Stephen Burke

Ithaca Notes

For 27 years, from 1985 until his retirement in 2013, Rob Sullivan knew what he was, or who people thought he was: a worker at the U.S. Postal Service in Ithaca.

For most of those years he was highly visible to observant Ithacans as a full-time window clerk in the downtown post office.

To post office patrons involved or interested in the Ithaca music scene, Sullivan was also a familiar figure as an expert swing and folk dancer, seen front and center at GrassRoots Festival and countless other shows for many years. 

It turns out that, all along, Sullivan was also a writer, now with his first book, a poetry collection called “Post Scripts: Behind the Counter at the Ithaca Post Office.” 

As the title and contents indicate, the book pulls together the author’s disparate identities. 

In his introduction, Sullivan acknowledges (by name; or, rather, sobriquet) his erstwhile alter ego, “the Dancing Postman.”

The book’s first poem is called “Grateful Dead Medicine.” Another (of almost 100) is “Zydeco Dancing Behind the Counter.” One of the last is “Because Tonight I Dance.” 

Most of the time, though, Sullivan is a regular (i.e. regimented, non-dancing) postman, and most of the poems focus on (or emerge from) detailed esoterica of mail, and moving it.

“So You Want to Be a Window Clerk” is the fifth poem in this postal line. “End of the Line,” appropriately, comes later. Specifics are covered in “Postage Stamps” and “Christmas Day Delivery.” Feelings and situations are analyzed in “Do You Like Christmas?” and “Postal Karma Cliche.”

Sullivan highlights experiences that patrons might have had in the post office, but hardly considered or noticed (for example: the irreversible point at which, during holiday rush, the clerk’s pleasant, interrogative greeting of “May I help you?” becomes simply the brusk, imperative “Next”).

Sullivan’s purpose, however, is not to provide a post office tour. As a writer, as in his time as a clerk, his aim is to elicit depths of meaning and poignancy he sees in even the most mundane of workdays, the simplest of transactions or connections.

A piece called “First Trip to the Post Office” might seem pedestrian rather than transcendent, until encountering Sullivan’s interpretation of his window as a place where “Shining stars orbit,” and his revelation that for many children (with busy, errand-bound parents) a visit to the post office might be “the first trip outside the house,” to a place where “the window clerk gets to say how very beautiful they are.”  

Given the exactitude of many of these poems, recounting particular scenes, days, and exchanges, one might suppose they were written in the midst of Sullivan’s career. But in conversation with me for this column, Sullivan said he didn’t write any of them until after his retirement.

Sullivan says he initially wrote three poems about working at the post office for a writing workshop led by Zee Zahava, former poet laureate of Tompkins County. Zahava “challenged” him, he says, to write more of them, sufficient to fill a book. 

Sullivan says that, in response to the challenge, the poems came readily, at least in first draft. He refers to them as “prose poems,” relating quick, concentrated stories. He says that, as each subject came to him, he created a piece around it it “extemporaneously,” but in methodical fashion, in most cases with a title which occurred to him leading to more text.

The style is simple and straightforward, not ornate. Sullivan compares his process to sculpture, chipping away and subtracting, rather than adding. 

He says that most of his time and effort came in editing, aiming to achieve directness. 

“I’m trying to show how everyday life experience can be something universal,” Sullivan says. “Astonishment, remorse, guilt, appreciation. The poems are basically just responding to life.”

Sullivan will read from his book at 5:30 p.m, Thursday September 12, at Buffalo Street Books. 

 

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