Seven Days Newspaper, 2000
  • POETRY MAN

    Chris Abair soothes the senior set with smooth lines and home delivery

    BY LYNDA MAJARIAN

 
  • Nearly 20 residents of Burlington’s Starr Farm Nursing Center, half of them in wheelchairs, have formed a ragged semi-circle around Chris Abair — a slender, slightly built man with an impish face, rather like a middle-aged Peter Pan. Hands clasped before him, leaning toward his aged audience, Abair recites his grandfather’s poetry. Although he’s had no professional training in voice or theater, his performance is confident, precise, from the heart.

    “To bring a woman board a ship/Is sure to bring it grief,” he lilts. The seniors, most of them awake, remain silent until he finishes “The Old Buccaneer,” which — like much of his repertoire — is a morbid tale of lost love and grizzly deeds. When Abair concludes, the group bursts into applause.

    “That was a good one,” several murmur. A resident with snowy hair and thick glasses stands up, as she does after every poem, and shakes Abair’s hand. “Thank you, Father,” she says somberly. “You ought to be a priest.”

    “It’s too late for that,” jokes Abair, 49, who has already raised a family in Colchester.

    If Abair’s presentation is suggestive of the clergy to this elderly fan, perhaps it’s his emotional oratorical style — he brushes tears from his eyes whenever he reads “The Madman of The Mines” — or the religious subtext of the poems. Or maybe it’s because so many of them weave in God, sin and the hereafter. Unabashedly sentimental, the poems of George Albert Leddy were written early in the 20th century, when characters openly sobbed and invoked their Maker, and feeling queer had nothing to do with sexual preference.

    Ten years ago, Abair — who has worked for three decades as a systems engineer at IBM in Essex Junction — decided to make photocopies of his grandfather’s two typed, unpunctuated manuscripts, “to make sure they wouldn’t be destroyed in a fire or something,” he explains. He has spent the past two years transcribing and self-publishing both Leddy’s poems and those of his great-aunt, Mary Laura Leddy, whose devotional verses he sprinkles throughout performances. To date, he has memorized 19 poems, which he shares regularly with residents of several local nursing homes.

    Colleen Santillo, Starr Farm’s recreational director, says the seniors look forward to Abair’s monthly “matinees.” “More and more residents keep coming to hear him, and they have their favorites now,” she says.

    “On nearly every holiday, my grandfather would write a poem about someone he worked with,” Abair tells the audience one recent afternoon, noting that Leddy’s poetry also concerned issues that marked his generation, such as Prohibition, corrections and the controversy surrounding who discovered the North Pole.

    The Leddy clan settled in Underhill in the late 1800s after fleeing the Irish potato famine. Young George Leddy left the farm and moved to Burlington, working first in woolen mills, then selling ice cream and candy on Church Street, and finally working at the Strong Hardware Store, which occupied the space where Burlington’s Courthouse Plaza now stands. His second cousin was Judge Bernard Leddy.

    “I wish I’d spent more time talking with my grandfather before he died in 1967,” Abair says wistfully. “The poems have always been in the family. But sometimes art is better as it ages.”

    As children, Abair and his eight siblings paid little attention to their grandfather’s hobby. “We knew he wrote poetry, and now and then we’d steal a few verses when we had to write a poem for school,” he confesses.

    After he retires from IBM next month, Abair aims to share the Leddy legacy with a broader local audience. He has submitted a proposal for First Night, and will perform at the Ethan Allen Homestead on July 8. He will continue performing, too, for seniors, many of whom he’s become attached to, while carving out a niche as a “balladeer” — a seemingly illogical moniker since there is no music in his act.

    “I call myself a balladeer because these poems are much more lyrical than poems you hear today,” offers Abair, who has little admiration for modern poets “who just read their work off the page.” Memorization, he insists, is the key to poetry. “You have to take it into yourself, like a prayer,” he says. Abair makes a performance of poetry by reciting it, but he otherwise has nothing in common with “slam” poets. He’s attended slam events at the Rhombus Gallery, but it’s nothing he wants to get into — his is “an older art,” he says.

    “It’s amazing what you can memorize when you put your mind to it,” notes one Starr Farm listener, “especially when you’re young.”

    “Do you write poetry?” asks another senior.

    “I dabble,” Abair admits, “but nothing as good as these.”

    Creativity, though, runs in the Abair family. He sculpts and plays piano and guitar; brothers Phil and David are popular local musicians, often performing together as The Abair Brothers Band; and sister Carol was a finalist in the competition for Vermont’s official state song.

    Abair concludes the day’s final poem, thanks his appreciative audience, and tucks a cardboard Kinko’s box filled with poetry under his arm. “It helps to get your feedback,” he tells the seniors.

    Abair’s favorite listener offers him a final handshake and a hug. “Remember, Father,” she says, “You started here.”

 

Seven Days Newspaper, 2000
www.sevendaysvt.com

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