“Routes: 20 Years of Tenants Harbor Poetry Readings”
Limerock Books, 15 Mechanic St., Thomaston, Maine, 2016
80 pages, trade paperback, $14
On Thursday, the Tenants Harbor poets will offer their 20th annual summer poetry reading. The longevity of the event is not an accident, as evidenced in “Routes,” their third collection to develop from the series.
In the core group of poets who come together each summer are Chris Fahy, David Riley, Mary Burchenal, Elizabeth Gordon McKim and Jonathan Aldrich, all well-represented in the collection. And joining them recently have been Nan Carey, Jean Frances Diemert, Alice Bingham Gorman, Margot Anne Kelley and Antonia Small, also with contributions to the book.
The distinguishing features of the Tenants Harbor poems are not just their readability and listenability (to make a distinction between the literal and sonic meanings of any good poetry), but also their down-to-earth humanity. That quality is especially evident in the storytelling poems of Fahy, Burchenal and Riley.
Burchenal, a high school teacher in Brookline, Massachusetts, and summer resident in Maine, has a special gift for telling stories from in and outside the classroom. If you have a teacher in your household, as I do, you can tell she must be a master just by the human layers in her narratives. “Maybe Back in School” begins:
“Don’t take it personally,” my student says, about his lateness,
his absences, his putting his head on his desk, his missing homework.
I smile. I am a professional in not taking things
personally. Every day in the classroom with teenagers
I hone my skills. I accept actions pointed in my general direction
and swim through them like a remarkable fish.
The word remarkable is remarkable, here, and to me sounds gratifyingly familiar, and deft in its layering of form and content. But further, Burchenal expands the looming metaphor with even greater skill: This poem unfolds the distasteful probability that “the guy running British Petroleum” during the disastrous Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 was little more than an unformed adolescent. “‘From now on, I take everything personally,’ I tell the boy / when class is over.” Gorgeous.
Fahy, of Thomaston, likewise is a master storyteller, as anyone who’s read his fiction (e.g., “Chasing the Sun,” based on the life and character of Rockland native poet Leo Connellan) knows. In “Temptation” he tells the wry story of surreptitiously touching, in his youth, a Bosch painting in the Brussels Museum of Ancient Art. “I speedily beat it / my heart pounding hard.” And in the crisp little anecdote “Indifference,” given here in its entirety, the irony glows:
Right before midnight the captain said,
“We’re changing course to skirt the conflict.”
All of us had heard about it:
mass destruction and mass murder.
“This adds twenty minutes to our flight.”
We groaned, then settled back, spoke softly,
shared a mini-feast of chocolate,
drifted off to sleep.
The war raged on below us to the east.
The poems of David Riley, of Providence, Rhode Island, also tell particularly touching stories about life as we know it, as in “Plain Pizza,” in which the boy next door brings, unannounced, a pizza to the narrator who’s laid up with a debilitating leg infection (“It wasn’t the pizza that got me; / It was the toppings that weren’t on it”). “Clearing the Rocks” elegiacally recounts the life of Dr. Charles T. Bingham, who “conjoined body and mind in the west half a century ahead of his time.”
Human compassion is a watchword throughout this collection, and there’s not enough space to specify every facet that may well get your attention — the skillful lyrics of Jonathan Aldrich, who taught at the Maine College of Art and whose most recent book is “Out of St. Orange”; two thoughtful descriptive poems by Margot Anne Kelley, of Port Clyde (“You point into the darkness, / guide my hand across Orion’s belt, / ease it south to Sirius”); and more.
The Tenants Harbor consort brought out its first collection, “Summer Lines,” in 2006; and its second, “Branching Out,” in 2011. “Routes” is equally worth your while to pick up and — as I have mentioned before of these books – actually read. I mean, this is not po-biz promotion; this is authentic love of good poetry. What a concept.
The 20th Tenants Harbor reading is being held 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 18, at the Odd Fellows Hall on Watts Avenue, Tenants Harbor. For more information, email [email protected].
Off Radar takes note of books with Maine connections every other week. Contact Dana Wilde at [email protected].