“Observed from a Skin Boat: Poems 1975-2005”
By John Holt Willey
Moon Pie Press, Westbrook, 2014
98 pages, trade paperback, $15
Here in Maine, the weather is everything. Not just in blizzards, ice storms and March, oddly, but in the bomb of early summer and especially in fall, when you’d think it would matter least because that’s when it’s most comfortable. But stepping outside into September in Maine is such an intensity of beauty it’s practically a religious experience to some of us.
John Willey, of Waterville, is one of those Mainers who can barely stand up straight in it. And while no talking can ever say it, he can’t stop pointing to the beauty — whether it’s summer’s, winter’s, wind’s, water’s, people’s, fire’s or ice’s. It’s what “Observed from a Skin Boat,” his collection of stray and occasional poems reeled in over a lifetime, is about.
“Salt God” begins:
More like a state of mind,
My people, the souls
the rest of the nation find
are just a more reflective folk,
able to find a comfort
many don’t between
a rock and a hard place.
The place itself is rock, water, trees
on days it doesn’t freeze
your soul, your toes
and your skidder to intractability.
In these lines are the weather, the taciturnity and the wry ironies of living here that are so complicated a craftily used cliche actually conveys them.
The contradictions of January that make September are on practically every page. Of his wife (in 1981) of 20 years: “the years keep adding beauty to your youth.” On the 9/11 catastrophe: “Tired of trying / To redeem this winter-year … I put my boat on the North Bay, / Intending circumnavigation.” Of the camaraderie of the church choir: “What most we love we need to sing.” Opening the poem “Notions in Neutral, Waiting for a Green Light”: “Sometimes I’d rather chickadees than people.”
I was out of the country in the fall of 2001 and didn’t experience the shock firsthand, and I haven’t gone to church in a long time. But I do live in the brook-bullied ledgy backwoods of rock, water, trees and sky; my wife keeps looking astonishingly younger all the time; the chickadees are my choir mates; and (to point to another shared sensibility): “The word is my shaper, I shall / not flaunt. He maketh me / tone down my grace notes.”
Some kind of confluence of local light and peculiarly local ambiguity arrives when, after showing archaeologist Mark Hedden an arrowhead, he observes:
Time is different here.
Light slips through the trees
At its own mysterious angle
Into water silently refracting
What you think you know
Or used to know
There are few more accurate expressions of what Maine feels like than in these lines.
These poems are wandering in form, many with hit or miss rhyme schemes and a peculiar tendency to center all the lines. But busting out of them like milkweed silk is some of the purest local energy I’ve encountered. For years I’ve carried around a mental list of writers who seem to have lived in the same contradictory set of seasons I do. It includes Patricia Ranzoni, Ruth Moore, Carolyn Chute, Stephen King, Leo Connellan and E.A. Robinson among a few others. To it I add John Holt Willey.
If you want to catch a glimpse of some of the actual mental weather in these parts, you should read this little book.
“Observed from a Skin Boat” is available from Moon Pie Press, www.moonpiepress.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].