A long time ago my friend Steve Koelker and I used to drive his sky-blue VW beetle around backroads west of Portland listening to Steely Dan albums on cassette. We loved the music, it was true, but we put most of our energy into the song lyrics. We were convinced that each album (the ones before “Aja,” anyway) comprised a sort of rock and roll novel given song by song in clever, cryptic little narratives. There seemed to be clues and connections everywhere. The project was to figure out the plots.

Years later, we had never succeeded in much detail. But just the effort gave that music a lasting sense of coherence and depth. Nearly 50 years later, we still in our occasional long-distance correspondence make jokes out of lines from the songs that no one else could possibly get.

Around the time Steve and I were plumbing the depths of the Dan, Christopher Fahy was lining up a writing life that would lead him to Thomaston, Maine, where he has for many years been turning out novels and poems and organizing the Tenants Harbor poetry readings, among other literary efforts. His novel “Chasing the Sun,” based on the life and character of the colorful poet and Rockland native Leo Connellan, is a minor classic of Maine fiction. Last summer he published the novel “Winterhill,”  and the poetry collection “My Life in Water,” which is made up, interestingly, of prismatic little narratives.

What does any of this have to do with Steely Dan? The answer is: storytelling. Whether “Can’t Buy a Thrill” really is a rock and roll novel about the criminal underworld, I don’t know. But when every picture tells a story, and they get bundled together in one package, you have to watch for something larger going on. “My Life in Water” seems to be telling a life story with the same difficult-to-peg, but lurking sense of coherence as those Steely Dan albums. This sense of coherence is a signal of very good writing.

The collection begins with some dreamy, almost hallucinatory poems that slip in and out of memories of World War II and the holocaust — “Kafka’s Last Letter” (“There is no peace in Prague and never will be, Dora”) and “Cinema III”:

 

If — as some of you still contend —

it had actually happened —

If smoke from burning human flesh

had dimmed the summer sun —

could blond-headed boys and girls

have happily played in the meadows

beside the walls?

 

This is the eerie world of holocaust-denial, cast deep in memory and yet as present as a dream. History, maybe, is a nightmare from which all of us who grew up in the mid-20th century are trying to awake. “The dead remember nothing,” opens “Memento,” one of the most chilling ghost poems I’ve read in some time.

Following are several poems about boyhood – “Indian Summer,” “My Life in Water,” “My First Grade Enemy Speaks Through His Fists,” “Horror Show” (“Walking home after Dracula movies in August / with Bobby”), which on the surface seem unconnected to the horrors of World War II … but wait – there’s an emphasis in these poems on childhood “horrors.” Are there subsurface resonances here?

I think so, because as the characters and vignettes build up and mature, the thread is not only the difficulties of living, but the inside suffering of it. About halfway through the collection, we come upon a long series of poems that tell stories of a ravaging battle with cancer: from learning the diagnosis (“Five Years”: When the phone told me cancer / we fell on the bed in a roaring dream / and held each other”); “Whirlpool” (“Needles and tubes in the crooks of my elbows”); “Departure” (“Ten more sessions to go and no guarantees”); “Discharge” (“then one miraculous morning / I wake and want some tea.”). In “Lost and Found” we stop short on this chilling line, which summarizes a theme: “children go through this.” (Note: These poems are reminiscent of neighboring midcoast poet Dave Morrison’s “Cancer Poems.” )

The last roughly one-third of the collection pokes around in old age, sometimes poignantly (“End” begins: “He’s now the old man / he used to mock and pity”), and often with wry, ironic bemusement and wistfulness. The final poem, “You Blew It,” is a bouncing-beat set of rhyming quatrains listing everything that’s “too late” (“It’s too late to race a Harley / It’s too late to master French”), and ending on these eight lines:

 

Oh you’d love to swim the channel

learn to play a bongo drum

slash the planet like a pirate

always drunk on stolen rum

and you’d love to sail to Delphi

eat your breakfast with the Fates

chat with Socrates and Homer

but goddamn it, it’s too late.

 

Whether “My Life in Water” is an autobiography, exactly, I don’t know. A collection of poems, like a music album, doesn’t need to tell an overarching story. But to succeed, it needs to cohere. The poems need to resonate with each other, the way songs need to fit together by mood and key. In “My Life in Water,” you can feel, poem by lucid poem, glimpses from life cohering into what Steve and I would call a beautiful album. The music is sound, here, but the stories are the thing. “My Life in Water” is an unusually down-to-earth, clever, well-composed evocation of how personal wisdom surfaces across a lifetime. Rare in its directness and depth.

Christopher Fahy has received awards for his writing from Atlanta Review and the Maine Arts Commission, as well as a Distinguished Achievement award from the University of Maine at Augusta. “My Life in Water” and Fahy’s other books are available online or by writing to Limerock Books,  15 Mechanic St., Thomaston, ME 04861 or [email protected]

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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