“Plumb Line: Poems”

By Steve Luttrell

North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, Calif., 2015

104 pages, trade paperback, $12.95

I first crossed paths with Steve Luttrell at Bookland on Congress Street in Portland sometime in the late 1970s. The bespectacled, long-haired guy behind the counter congratulated me on buying an obscure paperback about modern art titled “Man’s Rage for Chaos.” I guess he was thinking: this is an unusual bookstore customer, while I was thinking: this is an unusual bookstore clerk. How right I, at least, turned out to be.

While my Grub-Streetish pursuits took me on a haywire set of journeys radiating initially from Portland, then from Waldo County, Luttrell made Portland the center of his literary universe, and he is still shaping it now. His new book, “Plumb Line,” is the most recent of nine collections of poetry going back to “The Green Man” and “Conditions” from the early ’90s, through “Pemaquid” and “Twelve Moons” in the 2000s.

These are on top of his producing The Cafe Review for 26 years and counting — quite a run for a small literary magazine. It was born in 1989, in some ways a descendant of Contraband, possibly Maine’s best-known little magazine of the 1970s and early ’80s.

“I was very aware of what Bruce Holsapple was doing with Contraband,” Luttrell told me in a recent email, “and respected it very much. As a matter of fact, we did a Contraband Tribute Issue in our first year of publication.”

While Holsapple migrated from Portland in the mid-’80s, Luttrell remained, and Cafe Review grew out of a collaboration with legendary Portland bookstore owner Pat Murphy.

“We actually assembled some of the early issues in (Murphy’s) apartment over his first bookshop on High Street,” Luttrell recalled. Murphy later moved Yes Books to an out-of-the-way location on Danforth Street, to which was attached the Cafe No, a gathering spot for on- and off-radar writers and artists. While Murphy died in 2009, Yes Books persisted, in association with the magazine, under the management of Russ Sargent.

Luttrell’s contributions to Maine letters extend well beyond TCR. A graduate of North Yarmouth Academy and Franklin Pierce College (now University) in New Hampshire, he organized regular poetry readings for about 20 years at Woodfords Cafe, Cafe No, Oak Street Theater and One Longfellow Square; served as Portland’s poet laureate from 2009 to 2011; garnered two Best American Poetry awards for the magazine; and hosted The Poets Cafe local TV show (scheduled to resume this fall).

Luttrell’s own poetry is well-represented in “Plumb Line,” released last month. It features the short, spare lines of a strand of postwar American verse exemplified in Robert Creeley (himself a friend of Cafe Review). The poems tend to wend through a series of terse imagery and complexities, then unfold on a disarming simplicity: as in, for example, “Days” (“some / can seem so short”) or “A Treasure” (in which “Your soft, small / body” turns out to be, touchingly, “a soft small memory / for long dark nights”). “The Effort,” though I’m not sure what literal program it refers to, might apply in a lot of situations, and ends on just such a beautiful, simple trope (liner notes omitted, here):

Never got to it —

Never quite arrived —

and what did

we expect: that

it would be

as we imagined?

I said

no expectations.

Still, no regrets.

We made the effort

and the effort

had its moments.

It’s a fact.

These poems offer no solutions, but instead — as does all good poetry — momentary stays against the confusion all around. You could say this about Steve Luttrell’s whole literary life, which for decades has been an unusual ordering force amid the literary chaos.

“Plumb Line” is available in bookstores and online. Cafe Review’s website is www.thecafereview.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].