Off the Coast, Maine's International Poetry Journal

Summer 2009
"Who calls the birds? / wikwimôd sibsak"
Poems



Above Sea Level: A Poet's Washington County

Sea Level by Paul Nelson (Charlotte, NC: Main Street Rag, 2008), 71 pages. Paper. ISBN 13: 978-1-59948-150-0 $14.

The poems in Paul Nelson's fifth book reflect a 25- year stretch of his life spent in Machiasport, at the "coastal end of Appalachia," as he puts it in the opening poem, "Returning the Box." A descendant of Finnish and Norwegian immigrants who worked the quarries on Vinalhaven, Nelson pursued the gamut of downeast livelihoods, from raising sheep to lobstering (there's a photo of him hauling traps on the cover of the book), in between teaching jobs.

From that heritage and those experiences, Nelson has chiseled verse that often evokes the stark beauty of the coastal landscape and the harsh life of its resilient inhabitants. In the poem "Bore Tide," he contrasts the locals raking the clamflats ("a vast of Fundy mud") with vacationers who breeze along in boats whose sails luff "like dropped gloves." A description of two diggers working "the hem, careless,/ skiff nearby like a coffin" brings to mind the death of a periwinkle harvester in Eastport last year. Nelson has a terrific ear, as these opening lines of "Machias River Meditation" demonstrate:

Here at land's end, days
just beginning to stretch,
ice plates broad as shed roofs
happen to attach and sometimes lift
mats of peat as thick as whale blubber
napped with eel grass.

"Happen to attach," "mats," "napped"—some fine assonance carrying the poem along. Nelson employs the full battery of prosodic devices to capture the lay of the land.

Like Sydney Lea, who has also spent time down east, Nelson can tease out the memorable image from his surroundings. In "Loon," which recounts the recovery of a dead bird, he offers this precise, evocative simile: "a plastic K-Mart bag, caught in alders,/breathes like a white soul."

Also like Lea, Nelson celebrates the life of the outdoorsman. His poems about fishing are among his finest. "Apple," "Fishing," "Tenique" (another term for Spanish mackerel), and "Tackle Box" are all keepers. Here are the closing lines from the last-named:

I love the Heddon's jointed minnow,
a chartreuse dace with measles,
its paint gashed by at least one
ministerial pickerel.

Nelson is expert at the quick sketch. In "The Dump Is Closing," he portrays a traveling evangelist with teeth "rotten with gold" bearing a cane with a carved ivory angel head. "He is much, much happier/to be so sad for me," the narrator muses watching the unsuccessful missionary limp away.

Many more poems in this collection will call you back for a second and third read, whether it's a paean to Lorraine Mills, "the world's largest discount fabric store," or the pitch-perfect short lyric "Animus." And don't miss "Sea Smoke," which has those lovely overlays of meaning one associates with a Richard Wilbur poem.

Retired professor of English at Ohio University, Nelson now lives in Waialua, Hawaii. Most of the poems in Sea Level first appeared in diverse publications, among them, Calliope, Ploughshares, Maine Times and River Styx. On the basis of the poems in this book, we would do well to thank Nelson for his voice and vision and welcome him back to Maine.

—Carl Little


Back to top


Poetry Saved Me

From the Front of the Classroom, New Poems , by Elizabeth Thomas (Simsbury, CT: Antrim House, 2008), 100 pages, paper. ISBN 978-0-9798451-6-1. $18.

Elizabeth Thomas apparently believes that poetry, by enabling one to express one's feelings, examine one's experiences, and revivify one's existence, has therapeutic power. According to the biographical sketch in her new, third volume of poetry, she is an educator and "advocate of the arts" who designs and teaches "writing programs for schools and organizations in many parts of the country."

One of the more direct expressions of her belief in poetry's power comes in a poem that tells of a classroom experience in which she tried to deal with a psychologically depressed boy named Max. She describes him as, among other things, "a foul ball smashed into a neighbor's window." But "I know," she writes,

poetry could put him back together.
. . . I want to tell him
poetry saved me.

