Lyrical gangstas

Tenants Harbor group pushes poetry
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  November 1, 2006

In 1997, David Riley and four other Tenants Harbor poets decided to become what he calls “ambassadors for poetry in a prose-laden world.” Duly self-appointed, they came together to present what would become an annual evening of readings for a Midcoast audience, a ritual that continues to this day. To celebrate the tenth anniversary of these readings, the five poets — Jonathan Aldrich, Mary Burchenal, Christopher Fahy, Elizabeth Gordon McKim, and Riley — have gathered selections of their work together within a single binding. The resulting anthology is called Summer Lines: Ten Years of Tenants Harbor Poetry Readings, a new collection edited by Fahy and published locally by Thomaston’s Limerock Books.

The title of poetry “ambassadors” is an apt one for these five writers, since their work would go a long way in bringing a prose-inclined audience into a close and amiable relationship with the country of verse. Much of this slim volume takes its cues right from the cadences and candor of conversation, without ceremony or overly distracting poetic forms; its stories and observations read as simply and intimately as they might be heard over morning coffee or a couple of pints. “I am already in the dog food aisle/when I realize I have taken someone else’s/cart,” Burchenal begins “Roche Brothers,” and it’s like she’s just sat you down for happy hour and a reckoning of the day’s foibles. A hushed observation of Fahy’s, on the other hand, reads as if uttered to a late-night confidant: “This was the first time/I realized that dead people sweat/as they try to continue time.”

The range of subject and tone in Summer Lines varies widely between writers, and even within each poet’s selection, but the imagery and culture of the Midcoast sea weave a common affinity through these poems. Aldrich recalls the cod pulled up from his grandfather’s motorboat; Riley writes of how the spring tide will lift the dry skiff “over wood and moss and seaweed/through a splash of marsh grass/onto the stirring surface of the world.” In “Peter: A Seafarer,” Burchenal revels in the image of a seaman on a prow: “The sea spray will shimmer/on your arms and chest like scales.”

There is also gravity in this volume, and absence. Fahy’s short lines and plain phrases make stark work of “The Hero,” his paean to a young war-damaged veteran; and his rather bluntly facetious “Cinema III” narrates the outrageous claims of a Holocaust denier. In “War,” Aldrich writes of “curtains that are restless” in a window just above where there was once a slaughter; and Burchenal treats us to a rich and sensual musing on motherhood in “Knives” as, pregnant, she quarters a grapefruit as her own mother once did much more skillfully.

But many of the Tenants Harbor poets also make at least one delightful dip into the comic. In “For Mother’s Day,” Aldrich pays homage to his mom, who gave him “growing pains/by writing books on Henry James;” Fahy writes of the man he should have been: “He has a lot of genes./They pay him to eat cereal.” Burchenal exudes a puckish humor in many of her poems as she tells us about her shitty haircuts and how Death crashes the cocktail party from the back door. And in McKim’s fabulous “Penelope’s Talkin’ Blues for Odysseus” (a surprising departure from her lyrical haiku sets), the left-behind wife speaks up: “Odyss our home yeah our happy home/Now it’s a honky tonk juke joint dirty old saloon/With all these raggedy ass suitors.”

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