This summer Tom Moore, Belfast’s poet laureate, slipped me a book I had not heard of (no surprise — how many books among the myriad cranking-out of small and one-off publishers have I not heard of?) but should have. The author, Karie Friedman, lived in Montville, a Waldo County town that if not exactly adjacent to Troy at least is geographically kindred and, as it happens, has contained backwoods acquaintances.

Anyway, the book is “Add Water, Add Fire,” a collection representing basically Friedman’s life’s poetic work, which was in the last stages of preparation when she died unexpectedly after a short illness in September 2017. Her literary friends — including Moore, his wife, Leslie, and Judy Kaber, members of Friedman’s Poets’ Table writers group — completed the work and, with the help of Moon Pie Press in Westbrook, published the book late last year. Good idea. These poems are diamonds in the backwoods rough.

Friedman, a magazine editor for much of her working life, handled the language with exceptional precision and grace. Her lines are cast in the conventional conversational idiom of contemporary poetry, yet with the formal grammatical constructions that amount to American poetry’s high poetic diction. In other words, her verse sentences are “accessible,” to use a creative writing workshop term for poetry that’s understood on a literal, rational level, but they are also not generally sentences humans would naturally speak in the heat of some emotion, either.

In a passage like the following, Friedman characteristically raises mundane, everyday subject matter to a different emotional height through formal syntactic precision; “Rural Renewal” (note the characteristic wry play on a familiar phrase) depicts the demolition of a fallen-down barn:

Two hours’ work and we had a view of the pasture

across a patch of ground impervious

to shovel or plow, too treacherous to mow,

salted with iron cut nails.

In these sharp, accessible lines, three modifying phrases are lined up after “patch of ground”; this is perfect grammar and diction. But when we speak, we rarely if ever talk like this. Usually we place our modifiers before our nouns — a ‘good poem,’ not a ‘poem good’ — and we don’t normally use more than one or two at a time, especially when the modifiers are whole phrases. So these poetic lines are at a level of formality heightened from everyday speech. This kind of syntax can short-circuit in any number of ways, from humdrum to distastefully pretentious, but in this collection, Friedman demonstrates a mastery that keeps the formality fresh.

Her poems cover all kinds of personal anecdote and observation, from her days working as a trucking dispatcher, such as “Family Days at J.M. Jones,” to her life since the back-to-the-land ’70s in Waldo County, such as “Tracey’s trailer is on fire” and “New Neighborhood”: “Beyond my porch-light’s weak-broth / radius, on Frye Mountain, Hogback, / Kingdom Bog, creatures without need / even of moonlight slip across dim meadows.” And lines like these from “Spinning Time,” on the activities of a spider, grace the whole collection: “all it can do is spin, / entrusting to the wind diagonals of longing, / ribs of sorrow, dewstrung ghosts of / praise.”

“Wind diagonals,” “dewstrung” — beautiful phrasing. Well-spun poetry, it keeps turning out, is everywhere, probably in the vicinity of your own town, if you’re lucky enough to get snagged in it. Or even better, put yourself in its way. “It’s time / for good arachnids to seize the day,” as Karie Friedman observed of the spiders.

Copies of “Add Water, Add Fire” are available by emailing Judy Kaber, [email protected]. Friedman’s website remains online at kariefriedman.com/home.

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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