You’d never think so, going by the lack of hype and the unending grousing among literary people  about small readerships for poetry, but the fact is, poetry is being published in proliferation pretty much throughout the English-speaking world. I’ve said before that I’m not sure exactly what to make of this phenomenon. But it’s true in Maine too, and “Say What You Can” by Elizabeth Tibbetts, of Hope, offers another example of the skillful writing that’s under way hereabouts.

Tibbetts’ subject matter is in general deeply domestic, raveled from a strand of American poetry that drills into personal history, even its ugliest shards, in minute detail, and 60 years or so ago was named “confessional.” That term fell away quite awhile back, but Tibbetts’ version focuses, not unusually, on experiences in nature (“Two Slugs,” “Bird Woman”), life in the house and especially the kitchen (“Meat Loaf”), peculiar interactions in the world (“Energy,” on a garage mechanic), intense family relations ( “Never Mind,” in which the poem’s speaker rocks her newborn grandson to the exclusion of all other trouble in the world), and loneliness in several dimensions, including mnemonic (“Bus Ride to Boston,” “14 Penobscot Street”) and interior (“Winter Simple”: “this is my winter life at night / tucked in bed with Akhmatova”). These poems are somewhat unusual, in my experience at least, in their willingness to make authentic, experiential and sometimes close approaches to death — “Sometimes I wash the bodies of the dead.” You can learn things, here, about what it feels like to reach an age where this starts to be on your mind. Far beyond a postcard mentality.

This theme laces through section three of the book, which comprises a sort of lyric narrative of a late-life trip to Guatemala to track down a long-lost lover. These poems are sad, wistful, sometimes hard-edged with the irony that develops between hope, fear and reality. Remarkable in my experience of these poems is how closely the mood and atmosphere of heat-, dust-, poverty- and danger-stricken Guatemala resemble the mood and atmosphere of Portland novelist Agnes Bushell’s book “Days of the Dead,” about Guatemalan freedom fighters. Tibbetts’ rendition is intensely personal, while Bushell’s is intensely political, but it’s the same place. Similarities like this are signs of writing accurate to reality. Which is, after all, what we’re hoping for, whether that reality is physical, emotional, moral, spiritual, whatever else.

What “Say What You Can” says is well worth hearing.

But I repeat: I’m not sure who’s actually listening, despite the fact that here in Maine poetry of this high quality is being written pretty widely, and there are more publishers than you’d think. “Say What You Can” is published by Jeffrey Haste in Cumberland, whose arts-oriented Deerbrook Editions includes a healthy list of collections by accomplished Maine poets such as Leonore Hildebrandt, and Dennis Camire,  among others. And there’s Moon Pie Press in Westbrook, oft-mentioned in this column because publisher Alice Persons has brought out dozens of poetry collections by Maine writers in the past decade or so. Ramona Duhoux’s Solon Center for Research and Publishing’s “Coastal Maine in Words and Art,” will open a collaborative exhibit of art and writing Sept. 14 at Fukurou Gallery in Rockland. North Country Press in Unity has an expanding list of Maine poets. Littoral Books in Portland recently gave us “Balancing Act 2” and has collections by individual authors in the works. Resolute Bear Press in Robbinston. Limerock Books in Thomaston. In Farmington are Alice James Books, slightly upscale, you might say, because its authors are mainly national rather than local poets, and Encircle Publications,  whose Aurorean magazine publishes many Mainers.

There are more. But the point is that all superficial evidence to the contrary, local poetry is thriving, at least in terms of getting collections into print. Tibbetts’ well-wrought poems are an example. I hope they all get read.


Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine connections the first and third Thursdays of each month. Dana Wilde is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Contact him at [email protected]