By James Lowe, 2015
Unpaginated, trade paperback, $12.95
I have the uneasy feeling that James Lowe, of Vassalboro, should already have been on my radar before his collection “Aroostook Sketches” alighted unlooked-for on my desk, but he wasn’t. These sketches turned out to be some of the most accomplished poems about Maine I’ve read in recent memory.
At the basic, literal level, which is where everything on this Earth begins, the poems in “Aroostook Sketches” are largely about sights, sounds and scents, specifically of camping trips in northern Maine. Their core beauty is accessible to everybody: sharp, spare depictions of the woods — “I’m watching two sharp-shinned hawks … wheel over”; camping gear — “… besides a canoe, pole, and paddle, I’m packing: / an L.L. Bean dome tent, Coleman stove and fuel, / Sven pack saw”; backwoods characters and their voices – as in “Something About the Aroostook: Grover Swett Telling It, 1969”; and recurrent references to specific places visited by canoe, footpath and pickup — “Millinocket Lake,” “Figuring Mooseleuk Stream,” “Oxbow Flats.”
And as in all good poetry, the delight in the surface imagery is just the beginning. The place names recur partly because they’re where the poet camped, but more because the very sound of the words is meaningful. He can’t seem to get over the profound delight of words like “Munsungun” and “Mooseleuk,” which appear over and over. In “Saying the River:”
It’s spring in northern Maine,
the Aroostook River there,
its streams and places —
Munsungun, Millinocket, the Forks,
Mooseleuk, La Pomkeag, Oxbow Flats —
I say them, remembering Rilke,
as if holding them in my hands
so that they will rise and last,
Rainer Maria Rilke was a turn-of-the-century German-language writer whose spiritual relationship with words heavily influenced a couple of generations of American poets. He’s one in a wide range of poets invoked by Lowe as bridges between the words, the woods and the spirit. Explicitly and implicitly influencing the “Aroostook Sketches,” and the poet’s sense of how language welds you to places, are, variously, Galway Kinnell, John Berryman, T.S. Eliot, Virgil, a range of Maine voices collected in University of Maine folklore archives, and at the end, the mythic Chinese poet Han Shan (the poem is “At Wassataquoit, for Han Shan”) whose Cold Mountain poems were translated by Gary Snyder, an American poet associated with the back-to-nature wing of the Beat movement (and incidentally, an early guide of Maine’s well-known poet Gary Lawless, of Brunswick).
This is all to say that while Lowe’s poems are very readable, they are also literate through several beautiful layers of allusion, figurative intelligence and prosodic mastery. They are in particular a tributary in the main stream traveled by Charles Olson, a Beat-related poet from Massachusetts whose “Maximus” poems emphasized the primacy of your literal place in the human universe and became, really, the material of a whole subfield of literary study.
One of Maine’s most accomplished postwar poets, Peter Kilgore, of Portland, also rode this current, and Lowe’s lines bear uncanny resemblances to Kilgore’s evocations of Maine places and voices in books such as “Drinking Wine Out of the Wind” and “The Bar Harbor Suite” (published by Lawless’ Blackberry Press in 1987).
Hawk riding a spruce top,
then another, teeteeeee,
an ensemble, the two
now round and round,
driving me out,
downriver on my pole.
Did this poem, titled “Exit,” come from “The Bar Harbor Suite” or from “Aroostook Sketches”? I don’t think anyone who didn’t already know it’s Lowe’s could tell.
These are craftily made, evocative, good-humored, deeply reflective poems about the Maine woods. A handful of them appeared in literary journals in the 1990s, but nowhere near what’s warranted. This book arrived as a UFO to me and turned into a point on my compass. Highly, highly recommended.
James Lowe is also the author of “The Creative Process of James Agee,” published in 1994 by Louisiana State University Press. Copies of “Aroostook Sketches” are available by emailing the author at [email protected].
Off Radar takes note of books with Maine connections every other week. Contact Dana Wilde at [email protected].