“One Day in One Town: Poems,” by James McKenna

James McKenna’s second book,“One Day in One Town,” takes us roughly, as its four sections indicate, from morning through night of a day in a fictional town called Kennebec — in the vicinity, inevitably, of Augusta. And of the author’s hometown, Hallowell, which is near Gardiner, the basis of Edwin Arlington Robinson’s fictional Tilbury Town, to which the subject matter in “One Day in One Town” bears some resemblances. Around the same time Robinson was writing, about a hundred years ago, Edgar Lee Masters’ “Spoon River Anthology” covers similar subjects: All three poets draw pictures of everyday people in everyday settings, warming the heart and afflicting it with life’s ironies and sufferings.

McKenna’s heartwarmings and afflictions are often evoked in a single exemplary moment. “She Talks” shows us the first date between a young nurse who cannot stop talking and a young man whose sister has to remind him to speak at all. The poignant “Winter Walking on Union Hill” in the first stanza pictures a laughing young couple making their way on a slippery street, and in the second stanza, the man, now elderly, carefully navigating the same snowy street “alone, head down, weight / forward, knees slightly bent. / It’s as if he were slowly falling. / He’s learned to walk in winter.”

“Mr. Sam” conveys a physician’s memories of quirky house calls, in one of which he ambivalently stitches up a wounded cat. This poem has an atmosphere of the 1950s, or maybe earlier. “The Economics of Fast Food,” decades further on in time, depicts a young couple sharing simple meals in innocent, hopeful love at “Dom’s,” then later shows them glumly at “McDonald’s” consulting over

$1 coffees and

cooling Happy Meals.

While in Play Place their

children climb and sing.

Until Adam Smith’s invisible

hand gently sorts

this son with that

mother, this daughter

with that father, and

the next week begins.

Poems like “Courtroom Three, Arraignment Day, the Bailiff Calls the Court to Order” and “Civil Motions in Courtroom Four” — drawn no doubt from McKenna’s long experience in the Maine attorney general’s office and as a volunteer lawyer for low-income people — help enumerate and evoke the turbulence and class divisions of the town. In the book’s time, it’s all timeless. The house-call physician, the $1 McDonald’s coffee, and the young nurse’s thankfulness for the Affordable Care Act all occur on the same eternal day, from morning to afternoon to evening to night. It’s a book of perceptive snapshots, from innocence to grief, from youth to old age, of life in central Maine.

James McKenna is also the author of “The Common Law.” Both books are available from Moon Pie Press.

“Boy on a Doorstep: New and Selected Poems,” by Richard Foerster

Richard Foerster’s accomplished poetry has been appearing for years in local and national venues, and he’s received NEA and Maine Arts Commission fellowships and Maine Literary awards for poetry (2007 and 2011). His new book, “Boy On a Doorstep,” is a selection of poems from his earlier collections, going back to “Patterns of Descent” (1993) through “River Road”  (2015), together with several dozen “New Poems.”

Foerster, who lives in Eliot, is a master of what I keep calling the high poetic diction of our time. His subject matter ranges widely, from the natural world (poems like “Cowrie” and “Red-bellied Woodpecker” cleverly link items in nature to human states of mind), to deep personal recollection (“Boy on a Doorstep” reflects on a childhood photo, painful), to the ambiguities of human relationships (“River Road” unfolds the truly dimension-like hopes and fears of a long-ago love affair during a recollection of “our drives back to my house in Ogunquit”).

Foerster’s special facility for telling stories in verse is well-represented in this selection. In the simple narrative “Watercress,” the speaker of the poem, while checking out at the grocery store, is asked by a young cashier, “Did you find everything you were looking for?” The speaker, “looking deep into his earnest face,” replies that the store does not seem to stock watercress. “What’s watercress?” the cashier says. This launches the narrator into a bittersweet reverie on youth, naivete and wisdom, ending on a common yet cleverly used figure of speech: “I knew to hold my tongue.” Beautiful.

Copies of “Boy on a Doorstep” are available from Tiger Bark Press  and online book sellers.

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].

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