That uplifting, therapeutic spirit is part of what makes this new book appealing, even to someone like me whose outlook is far less sanguine. Not that Thomas is a Pollyanna. She acknowledges suffering in the world, can express anger, particularly at those who seem oblivious to suffering, and sometimes writes what she calls "political stuff." After listening to seemingly insensitive young poets at an "open mic" event, she asks (albeit prosaically),

How could a room full of teens
and 20-somethings
not be outraged
by what is happening
in places beyond
their college town?

The appeal of her poems comes from their clarity as well as their buoyancy. She is a performing poet who participates in "slam" contests in the belief that poetry "is meant to be heard out loud and in person." She tells stories, describes people, and recounts experiences in conversational, free-verse poems that pose few difficulties and usually come to clear conclusions. She maintains no distances.

All of this makes her poetry (enhanced by its publication in a quality paperback that provides ample space for each poem) refreshing. So does her creativity with figurative language, which she uses not to code her poems but to make palpable or heighten the force of what she is talking about. We can hear in our minds the voice she describes as "scraped by cigarettes and coffee." We cringe in empathy when she describes an embarrassment that made her feel "like spilled milk, wanting to puddle myself on the floor," and recognize the truth of her metaphorical declaration:

We all have a dream
tucked into a box,
hidden high in a closet
because someone told us
to stop.

So all you poets who strive to be mysterious, weave enigmas, and deal with dark worldviews rather than immediate experience, watch out for this one. She may try to save you, as she does her students. Her muse, both "ballerina" and "wanna-be thug" may drag you to a stream on a "day fat with green and the scent of wet earth" and say,

The water moves by,
will never be here again –
but in its passing
the bush is nourished
and grows.

—Gerald George


Back to top


The Penny Poet of Portsmouth

I Hear America Singing: sometimes it troubles me by Robert Dunn, (Durham, NH: Oyster River Press, 2001), 56 pages, paper. ISBN-10: 1-882291-60-2 $8.00
Je ne regrette rien: Poèmes nouveaux et retrouvés by Robert Dunn, (Durham, NH: Oyster River Press, 2007), 20 pages, paper. ISBN-13: 978-1-882291-03-8 $6.00

According to his friends and fellow poets, I regret nothing, from a song popularized by Édith Piaf during the Algerian war, aptly reflects Robert Dunn, a former Poet Laureate of Portsmouth NH, and it is the title of his chapbook published less than a year before his death. Dunn led a sparse material life, preferring the riches of literature, history, and poetry. The chapbook's dedication—"When you read them, they belong to you"—conveys Dunn's conviction that ideas cannot be owned, and, to that end, his work contains no copyright.

The little book (4"x 5 ½") weighs heavy with the question of the opening poem ("Turn toward"): "Just when might the earth be fair, / its people glad and free?" And many of its fourteen poems continue in that sentiment. However, a bit of lightness occurs in three one-stanza poems (e.g., "They say you can't possibly / be swallowed by a whale") translated into three languages, French, Spanish, and German. Dunn knew seven. He embraced joy as well as sorrow:

Whose is your joy if you deny it... And whose is the sorrow that you have refused? ("Whose is your joy")

Dubbed "The Penny Poet of Portsmouth" because he exchanged his hand-stitched poetry booklets for a penny, Dunn lived Ezra Pound's principle that "nothing written for pay is worth printing." The "consulting metaphysician," his self-appointed job title at the Portsmouth Athenaeum wished in his poem "Envoi" that his

words were bread in this hungry earth, itself a stone wanting to be bread.

And during his tenure as poet laureate, he provided opportunities to encounter literature by bringing poetry into public places, even "bleak" parking garages. The poet asks in the poem "How is it they insist," included in I Hear America Singing, how "they" insist that "you must have a known address / who nowhere have a home?"

The book's subtitle sometimes troubles me. Although Dunn's poems show us that trouble, they also contain many ponderables: "an average is a lie about several people" ("People in this part of town"); "if you have any news, / tell it to a forest" ("Trees communicate"); and "we're just going out. Do you want / Anything from the Ocean?" ("From here you can see the tide"). "What an enormous thing a word is, fully realized!"

Dunn's words have a rhythm, a sound, a weight that he composed in his head while he walked about downtown Portsmouth. Although Dunn dedicated his life to squeezing life into words, he knew, nevertheless, that words should not "come between us and the thing." So this public poet had to show us both sides of life, both its grief and its joy, for he tells us that "death by darkness, while no less fatal than death by / fire, is much more ignominious." Indeed.

