Off the Coast, Maine's International Poetry Journal

Summer 2008 Reviews
"Her Name Among the Flowers"

George on Chute

Settling In, New Marblehead / Windham, Maine, 1738-1806
Robert Chute (Topsham, Maine: Just Write Books, 2008)
ISBN : 978-0-9722839-8-4 Price: $14.29

In 1986 the poet Charles Simic wrote about "how something said and seen two centuries ago" can continue "to be an excellent conduit for the imagination . . . the old diaries are full of such passages." Simic wrote this in his foreword to a poetry chapbook entitled Samuel Sewall Sails for Home, by Maine poet Robert Chute. Chute based the poems on entries in the diary of a colonial American jurist who had a bad conscience over his part in the Salem witchcraft trials.

In a new book, Settling In, Chute has returned to history. This time he uses material left by his own ancestors and others who founded New Marblehead, which is now Windham, Maine. In each poem, an early settler delivers a dramatic monologue. Obviously Chute chose Windham's first families because he has descended from one of them. A "Chute Family Tree" is part of the book. Regrettably, the history sometimes seems more important to the author than the poetry.

For one thing, information about who married whom and had which children sometimes becomes cumbrous in these poems. For another, the poems have a prosaic character that Chute openly acknowledges. Though the poems look like free verse, he calls his book "a study of the first families settling New Marblehead in a series of prose poems." Though Chute's monologues are reminiscent of the free-verse character studies in the famous Spoon River Anthology of Edgar Lee Masters, they are more gentle. They don't have the dissecting sharpness or the poetic verve of the best Spoon River epitaphs—or of Chute's own earlier work on Samuel Sewall.

Nonetheless, Chute's characters are worth meeting. They are human, and their self-presentations often end in ironies or poignant observations. Some are all too ready to supplant Indians; others understand why Indians oppose dams on rivers. Men and boys fight in various wars, but some run from battle. Women often die in childbirth or lose young children, submitting stoically and "treasuring what has been given." Widows and widowers make new matches, but one poem hints at an instance of adultery. Settlers exhibit ambition, achievement, pride, but also decry dilutions of religion and lament worldly disappointments.

Those of us who have admired Chute's probing poems about science, particularly in his 2006 book Reading Nature, might have hoped that he would build on such work intellectually and poetically. But we can enjoy this new little book (just 49 pages) for its own purpose—the imaginative populating of a part of the Maine frontier.

—Gerald George


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Brown on Spang

To the Promised Land Grocery by Bruce Spang Westbrook, ME: Moonpie Press, 2008) ISBN 978-0-9796947-8-3 $10.

Connection: it's the main quality of Bruce Spang's poems. In each poem everything is connected to something else in that poem. So it is with this book. Section one, "The Everlasting," deals mostly with being an 11-year-old discovering his world, including a fair amount of sex. It is also closely connected to the second section "The Long Passage" in which the 53-year old is coming to grips with his age, his students, and those 11-year-old experiences.

The title poem sits in the middle of the first section, and it signals a destination at the end of a hike where the Boy Scouts will get ice cream, a heaven briefly lost sight of when they discover a used condom by the roadside. But nothing is ever lost, and we are caught up in these nets of words and experiences just as surely as the experiences of this one poet are bound up in him. Each incident is not necessarily symbolic, but its images speak metonomy, a part of life that stands here for one aspect of complete and connected experience.

Section three, "The Blessed" is the showy one where Spang lays out his command of poetic subjects dear to him, as in both the image and the poem, "Black Beauty's Reins," which begins with coal, the basement coal bin, coffee, ink, Al Jolson, a movie theater and race. The poem departs for Alabama in the days of Jim Crow, then returns, weaving all those images into the reins of the storybook horse then resolve "deeper into the dark, into the beautiful night."

As with most poets who cast their nets broadly, Spang's include the sacred and the profane. His religion is a mentioned influence, not so much a subject. Sex, especially but not exclusively homoerotic, is a more prominent focus. A single central image, for instance, penis to penis is a connection out of which a poem flowers, much as in the work of Sharon Olds. I consider that high praise.

Bruce Spang demonstrates the apt craft of a mature poet. Voice and experience are immediately established in the first lines of most of his poems: "The empty teeth of unlighted windows gape at me." ("Mercy Hospital") "The azalea folds its leaves in a December freeze." ("Keepsakes")

Spang's weakest poems in this collection are the ekphrastic ones written to some photographs by Kevin Johnson, an outgrowth of their collaboration for the Belfast Poetry Festival. I prefer poems that stand on their own parallel to but not dependent on the photos. Yet Spang's connectedness must have it otherwise, and I must bow to his art.

