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Sabukewicz crafts poetry from lasting images

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By MEGAN JAMES

MIDDLEBURY — In all his 30 years of teaching English, there’s one memory Charles Sabukewicz still can’t shake: While supervising a large study hall, he noticed students huddling around a table. When he peeked into the crowd to see what they were watching, he saw that one boy had caught a fly, tied a long strand of hair around it, made a loop at the other end of the hair and attached it to a pencil.

The fly, still alive and buzzing, circled the pencil as the kids looked on.

“Now why would I remember something like that?” Sabukewicz said over a cup of coffee on Monday.

Many of the 70-year-old’s memories are like that — a dollar bill floating in on the tide at a Rhode Island beach, catching a mosquito and pasting it into his notebook — haphazard but lasting images that over the years he has sculpted and carved into poetry.

Sabukewicz, who retired from Middlebury Union High School in 1999, recently released a book called “Rowing in Twilight,” a collection of short poems inspired by the natural world, the local community and his childhood in Narragansett, R.I. He will give a reading of his work at the Vermont Book Shop in Middlebury on Wednesday, April 9, at 6 p.m.

“I have a tendency to become interested in things other people might not be interested in,” he said.

But that’s not entirely true.

In a poem called “The Bee Keeper,” Sabukewicz evokes local beekeeping legend Charlie Mraz, whom Sabukewicz got to know through a series of interviews he conducted for a documentary about Mraz for Middlebury Community TV in the ’90s.

Mraz, who established Middlebury’s Champlain Valley Apiaries, was known around the world for his innovative use of bee venom to treat arthritis pain, multiple sclerosis and other autoimmune diseases.

“He would take a can of frozen orange juice, find the pain point, take a ballpoint pen and put an ‘x’ on it, rub the cold over it, then take his tweezers in a jar of bees and apply it,” Sabukewicz said. “People swore by it.”

But Sabukewicz was captivated by one of Mraz’s lesser-known tales.

In addition to his work as a beekeeper, Mraz was one of the first developers of property on Chipman Hill in the early ’50s. He and a friend were working up there one day, when the two men were struck by lightning. Mraz survived the incident, but his friend died there on the hill.

In his poem, Sabukewicz set the scene:

They had come up in a thunderstorm to see if their ditch had held,

thinking the worst was over. “A good day’s work,” Buddy had said

just before lightning struck: friend, helper, gone, leaving him

to awaken to his own creation there in the muddy grass —

Mraz’s close encounter with lightning, like his intimacy with bees and their venom, captured Sabukewicz’s imagination and deepened his curiosity in the beekeeper’s ability to transform poison into medicine for arthritis sufferers, he said. Sabukewicz’s poem continues:

He often walked the hill after a thunderstorm.

He had no fear of lightning.

Bees had their lightning too, a slug of light that aches in the bone.

He learned to use their light to heal those who came to him,

knees and wrists crowded with pain.

Still, many of Sabukewicz’s poems explore much smaller subjects. From an old camp in the Northeast Kingdom where he and his wife, Helen Marsh, spend a portion of their summers, Sabukewicz wrote about a bat flitting through the rafters,  and about a dragonfly settling on his shoulder as he paddled across a pond. 

He has kept notebooks for years, filling them with notes and affixing artifacts to the page. He still has that dollar that rode in on a wave in Rhode Island, and in talking about his family’s life in Narragansett, a beach town that emptied out every winter, he returned to that image.

“My parents really struggled,” he said. “My mother had been working as a maid in Washington, D.C. She met my father there; he was in the navy. Eventually they came back to Narragansett, trying to scrape a living together. He worked in an iron foundry in Providence, R.I. My mother was a townie in Narragansett, so he had to give up what was good money if you were a hard-worker.”

Sabukewicz’s father painted houses for a while, enlisting his young son’s help in carting buckets of paint from house to house.

“Money was like the tide: it would roll in and roll out,” he said.

Since his retirement, Sabukewicz has returned to his notebooks and begun compiling his work in two chapbooks — he published “Guest of the Elements” in 2002.

“Life can get in the way of writing,” he said, though he has had individual poems published in literary journals over the years.

But Sabukewicz has always returned to writing, he said. And when he does, he finds those images, however peculiar, he never could shake from his mind, waiting for him.

“One really neat thing about poetry is that it’s something you can do even when you’re not writing,” he said. “You just try to be awake to experiences.”

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