Monday, November 7, 2016


Larks. Much of the joy I recall from my own boyhood days took the form of larks of one kind or another. Mischief. Harmless, in retrospect, but at the time it must have seemed adventurous, even risky.  Most of us got up to all kinds of mischief; that's what boyhood's all about. Flouting the rules. Testing the limits--our own, and those imposed on us by the adults in our lives. Michael Dennis Browne is a distinguished poet and librettist, born in England like myself--as you'll note from some of the references and language in his story--but has been living in Minnesota and teaching at the university there for as many years as I have been in Southern California. We first became friends at the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa in the mid-1960s, and have remained fondly in touch in the intervening years. Michael's latest publication is The Voices--a lovely, elegiac book of poems which I was happy to review a while ago on my other blog, The Buddha Diaries. Recently, I was much moved attending a performance of Considering Matthew Shepard, a tribute by the composer Craig Hella Johnson to the young gay man who was brutally attacked and killed near Laramie, Wyoming in 1998--a haunting piece of music for which Michael wrote the libretto. Here's his beautifully told boyhood memory, more prose poem, I think, than prose:

By Michael Dennis Browne

Once we rang the same doorbells three times in a row at the large old house that was the Conservative Party Headquarters and watched, panting and trembling from the bushes across the road, as they brought a dog out. I couldn’t see him in the shadows by the house, but he was big and he barked big. At least he didn’t bay, so he wasn’t a bloodhound. That was the only time we pushed our luck so far.

“We” is Angela and me. She’s two years older and so much fun to play with. We formed The Black Heart Gang and left threatening notes for our neighbor Mr Booley, a retired policemen who lived in the flat under us. Amazing that his police instincts, however retired, never led him to our door with not one but two pairs of handcuffs swinging from hairy hands that must have turned the key on so many.

We had tree houses and forts inside bushes, and we planned, after we were grown up, to meet once a month, leaving our families behind, and in the middle of some deep wood exchange copies of The Beano and The Dandy and feast on Mars Bars and Condensed Milk.

Ringing doorbells and running (hurtling!) away was a special adventure on windy nights when the leaves rattled down the hard streets and the wind blew shadows of swaying branches across the lanterns of the lamp-posts. To creep up, to jab a finger on the button—or sometimes to rap quickly with a big knocker—and then to run, to run, the ecstasy of fear, to scamper down the path or driveway, lungs pumping, giggling, shaking

 . . . to have rung a stranger’s doorbell! To have tricked some neighbor into thinking there was someone come to visit them and there was not! O the little bit of power a child could have in a world where so much was done to you or you did as you were told and were little and felt you counted for little. The authority of that small finger on the button—that slight, first taste of power!



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