“Where You Happen to Be: poems,” by Leonore Hildebrandt

Leaves Surface Like Skin,” by Michelle Menting

A National Endowment for the Arts survey turned up a curious development recently. The preliminary figures of their 2017 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts indicate that since 2012, Americans are reading poetry in significantly increasing numbers.

That’s weird.

For as long as I can remember thinking about this, going back about 50 years, poets, professors and others have groused about the negligible audience for poetry. Why they think more people should be reading poetry is a different topic. But I can tell you one disconcerting example in which a graduate student in creative writing one day told me, without shame, that he did not understand poetry, did not like poetry, and did everything in his power to avoid reading poetry. He read mostly fiction. I remember thinking: This is like a basketball player saying he avoids handling the ball.

So with antipathy toward poetry even in the English department, it seems weird for the NEA to discover a rise in poetry-reading rates. The study found that while the percentage of adults reading books of any kind decreased by about 2 percent between 2012 and 2017, the percentage of adults reading poetry increased by 5 percent, from 6.7 to 11.7 percent. That’s still down from 12.1 percent in 2002. But in a different statistical light, the rate of increase from 2012 to 2017 was 76 percent. And while poetry reading increased to one extent or another in all the study’s categories, such as age, gender, race, income and education level, the share of 18-24-year-olds reading poetry more than doubled.

Weird, but encouraging among those of us who sense aesthetic, moral, spiritual, and other kinds of practical value in poetry. Are young people finally developing methods of crumbling the mind-numbing barriers erected by computer screens and allowing through the innate forces of language? Discovering that you get more out of a well-written poem than most Instagram images, even if, like my grad student friend, you don’t know what it is?

Anyway, to crack open the door a little wider, maybe, let me mention two more of the many collections I’ve received this year.

Deerbrook Editions in Cumberland brought out Leonore Hildebrandt’s third book, “Where You Happen to Be.” The Harrington resident is quietly one of Maine’s most meticulous writers, as evidenced in “The Next Unknown” and “The Work at Hand.”

In the new book she kind of ups the ante on poetic precision by focusing attention on the difficulties of knowing and describing where you are, physically and psychically, at any given point in space-time. Early poems suggest the importance of locations within range of home. In “After Learning”: “I ran to the margins bordering north / where the land ends and the sea ends. / In the quiet, I could hear my own heartbeat.”

In the second section, locations are measured in spatial geometries of the Southwest: “If Earth is divided / into latitudes and longitudes / you still find a place to sit” among boulders, lizards and sun. The point, oversimplified, is that the “location” of who and where you are is difficult to pin down; language helps, but imperfectly. Hence the absorbing effort to perfect the poems.

Hildebrandt, a native of Hamburg, Germany, teaches at the University of Maine and is an editor for Beloit Poetry Journal.

Down the coast, the Belfast Free Library has displayed copies of Michelle Menting’s first full poetry collection, “Leaves Surface Like Skin.” The poems here treat, variously and together, the natural world, the interpersonal, the strange relationships between past and present, and the ways language intercedes, interferes and interplays in those experiences. The tone is generally reflective, and frequently dreamlike. Many of the poems turn into slow-rolling boils of images that fit together sometimes seamlessly, sometimes sort of cubistically. “Springs Eternal” moves intuitively from “northerner,” snow, shovel, garage, mudroom and galoshes to rodent burrows, chill, and finally waking up “hungover / from a party you never did crash.” A few pages earlier, “On Learning It’s the Midwestern Weather That Makes Us All Crazy” runs through a welter of zigzag imagery, from rain, maple syrup, manholes in Chicago, pigs on bicycles, drunkenness and Starbucks, to “We drive our car to the pedestrian mall.”

In “On Lake Halfsestina” — the place name rolling together the poet’s preoccupations with nature and language, it seems — one line may capture the entire collection’s core sensibility: “We wonder: who out there knows what tranquility feels like?” Wondering is a kind of bewilderment alongside the literal question. Odd angles of multidimensional questioning and the elusiveness of tranquility seem to lurk underneath practically every poem in the book.

With this collection, Menting, who works in the Belfast library and teaches at the University of Southern Maine, throws a native upper midwesterner’s hat into Maine’s poetic ring. Further broadening a growing audience, it is to be hoped.

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

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