Book Bag: ‘Paradise Found: A Walking and Biking Tour of Northampton’

Last modified: Thursday, October 02, 2014


Edited by Tom Clark, Loris Desrosiers and Oonagh Doherty

Levellers Press

Northampton has been known for its arts community for years, recognized for the diversity of those arts and for the places that showcase it, from the Iron Horse Music Hall to the Academy of Music to the galleries along Main Street.

The city has a rich tradition when it comes to writers, too — from the theologian Jonathan Edwards, to poets Sylvia Plath and Jack Gilbert, to children’s book author Eric Carle and narrative nonfiction writer Jonathan Harr. Henry James used Northampton as part of the setting for his first novel, “Roderick Hudson,” and Valley writer Tracy Kidder memorably profiled the city is his 1995 book “Home Town.”

Now three local poets and friends have used that backdrop to create walking and biking tours of Northampton that, as part of a new poetry collection, are designed to celebrate the city’s artistic and cultural heritage. “Paradise Found” — a tour of the city “through poetry and art” — is published by Levellers Press of Amherst and includes a wealth of verse and selected art dedicated to specific locales in the city.

The walking tour, centered on the downtown area, includes interesting historical tidbits like the site of the former Rahar’s, a restaurant Sylvia Plath frequented with her dates when she was a Smith College student in the 1950s; at the time, the eatery was, the editors write, “the only fancy restaurant in town.” The 20-mile bicycle tour takes participants to Florence, Leeds and other outlying areas of the city while noting popular sites like the Miss Florence Diner and Fitzgerald Lake.

As befitting a good guidebook, “Paradise Found” includes two handsome, foldout maps of both tours; on each map, different locations are marked with numbers corresponding to a page that has a poem inspired by or related to that particular spot.

Editors Tom Clark, Lori Desrosiers and Oonagh Doherty, who all met some years back through the Florence Poets Society, joked that they’d conceived of the book about six years ago as a way to “get rich and quit our day jobs,” as Doherty wrote in an email. Doherty is a lawyer, Clark a captain with the Northampton Fire Department, and Desrosiers teaches English at Westfield State University.

On a more serious note, the editors say the book represents their efforts to weave together the various threads of Northampton — artistic, historical, cultural, even downright odd — that give the city its special appeal. “It is an attempt to capture the character of the place we call Northampton,” they write in an introduction. “Along with the artists, iconoclasts, heroes, crackpots and fools who lived and breathed here.”

“We think this book belongs to the entire community,” Doherty added, “to every poet and artist who participated and to anybody who takes the walk or pedals the ride.”

A call to poets

Doherty and her friends put out an open call for submissions through several avenues, including an e-newsletter that Desrosiers maintains, and they also solicited material from the city’s poet laureates, from well-known local poets and others living outside the area who had a connection to the city. In the end, they got over 300 contributions from “poets who had never been published ... and poets who had won national prizes,” Doherty said.

The editors have also reproduced work from well-known Valley artists such as Scott Prior, Randy Diehl and Greg Stone that celebrate the city, like Diehl’s “Sweets,” an iconic portrait of the Academy of Music’s concessions desk that hangs in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

There are odes to any number of places around town as well as the atmosphere created by Northampton’s mix of old and new, traditional and multicultural, workaday and artistic. Kevin Devaney’s “They’re Back,” for instance, looks at the seasonal change in foot traffic on downtown streets: “They’re back / and you can see them wander through town / with hipster high empire waists their flats tred the ground / the Smithies are back in town.”

In “Two Places in Northampton,” Greg Tuleja tries to recall favorite destinations — Sheehan’s bar and The Globe Bookstore — on Pleasant Street that are now history: “I imagine it that way, but perhaps my memory has failed, / I might be wrong about the Globe, and about Sheehan’s, too, / they might not have existed at all, since now there’s just a bank I / think, / or a dress shop, and no one seems to remember all the things 
that / used to be ...”

“Paradise Found” also gives voice to writers who once explored Northampton’s history or recorded their impressions of the town. The book includes Robert Lowell’s 1964 poem “Jonathan Edwards in Western Massachusetts,” as well as journal entries by Sylvia Plath from her days in the city, both as a student and, briefly, as a teacher at Smith.

“Monday Morning ... dry, hard glittering cold and the wicked naked beauty of the scraped blue skies and the sun sparks ricocheting jazzily off car rooftops,” Plath wrote in a January 1953 entry. “Last night it was cold, suddenly, the loud big wind riproaring down from some no man’s land of snow.”

The poems in “Paradise Found” also come in a number of styles, from lyrical to free-form to a sort of haiku. Consider Jim Laurila’s “At the Department of Public Works Yard on Locust St.,” a model of brevity: “Orange trucks at dawn / Sound smell of diesel / City keeps running.”

Doherty and her fellow editors say they tried, unsuccessfully, to get a Northampton Arts Council grant to produce the book, and the project languished for a few years for lack of funding. But after Desrosiers talked to Levellers Press about the book, publisher Steve Strimer said he’d like to take it on. “Steve and Levellers have been great,” Doherty said. “It’s been a long journey to be sure, but we’ve enjoyed most of it.”

Clark, Desrosiers and Doherty will host an inaugural downtown poetry walk for “Paradise Found” on Sept. 20, beginning at 2 p.m. at the Lyman Plant House at Smith College. The walk will follow the route mapped out in the book, and participating poets will recite their work at each corresponding location. The event concludes with a reception and reading at 4 p.m. at R. Michelson Galleries.


Support Local Journalism

Subscribe to the Daily Hampshire Gazette, your leading source for news in the Pioneer Valley.

Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

115 Conz Street
Northampton, MA 01061


Copyright © 2021 by H.S. Gere & Sons, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy