W.S. Merwin Used Local Fire As Material for a Poem

Verse Describes Old Men Picking Through Ashes for Unburned Cigars

Former poet laureate W.S. Merwin, who died last week, lived in Scranton as a boy, and while many of his early poems describe incidents from his youth, few detail incidents that identify Scranton or identifiable events he witnessed while living here.

One exception is a poem called “The Gleaners.” It describes the “foreign old men” picking through the ashes of a tobacco factory fire for cigars they might salvage from the ruins.

The fire was real, so was the cigar company that burned. On January 12, 1944 the Parodi Cigar Company factory at 441 N. Main Ave. was destroyed by flames. Parodi manufactured Italian cigars, referred to by many in the area, and by Merwin in his poem as “stogies.”

The rubble was eventually cleared and a grocery store was built on the site. Parodi reopened farther up North Main Avenue and eventually operated three plants in Lackawanna County. Today a Dollar General Store occupies the site.

Though the fire occurred in deep winter, Merwin uses the poet’s prerogative and imagination to move it to summer.

“The Gleaners” was a poem that Merwin read aloud in an interview on National Public Radio some years ago, so it must have been one that he felt strongly about.

Here is the full text of the poem:

The Gleaners

They always gather on summer nights there
On the corner under the buggy street-bulb,
Chewing their dead stubs outside the peeling
Bar, those foreign old men,

Till the last street-car has squealed and gone
An hour since into the growing silence,
Leaving only the bugs’ sounds, and their own breathing;
Sometime then they hobble off.

Some were already where they stay, last night,
In rooms, fumbling absently with laces,
Straps, trusses, one hand was nearly to a glass
With a faceful of teeth

At the time the siren went shrieking for
The fire in the cigar factory there,
Half the town by then stinking like a crooked
Stogie. Well there they are

Where all day they have been, beetling over
The charred pile, teetering like snails and careful
Under sooty hats, in ankle shoes, vests,
Shirts grimed at collars and wrists,

Bending, babying peck baskets as they
Revolve on painful feet over the rubble,
Raking with crooked knuckles the amber pools
For limp cheroots.

After dark there will still be a few turning
Slowly with flashlights. Except for coughs they are quiet;
Sober; they always knew something would happen,
Something would provide.

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