“Swallows in Late September: New & Selected Poems”

I started my second read-through of Jonathan Ward’s “Swallows in Late September,” published by outgoing Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance Executive Director Joshua Bodwell’s operation, Harwood & Elwood, in Biddeford, with what some mystical poets call a “fall” — opening the book at a random page that may contain a strangely pertinent passage. As I cracked the book for the second time I was thinking, “Man, these are some somber poems.” And sure enough, I fell on “Forest Flame,” which after a few lines of ruminative setup declares:

On these days I feel I could dash my head

against the edge of cold red brick and concrete.

Yikes. How did I miss that the first time through?

The answer involves the fact that this time, I fell on the exact turning point of the book. Most of the first roughly two-thirds of “Swallows in Late September” is characterized by extremely somber descriptions of nature in its “mist-grey rain” and “mid-morning darkness” phases. Its slow-moving, deep-image-style imagery is derived largely from brooding family encounters and walking excursions around the author’s home on England’s east coast. On a beach, for example, he observes that “amongst broken things / the mind feels at home.” Somber, it all is, and given mainly in very short lines of extraordinary deliberation. Like his rambles, there’s no way to go quickly through this. So these earlier poems make up a slow descent to “Forest Flame,” by which time it’s not the least bit surprising to find out he’s thinking of bashing his own head in.

But toward the end of that poem, the speaker seizes on some lines from Raymond Carver that give him a way up: “turning outwards to the brightness / that follows the gloom; / making it through again.” Poetry uplifts. And many of the poems that follow involve brief, personal moments of illumination in nature. Several “fragments” have titles like “breaking through the chill morning,” “At first light” and “to wake again”; “Illumination (at Gurnard’s Head)” concludes, “the dark / sea / turns / to light.” Because the phrasing continues to feel overwhelmingly deliberate, the air of somberness never really dissipates. But there’s light at the end of Jonathan Ward’s tunnel. He does not do himself in, luckily.

Ward is not a mystic experiencing a dark night of the soul; he just seems to spend a lot of time feeling ruminatively somber, sometimes worse. But in the end, he’s picking up glints of light leaking out of the gloomy English countryside. The Sufi poets would call that a start.

“Swallows in Late September” is the first full-length book published by Harwood & Elwood. Bodwell has also brought out two letterpress publications, one of former Maine Poet Laureate Wesley McNair’s “Praise Song,” and another an excerpt from “Between Them,” a memoir by novelist Richard Ford, of East Boothbay. Just out, too, is the chapbook “Five Days & Ten Poems: On the Death of a Son” by David Mason Heminway, who lived in Damariscotta, containing an essay and poems.

Bodwell is departing his longtime job at MWPA on May 30 to join publisher David R. Godine Inc., in Boston.

Copies of “Swallows in Late September” are available by writing to Harwood & Elwood, P.O. Box 1682, Biddeford, ME 04005, or emailing [email protected]

 

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


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