Issue 99 |
Spring 2006


For me, these past few years have been filled with elegies. Allow me one more: this, not for a loved one, but for the Plough & Stars, the Cambridge pub where this very journal was founded. Like much of the Cambridge that had welcomed (or ignored) me—a young writer who had come to town fifteen years ago—it closed down recently. Last fall, its doors were abruptly shut, a sign in the window announcing euphemistically that it was "Closed for Renovations." [ Editor's note: Be sure to read the postscript about the Plough.]

Not only did the Plough have a mean beef stew that proved perfect on cold afternoons, it also had a steady stream of regulars who could be counted on to add humor and even a bit of knowledge to your day. In fact, the place offered a kind of nonjudgmental shelter that seems more and more rare, even in cities, and especially in Cambridge. There, it was not unusual to hear folks discussing politics or art above the din of drink and Irish music. I even think I finished a few poems, and started some others.

Though it may seem too early for me to be nostalgic, so much is disappearing—the Cambridge as I knew it. The cobbler one day disappeared, like the very word "cobbler" itself. One Potato, Two Potato, that restaurant on Mass. Ave. in Harvard Square where I once raised a pint with my old teacher Seamus Heaney, is long gone. Slowly every bookstore has shut down or moved—Star, McIntyre & Moore—put out like lights. Even the Wursthaus—where every visitor ate at first, and cursed for hours after, the place earning its name—I miss avoiding. My favorite was Tommy's Lunch, at least late night; though if it got too late, there was always The Tasty. For lunch, there was always Elsie's, where you'd ask for an egg salad sandwich with "hots," and the owners would shout the order out to the cook without writing it down; in fact, they'd total up everyone's orders in their heads, without paper—all of it gone.

It could be that this is an elegy not only for those places, but for the Cambridge community that nurtured me, often literally, and many times literarily. For a young poet, shy and eager and brash, the community was refreshing, and accessible. What flaws and exclusions it had only fed the fire more, helping to spur on the Dark Room, the black writers' collective that was like a second education to me. There was a rush of necessity in the work of the Dark Room, and of poetry.

And there was always the Plough. If there was a blackout during a heat wave, say, I could always go down the street to the pub to ask what was happening and find out what had caused my house to go dark. The Plough would be buzzing, full of rumors (usually untrue), and though the place might have been sweltering, the beer wouldn't have grown warm yet.

Shelter in the darkness, a few rumors, and something to keep us cool could be a recipe for art, too.

It's certainly a definition that feels more like the one shared by the writers gathered here than any specific aesthetic or school of thought, God forbid. Instead, these poems and stories possess a sense of electricity and necessity that courses through the best of our art. The works here are old-fashioned and newfangled, engaged and disinterested, devoted and irreverent. With them, even elegies are songs of praise.

A postscript: I've suddenly, happily heard that a new group of owners is in the midst of reviving the Plough & Stars. Maybe not everything has to disappear after all.