It’s the last week of National Poetry Month. Buds are bulging, the sun is fat, and temperatures are...well, not technically freezing. Souds like poetry season all right! To help get in the spirit, I read nine new, wildly different collections from Maine-based poets (only once through, I’ll admit, and not always out loud — total sins for serious poetry-readers) and offered some reflections here.
One of the most widely respected regional poets and a professor at the University of Southern Maine, Betsy Sholl writes poems of reminiscence, reckoning, and awe. In Otherwise Unseeable (University of Wisconsin), her lyrical, assonant verses often give voice to the underprivileged or underheard, arriving as imaginative confessionals and apostrophes (like the daring de-mythification poem “Frog to Princess” and its marvelous final stanza) or dumbstruck devotionals (“Rahsaan,” a tribute to sax player Rahsaan Roland Kirk among several tributes to jazz). First published over 30 years ago, Sholl is a poet writing from a rarefied perspective of compassion, reflection, and comfort. She draws inspiration and metaphor from the natural environment — that means a whole lotta bird imagery — as well as the tight knots of family life. When her poems contain desperation or toil, they’re within the lives of others, most notably in the volume’s second section of historical studies on war and oppression.
Throughout, Sholl deploys colorful language playfully and sensationally, careful not to let it swell into bluster (from “To a Plum”: “Between night / and the sun-struck bay, you hang / heavy on the limb, your blue-black / powdery sheen like shimmering kimono silk / the color of midnight and bruise. / What’s there to lose?”). A treat for the tongue, the energy is so bound in language that Sholl’s poems often demand re-reads (otherwise their plentiful metaphors will remain a blur on the page), while her active, first-person works, like the somber reflection on a father’s death in “Waiting Room,” are clear stand-outs. These rich poems might be slow going, but there’s plenty in Otherwise Unseeable, Sholl’s 10th volume, to unpack.
In her new collection Same Old Story (CavanKerry Press), Harmony, Maine poet Dawn Potter makes excellent examples of the pleasures of deciphering how a poem works — not what it says or means. With wit, subtlety, and irony, she offers earnest, no-holds-barred insights on domestic triumphs and hardships; the wariness and weariness of love; and the specter of loneliness that haunts everyday life, the latter a fugue threading the volume’s most affecting lines. In “Cover Song,” an amused Potter paints a scene of a lover from her past who would brazenly sing courtship songs to her in the streets (one gets the sense the tryst didn’t last long). But as is often the case, she circles back toward a sort of forgiveness, along with a keen understanding of the trappings of human affect. “How unreal it feels to play at romance, gliding / Slickly beyond your homely self like a ballroom ghost, /As if your everyday, tempted, shivering skin / Couldn’t perform a truer rendition.”