“Elegies and Valedictions” By Burton Hatlen

Virginia Nees-Hatlen, ed.

National Poetry Foundation, Orono, Maine, 2017

56 pages, trade paperback, $10

Burton Hatlen was a force in Maine poetry almost from the moment he arrived at the University of Maine English department in 1967. From then until his death in 2008, he guided and inspired generations of students, scholars and writers, joined professor Carroll F. Terrell in making Orono into a worldwide nexus for the study of modern poetry, was one of the first literary critics to treat his student Stephen King as a serious writer, and under the academic radar, wrote his own accomplished poetry.

UMaine professor Virginia Nees-Hatlen, his widow, spent several years combing through and carefully editing that poetry, and the outcome is a slim but forceful volume of Hatlen’s later verse. It is haunting stuff, in a variety of ways.

Eight of the 10 poems in this collection are addressed directly to particular people, most of them lost or departed. The first four are titled “letters” — “A Letter to Alan Devendish,” “to Sheldon, My Brother,” “to My Father,” and “to Ezra Pound,” the looming eminence in modern poetry who was the focus of Terrell’s groundbreaking project. Later in the collection come “A Letter to Ron Miao, Fifty Years Late,” and “The Long, Slow Letting Go — for Callie Fenn,” a friend who, like the poet, battled a long illness.

The striking thing about these poems (leaving aside the prosodic complexities, which there is not space to treat here) is their arresting reflective atmosphere — wistful but not sentimental, apprehensive but determined, allusive but not obscure. Each poem addresses its own set of emotional intensities, from long-delayed revelations of the heart to old friends like Devendish and Miao, to complicated disentanglings of feeling deep in the family past, including dreamlike recollections of visits to an ancestral town in Norway. The collection’s salient themes of the consequential inconsequential details of the everyday, how they shape a literary sensibility, and what they look like as the horizon of life approaches, are summed up in lines from near the end of the opening poem:

So I wanted to write to you, Alan, in this

cadence I’ve never tried before, not quite

prose. Because, once we know we’re going

to die, even if we learn to think of death

the way Emily and Walt and Will S. thought

of it, and maybe even Hugo too, we still

have to decide what to do with our lives,

after the Globe, the tedium of Sunday afternoons,

when you can’t stand another football game.

Anyway, writing to you seemed the right

thing to do, if only to say, I thought of you

The poet speaks directly to Virginia in “For Virginia, Driving in Indiana” and “A Long Conversation,” recalling consequential moments from their life together. While the details are intimately personal, these poems really, in their measured cadences, pour universal feeling directly from the wells of the heart.

… suddenly as I sit

At my desk, here’s the sun, and I think that maybe

This is what they meant by grace, the old ones,

A gift we didn’t even know how to ask for

“Mappings” offers a courageous evocation of exactly what it looks and feels like to drive through the Maine woods to a doctor’s office with “the bad news on the seat beside me” And finally “Dream Poem / A Seaside Walk on Mount Desert Island,” whose genesis Virginia describes in some detail in her introduction, closes out the collection on that haunting note.

A real strangeness of atmosphere accumulates as you read through this book, partly because the voice that is speaking is so forceful in its self-awareness of, not only the emotions it’s handling in the moment of composition, but also its presence in a future in which the poet himself is finally absent. Which is now. These poems reflect a sense of a literary life well-lived, and a world you feel invited, honored and fascinated to share, which is exactly what Hatlen created for his students and colleagues, and why he remains one of the remembered and revered teachers and scholars of the past fifty years in Maine.

Hatlen’s first collection of poetry was “I Wanted to Tell You” (1988), and he made recordings of many of the poems in “Elegies and Valedictions” for Vox Audio, available online through M.etropolis Jazz and Poetry M.arketplace (m-etropolis.com/blog/burt-hatlen-new-poems-vox-audio.) “Elegies and Valedictions” is available by contacting the National Poetry Foundation at the University of Maine in Orono at [email protected] or 581-3813.

Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine connections the first Thursday of each month. Contact Dana Wilde at [email protected].