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Alden Nowlan’s “Britain Street”

It seems a little strange that my favorite poet in 100 pages of a good anthology should be quite as depressing as Alden Nowlan, but one can’t always control one’s taste. Perhaps I’m simply caught up in the Christmas season, and these poems remind me of Dickens’ “Christmas Carol.”

For whatever reason, I agree with Geddes that Nowlan “has chronicled movingly and convincingly the harshness and hypocrisy of life in the Maritimes.” I had a hard time picking out a single poem I liked best, but this one certainly made an impression:

BRITAIN STREET
Saint John, New Brunswick

This is a street at war.
The smallest children
battle with clubs
till the blood comes,
shout ‘fuck you!’
like a rallying cry ––

while mothers shriek
from doorsteps and windows
as though the very names
of their young were curses:

‘Brian! Marlene!
Damn you! God damn you!’

or waddle into the street
to beat their own with switches:
‘I’ll teach you, Brian!
I’ll teach you, God damn you!’

On this street
even the dogs
would rather fight
than eat.

I have lived here nine months
and in all that time
have never once heard
a gentle word spoken.

I like to tell myself
that is only because
gentle words are whispered
and harsh words shouted.

Perhaps the poem struck a chord with me because I witnessed an event similar to the one in the first stanza in my own neighborhood and was nearly struck dumb by the incident. Apparently parents had left their children home unattended during the summer and they’d gotten in a fight with other children in the neighborhood. A five year old boy was stomping down the street with an even younger toddler in tow yelling “fuck you” to the children in the yard who were enthusiastically returning with epithets of their own.

Outraged, I wanted to confront the parents later that night but decided the only place children that young could learn such language was home. At best, complaining might end up in the children getting beaten; at worst, I might have gotten cursed out by the parents for interfering in their children’s upbringing. There were, after all, nasty rumors of two mothers getting into a knock-down-drag-out fight over an earlier incident. Given such a confrontation, I might have drawn on my own word-hoard, one honed on the battlefields of Vietnam.

I love the subtle way the poet shows the mother’s cursing the kids who are cursing, and beating the kids who are hitting other kids with sticks. “I’ll teach you, God damn you!,” indeed.

We’d be crazy not to hope that gentle words are spoken at home, but there’s precious little evidence in the poem or in real life to support that hope.