—Michael R. Brown


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Buker on Krok

Looking for an Eye by Peter Krok (Kanona, NY: Foothills Publishing, 2008) ISBN 0-941053-54-7 $15

The arresting cover on Peter Krok's newest book Looking for an Eye, reminds one of the green light at the end of Daisy's dock in The Great Gatsby. However, there is a sense that the eye is looking back down the dock to where it has been, as Jay Gatsby labored to return to happier times with Daisy. The impression, the question, remains: what does this past experience mean to a man as "Dragging questions, he walks/ on through the night."? Thus in the poem "Looking for an Eye" we notice that the eye at the end of the dock is a passageway for experience to seep through to help with the questions of meaning. But this is not easy, as in the poem, "Doors," because "everywhere doors turn into/rooms left open."

One gets the sense that Krok is insisting that he can do this if you don't move as he filters out his needs for his story, which is truly a handy way to carry his experiences around—story as crucible so to speak. But even though he may love you, "I cannot look through your window./Each bears suffering alone." His writing attempts to make sense of his life and the reason what happens happens. "I have no answer for the dusk" he writes. And learning what to leave out is not the same thing as putting in only what's important, as in the poem "Madonna" who stands as we do, "Lost in her make-up/she stands alone,/a guest/in her own world."

Quem Queritas our Druids intone. Thus we have a poet who wants to taste a girl who is holding a bass fiddle. He is amazed that he has made it this far and is still looking because his wife insists that they clean their windows to see and be seen in a conditionally human give-and-take predicament where we all find ourselves.

It seems, though, that we are missing something in the book. While it occupies readers to watch a person walking across a beach with a bag full of questions, perhaps it is not too impolite to want more from the poet when it comes to responding to the questions, whatever they are, the way Shakespeare did on his way to hallowed ground. Those of us fumbling in the fetish of free will may remember that the magnificent polar bear was once a mere grizzly. So what has or will be made of all the questions? If I am ever in the same situation, will I have a base from which to act in an un-Hamletish manner?

—Russell Buker


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Magoon on Bikers

Rubber Side Down: The Biker Poetry Anthology,
edited by Jose Gouveia Santa Maria, CA: Archer Books, 2008) $16.

Biker poets! Puts me in mind of heater hunters or guys who ice fish out of their Winnebagos. But the editors of this fine journal, newly moved into my neighborhood, gave me a copy to review because I've been known to park my carcass on a hog or two in my day. Which is how I know this title, a reminder among riders to keep the rubber side of the bike on the road and the shiny side up. But if I had to tell you that, it means I can tell you whatever I want about this book, which is what I was going to do anyway.

Then I saw that Peddler had something to do with this. If you ever rode a bike in New England in this lifetime and don't know who Peddler is, well, that's just more you don't know, but I belabor the point. I don't know nothing about this JoeGo guy who's supposed to be the editor, but I figure if Peddler's behind it, Joe's just a front guy, and this might be all right.

First off, great pictures by Michael Lichter. He has an eye and knows where to stand. The cover alone proves that. There's also a set of rogues gallery photos of the Highway Poets M.C. so you can identify the culprits in this book on the road.

In my general experience, there's lots of bikers who profess to know a lot about a lot of things, which is greatly an exaggeration. Even collectively a lot of bikers don't know much. They do know bikes, the lingo, and the right wrong turns. That's what you'll find here—bikers waxing poetic about their bikes, places they've been, and mostly the pleasure of riding. Bugs in your teeth, bees up your sleeves, the surprise of what's around that turn, good people, bad ones, and dreams of beer and honeys all along the way.

They go from Laconia to Sturgis or a million other places, but I never met any rider who was as happy there as he was getting there AND back. This book is their songbook, the verse of regular men and women riding in Australia, Europe, and mostly the good old USA, a bikers' paradise if there ever was one.

The rubber side is down all the way. If you are looking for great poetry promised by the big names, that's shiny side up. That ain't this book. And for me, that's proof that Peddlar, Sky, Gypsy Pashn, Panhead, and Chopper Kate are the ones you should be reading. Spare me the doctors and lawyers on their clean 40K Harleys rallying on summer Sunday afternoons. No more romance in that than fishing out your window, even if you do have a bottle of scotch under one arm and a honey under the other. This book is where poetry meets the road.

—George Magoon


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