—Ellen Jane Powers


Back to top


Carillons of Words

The Other Side of Sorrow, Poets Speak Out about Conflict, War, and Peace, edited by Patricia Frisella and Cicely Buckley (Farmington, N.H.: Poetry Society of New Hampshire, 2006), 220 pages. Paper. ISBN 13: 978-0-9724167-1-9. $16.

I want to praise this book but the editors make praise difficult. In this anthology, 128 poets protest organized killing in Iraq, Palestine, Israel, Bosnia, the Congo, Vietnam, Chile, World Wars I and II, the American Civil War, Tiananmen Square, and elsewhere. This book is one of several socially conscious anthologies in our era such as Poets Against the War , edited by Sam Hamill (2003), and Against Forgetting, Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness , edited by Carolyn Forché (1993). Those editors provided introductions explaining what led them to publish such books, how they selected poems for inclusion, and what purposes they hoped to serve. The editors of The Other Side of Sorrow provide no such information, no introduction, nothing besides what one may glean from the title and the poems themselves.

Worse, this anthology seems haphazardly put together. The predominance of poets in the book from New England makes it seem regional, but some of its poems come from other states and a few from other countries, and we aren't told how the poems were selected. Some individual poets are represented by multiple poems grouped together, but multiple poems by other poets are scattered through the book. The editors provide no section headings or other indications of how they organized the book, nor do they say how they determined the sequence of poets, who are not presented in alphabetical order. The editors have allowed some poems to begin with just a few lines at the bottom of a page. Only one of three translations included in the book is accompanied by the original, while another appears without identification even of its original language. And the quality of the book's poems varies greatly, some of them suffering from ranting, posturing, breast-beating, or simple-mindedness.

Fortunately, the book also contains many moving poems, poems that express controlled fury or poignant sorrow in vivid language, poems that make one see and feel the justice of the protests. The book is made worth buying by Maxine Kumin's obscenity-underscored expression of disgust for former Vice President Cheney, or James Fowler's "Poem Made in the Shape of a Burning Buddhist Monk," or Janice Smith Seufert's sonnet entitled "Child of Sudan," which begins:

Because I didn't want to see his eyes,
I turned my head—a simple move for me. A picture given doesn't give the cries or foul stench of disease. I wouldn't see the hope gone out; yet something asking, still,
why hurt begins and never seems to end.
When did the loving stop . . . ?

Underlying many of these poems is the fear that we will ignore war's horrors, a fear summed up in another of the poignant poems, Yamilé Craven's "Who Listens?" It ends with the following stanzas:

What vibrates in the silence of space
From the planet's battlefields?

From the clashing fields of blood
Who listens?

In this quiet New England night of drifting snow
No one will hear the screams.

Like the curled leaves of the prayer plant
I prepare to sleep.

Poems like that are what make me want to praise this book in spite of its deficiencies. One must agree with another of the book's poets, Sally Sullivan, who asks,

Why not make carillons of words
ring out a call
for peace?

That is what this book does, and for that, at least, its editors deserve gratitude.

—Gerald George


Back to top


Places Women Go

Grief Hut by Nancy Mitchell (Somerville, MA: Cervena Barva Press, 2009) 68 pages. Paper. ISBN- 978-0-615-25797-6 $15.

There are places where women go, blood-lined rooms where grief is mined from thick black seams. Many women are broken there, many never return. Nancy Mitchell's book, Grief Hut tells the story of one who survived. In the first poem, "Nine Flights Down," we make the descent, touch the "cold iron handrail, taste/ of blood rising to my tongue," come upon three men in stained shirts struggling with a stuck rusty valve. The men meet her gaze, "their eyes soft/ brown, sad as basset hounds," they know what is ahead.

In "Love in the Time of Ike," we get our glimpse of the father, the generation's wreckage of machismo, "hardwired/ as they were by movies," trying to fit into a post war world. Childhood memory overlays the sight of the woman's daughter as she stands at the kitchen sink looking out a window, "gazes/ out to what I can't see/ from where I am," "a sunlight sliver" lighting the dishrag in her hand, a glimpse of hope, perhaps the past can be washed away, but the title, "It Could've Been My Childhood," suggests otherwise, and that twenty years from now the daughter will look upon the same scene.

