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Living in Japan, far from the suburbs of Philadelphia where I grew up, I easily welcome contact with the old neighborhood. So when James Esch, founder of Spruce Alley Press and former high school classmate of mine, asked me to have a look at one of the first books published by his press, Kenneth Pobo's When the Light Turns Green, I was happy to do it. For old time's sake.
Still, thoughts of old time's sake notwithstanding, I was unprepared to be immediately submerged into my American suburban childhood in the collection's first poem, with the lines:
At ten I hoped to live
on North Carolina Avenue,
any green property.
We were more of a Tennessee
or St. James Place family . . .
Likewise, mentions of the Acme (always the Acme) and Commonwealth Edison, of street hockey and Clearasil, had me immediately spiraling into memories of my younger years. Like Pobo, I find while reading his poems that:
A blue butterfly,
on the stop sign.
The nostalgia rising in me as I read When the Light Turns Green had me obsessing about a childhood that didn't exist the way I now remember it, in the same way that the voice in Pobo's "The Last" frets about asters dying in late fall to the point that:
Back inside, I curse
winter, miss a painting made of frost
just hung on the window.
Plants feature heavily in the second half of Pobo's collection, with mention of petunias, maple, pine, crocus and daffodils, maple and ferns, dahlias and marigolds. All this talk of flowering and greenery is surprising given Pobo's preoccupation with the winter months, with hail "a Geiger counter’s / click on the roof" and with "sleet’s dirty socks." It's true, as he asserts, that "Winter yawns, hardly ever refunds unused tickets."
And yet, when summer finally does come, it brings little of the respite and verdancy Pobo has been longing for:
A June drought—sky
doesn’t open her purse
of rain for weeks.
And this is the overwhelming emotion of the collection, longing for and waiting for what will never be, for the light that will someday turn green. Someday, but never now, an emotion echoed in the accompanying ephemeral artwork of Stacy Esch (James's wife), with its dreamy childlike figures and faces embedded in richly-colored intricacies that to my eye echo the repeated forms and recurring shapes seen on a molecular level, in organic matter under a microscope. In tapestries that witness the human trying to make sense of life at every level, right down to the microscopic, Esch's artwork echoes Pobo's examination of the past and the longing for it to have been otherwise, confirming what Pobo has asserted, that there is "no way to stop / August from coming." August, the end of childhood, and the gateway to "winter's hangnail," an apt description of the scale of an individual human's suffering on the timeline of the earth.