“A Ladder of Cranes”
By Tom Sexton
University of Alaska Press, Fairbanks, Alaska, 2015
72 pages, paperback, $14.95
Tom Sexton’s poetry, true to the title of his 2011 book “I Think Again of Those Ancient Chinese Poets,” takes a lot of poetic cues from traditional Chinese poetry — and possibly from Thoreau, the best-known philosopher of the poet’s native state: simplicity, simplicity, simplicity. His lines are simply stated with simply framed images, and like the poetry and philosophy of his influences, the simplicity is not facile, but essential.
This has held true over Tom Sexton’s long poetic life, most of which has been based (after leaving Massachusetts decades ago) in Alaska, where he taught at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, and served as the state’s poet laureate from 1995 to 2000. Like most of us from this corner of the world, he could never get his soul free of New England, and so for years he has spent every other winter at his house in Eastport. The biennial drive back and forth across the continent has given him — and us — moments like this:
On a Sunday afternoon west of Winnipeg
without a truck on our tail for mile after mile
past fields still covered with melted snow,
beneath a sky so clear it’s about to disappear
while we listen to a soprano singing
Schubert’s Ave Maria on the car’s radio,
a ladder of cranes lifting, moving away
over a windbreak with almost visible leaves.
The Chinese influence is recognizable in two ways: the directness of the language, and the arrangement of the images. The words are given so simply that the poem doesn’t even make a complete sentence, and the images — truck, fields, sky, music, cranes — are arranged neatly side by side in a sort of ascending order until your eye is filled with the cranes (cranes being, notably, an emblem of long life in traditional Chinese poetry). It is a moment of astonishing beauty.
This natural beauty is the essence of what you get from Tom Sexton. “The aim of all art,” another poem wryly says, “… is to lead us toward light / even when the artist’s eye is cold or dark.” These few tightly made lines of verse go to the essence of what philosophers and artists from all the ages have tried millions of words to explain.
And indeed, different glints of light are shed, here, mostly by making words a prism of the natural world. There are wolves, fireweed, blackberries, stars, galaxies, dust, Down East blueberry barrens, all kinds of birds, and the moment getting on toward winter dusk in “Eastport, Maine”:
A dragger, lights on, heads for the breakwater.
Over Campobello Island, moon rising, scallop-white.
There is seldom any explicit postmodern edge here, but inside the simplicity is a full awareness of the suffering inside our complicated, raucous lives. Maybe Thoreau’s words on living here – “instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail” — transform in the 21st century to Sexton’s: “I feel a stirring, a faint hope, in my heart / that our journey is also out of the dark.”
These poems, like stars, offer extremely well-made flickers of light to whoever tends to look up at the sky rather than downward to the darkness.
“A Ladder of Cranes” is Tom Sexton’s 13th collection of poems, available from University of Alaska Press and online booksellers. On the web: www.alaska.edu/uapress/browse/detail/index.xml?id=519 ]
Off Radar appears about twice a month in the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel’s What’s Happening? Contact Dana Wilde at [email protected].