American Southwest, and its Spanish and Native American inhabitants. Several years later, he published his account of this journey in A Tramp Across the Continent (1892).
Although they say a 2-year old cannot retain memories, he wrote a poem about seeing his mother just before she died:
Page One by Charles Fletcher Lummis
Memory? What is it?
How should I know –
Who cannot say if yesterday
Was so or so?
Yet by night there visit,
Behind mine eyes,
Such Presences that live again,
Lost scenes and faces, but so plain
I wonder which is true, which lies –
Now, or so long ago….
They all are somewhere in my book
Unpaged, unindexed and forgot –
Yet now and then some consciousness
Of fluttering leaves awakes my look
And there are pictures long agone,
The years that were and now are not;
A day when Someone whispered ‘Yes!’
And the day my boy Went On.
But clearest, dearest of them all,
And oftenest that I know,
The old parlor there across the hall,
And Gran’ma’s faltering little call:
‘Your mama asks for you’ –
New England fifty years ago,
And I just turned two.
White shutters by the whiter bed,
And a whitest face therein;
A strong man pacing still and dread,
And the tall clock ticking, ticking slow
Where little boys must never go –
But now they led me in.
Thin fingers, like as petals, cling
Cold to a baby’s cheeks;
Big eyes so deep I cannot see –
Till stars come up in them for me
The shadow of a breath that speaks;
‘God keep my little boy!’ And then
Slow lids – and – Nothing.
And they bore me out again.
Laura is today’s host of dVerse’ Poetics. Laura says:
Select ONE of our favourite poets (a celebrated or a lesser known one) and write a poem either
- About them (the indirect voice, as exemplified in the first two poems)
- those who choose the direct voice, might like the extra challenge of an ODE –