July 7, 2006

AN APPRECIATION: John Mahoney and His “Lost Garden”

I wish I could pen a beautiful, hushed, lyrical poem in tribute to John Mahoney for a beautiful, hushed, lyrical poem is John Mahoney’s specialty and a beautiful, hushed, lyrical poem is what John Mahoney deserves. But, like a character in one of John’s poems, I might as well be pining about Italian opera: I love listening, but, for the life of me, I wouldn’t know where to begin writing one.

What I do know is this: John Mahoney’s writing has enriched my life and John Mahoney’s life has enriched my writing.

I met John years ago in suburban Chicago where he is dean of the Downers Grove Writers Workshop. What I remember most from those now long-ago days was how John – 30 or 40 years older than the rest of us gathered round the large library table – encouraged each of us and inspired all of us by himself doing the simplest-yet-most complicated of all of life’s tasks: trying new things. Two examples: First, his writing ranged from formal forms to unedited improvisations. Second, at an age when many of his contemporaries were content to pass their final years quietly, John and his older brother, Joe, traveled by jet around the world in a matter of days because they had grown up dreaming of one day circumnavigating the globe.

Charlane Bell Poelsterl is another Workshop regular, one of John’s dearest friends and publisher of his collection, Lost Garden. Char describes John as an “unabashedly romantic spirit” who is “appreciative of all things good” – and she’s right. John was born in Joliet, Illinois, during World War I, drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II, and assigned to fire direction in a field artillery unit. As Char writes in a brief forward to Lost Garden, “John spent thirty-six months in the Southwest Pacific, chiefly in New Guinea and the Philippines. He was wounded while landing on Mindanao. His remaining time overseas was spent in Australia, mainly near Rockhampton, Queensland, where he has revisited four times since the war.” Indeed, Rockhampton – John’s beloved, “Rocky” – has become his spiritual home.

“After discharge from the Army,” Char continues, “John enrolled at the Catholic University of America, Washington, DC, where he met graduate nursing student Attracta O’Connor. John received a BA in English and married Attracta in June of 1949. He spent the next year earning an MA in English at the University of Louisville.

“Returning to Illinois, John worked in a locomotive plant and later in various copy-editing jobs at book and magazine publishers. Settling in Westmont, Illinois, he and Attracta became parents of Deirdre, Eileen, and Georgina; and, in time, grandparents of Claire Milsted, and Andrew and Monica Lim.”

Attracta passed away some years ago and it’s a sure sign of John’s affection that he dedicated Lost Garden in this way: “To Attracta – love-long partisan of an obscure poet.”

I have an old-fashioned cassette tape recording of John reciting a handful of his poems. No writer’s voice has ever better matched a writer’s words and listening to the tape reminds me, too, of so many things: the mystery of memory, the doom of yearning, the joy of winter’s first snow, and the fulfillment of friendship. My fondest wish for you is to someday hear John Mahoney in person. Until that day, here is the last stanza from John’s, “Skater’s Shadow” –

A face whose moonlight shadow
sped across the ice,
a shadow never seen
in one place twice
beneath your skates’
shrill sibilance.
Should I see naught
except your shadow
I would know you
from your shadow.


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