In "Razor Blade," the baby brother puts a razor blade in his mouth and then is spanked by the father after the blade is retrieved. In "After They Died" the poet imagines her father and mother as balloons tethered to her in the 40 days after death when the next world beckons.

The story of the son begins with "Fire in the Alphabet," when the mother tames childhood monsters with a sketch pad and a hand-lettered exit sign for "z," the first letter in his name, "if there is ever a fire in the alphabet,/ Z will be burned alive, be dead." Other poems about the son describe a life of drug addiction, detox, and rehab; sorting through black trash bags deciding what to keep, what to throw away. The irony of requiring drugs to tame his drug addiction is used effectively in the short poem, "Zyprexa, Remeron, Effexor," the title being names of antipsychotic and antidepressant drugs, "the name(s) of new constellations/ you might chart your life by."

"Grief Hut," begins the transition for this woman. A striking poem, the imagery is of birthing as the woman sits on a stool, "rock(s)/ back and forth on pelvic bone," "and from shadows/ women lean into me, groping/ for the knot, rising from my throat." The valve in the first poem is about to come unstuck.

In "Field" there is the reimagining of a divorce, and a new life. The woman wrestles with a new intimacy, "His Face" is not the other faces we have seen, yet "uncannily he resembled/ her long dead relatives," alike, yet different, the signs are not ominous here. There may be hope, and like the bird nearly given up on in "Finch," lifts its good and wounded wings and takes flight.

—Valerie Lawson


Back to top


In Your Dreams

Players in the Dream, Dreamers in the Play by Marian Kaplan Shapiro (Austin, TX: Plain View Press, 2006) 102 pages. Paper. ISBN- 978-1-891386-72-5 $14.95.

Experimental poetry, as found in this book, requires readers to reconfigure established poetic geographies and imagination. Ms. Shapiro strives to expand the possibilities of understanding by freeing creating new tensions between her poems and her readers. Many are visual as in "Rem:"

images drop like acid
rain rain
into
theplainsofsleep theplainsofsleep
with and without words poems of past
pain pop like birthday balloons
meeting up with dragon flies
Come back!

Most poems play with enjambment as in "Cycle: Alfred, Maine:"

This year I wear red Gore-Tex, LL
Bean, via UPS. You
wear Winter, star-shower white
from the time before time
counted. The pond is icing
over, silver roofing on
another world. The moose are rutting.

The author is a Jewish Quaker, an interesting combination of one history that has experienced horrors, and another that eschews all violence. Her poetry depicts some of those horrors "skeletons stacked like naked Xmas trees raped of their tinsel and their ornaments"from "Anemnesis."

More timely, from "Moose Run River, New York City."

she has not seen the rapist in the hall,
or the mother smashing her baby daughter's
head against the wall

More often than not her poetry speaks about ordinary people, as in a "Quaker Meeting: Cambridge/Rangeley, Maine" where townsfolk chat with a colloquial Maine accent

Geologist dug up this
here rock, said it was from the time
of the Grand Canyon
Those wasps
you got, just spray them with Raid and run
like hell.

This book was a difficult and exhausting read. The content of the poems is wide-ranging, the experimental line breaks distracting. It is interesting how enjambment can affect the tone of a poem. In Ms. Shapiro's work, the overall effect on this reader was anxiety: over the state of the world; the human condition; love and loss; peace enjoyed within our communities, then fear we cannot control our lives; dreams that Freud would love.

This reviewer would like to attend a book reading by the author, listen how she interprets the sounds, breaks and pauses, and perhaps hear different poems than seen on these pages. From "Calling:"

my dream dreams on in its dreamlogic cows
are turning into people cower coward people
long dead are young again in countries their hungry
eyes have never seen no man (woman) is an island
an is-land an eye-land an I-land I wander the
landscape sadness dusts the leaves my old friend Ferdinand ambles
bysmelling the flowers a llama led by a braindamaged
girl lopes by my house


—Sheila Mullen Twyman


Back to top