“The Lobsterman’s Dream (Poems of the Maine Coast)”
By Larry D. Thomas
El Grito del Lobo Press, Fulton, Mo., 2014
52 pages, perfect bound paperback with dust jacket, $20
On three occasions, Larry Thomas has traveled up from Texas to “ruggedly beautiful” Maine, and at some point he started writing poems about what he saw here. Which does not seem to be an unusual activity for him — he is a self-described full-time poet with nearly 20 books and chapbooks in his credits and an appointment as Texas’ official poet laureate for 2008.
(The Texas legislature has official authority to appoint a poet laureate every year. Although it often does not do so. They were pretty good about it from 1932 to 1980. Then between 1981 and 1999, they named laureates in just four different years. They started getting back on track in 2000, skipped 2002, and have exercised their “option,” as Larry Thomas described it to me, every year since. Why did they skip so many years?, I asked him, and his answer was, basically, because they can. Maine started appointing poets laureate to five-year terms in 1996, and has come through neatly every time (four) so far. Wesley McNair is Maine’s current poet laureate.)
Anyway, back to Larry Thomas’ book about Maine. “The Lobsterman’s Dream” is a neatly made letterpress book with old-style hand-set type on high-quality paper. Four simple, pleasant, green-ink woodcuts by Clarence Wolfshohl introduce four sections of tersely stated poems.
This terseness is interesting because, while maybe you don’t think of Texans as being laconic, up in Maine we often are. (Best description of Maine verbal resource: Robert Creeley once observed to me that we “say as little as possible as often as possible.”) So one way or another, the language of these poems is suited to the subject matter. A fisherman’s dory, concludes the poem “Dory,” is:
and sans a whit of frill,
exactly what the sea,
if wood, would be.
These closing lines are maybe the most evocative among the many poems in this collection that offer trimly meticulous descriptions then finish on a poetic conceit (that is, a tying together of different images or lines of thought). These endings are as neatly and orderly expressed as the physical book is made.
Each of the four sections contains a particular category of descriptive subject matter. “Battering the Granite” offers descriptions of different aspects of the Maine coast — “The Ocean,” “Snow” (“It blankets / both the living / and the dead”), “Monhegan Island,” “Foghorn.” “Sans a Whit of Frill” offers descriptions of works of art or things that might be viewed as art (this is called ekphrastic poetry) – “Dory,” “Lighthouses,” “The Warning (painting by Jamie Wyeth, 2007).” “Demon in a Hell of Cold” (nice phrase) offers portraits of denizens noticed on the coast — “Lobster,” “The Net Mender,” “Meryl’s Place,” “Mainers.”
The emphasis is carefully on the visual object, like the dory itself, proceeding then to the sense the poet ties together from it. There’s a fascination in these poems for what cold looks like. Several poems try to work out the feel of lobstering in winter (describing, for example, the air cracking “as lobstermen / sledgehammer ice / from the bows / of their boats”). For someone who lives in hotternhell Houston, this imaginative effort seems kind of valiant when you consider that not even many of the lobstermen subject themselves to fishing in winter.
This all indicates that Larry Thomas has taken the trouble to try to understand the off season, beyond the watercolor postcard images of Camden Harbor. Not to go on and on, but there’s an admirable consistency here in the effort to clearly describe what’s seen and then match it to a quality of the indigenous speech. You get the feeling the poet is shocked by how cold it is here.
Larry Thomas’s other books include, recently, “A Murder of Crows” and “The Skin of Light,” available through his website larrydthomas.com.
Off Radar takes note of books with Maine connections about twice a month in the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel’s What’s Happening? Contact Dana Wilde at [email protected].