“Breathe Here: Selected Poems” by Ellie O’Leary; North Country Press, Unity, Maine, 2020; 84 pages, paperback, $14.95.

Ellie O’Leary spent years providing intimate access to Maine poets on her Writers Forum program on WERU radio. Now, her too-long-delayed first collection of poetry provides an intimate look into her own life.

O’Leary grew up in the Waldo County town of Freedom, “long on scenery and nature, / long on good people who mean well.” But perhaps the most affecting poems in the collection reveal that her childhood memories of the place are suffused by extraordinary loneliness: “everything here says everything but freedom.” Different poems explore the death of her mother (“Early on, while you’re still young, / You shouldn’t have to lose your mother”) and the emotional detachment of her father, the single parent who “was an odd duck, which is a strange way / to describe a man who couldn’t swim, / probably never tried,” just as he gave up trying odd jobs because “such work wouldn’t work out.” He dies a few years after the mother.

The book continues on as a sort of episodic, lyric narrative tracing a lifelong uphill battle to get this all sorted out. The underpinning momentum is her disposition to write. The defining poem of the collection might be “Six Characters in Search,” a kind of poetic analysis of the poet’s own gestalt: “Crazy Lady In The Attic”; “Wife And Mother No Longer A Wife”; “Motherless Child”; “She’s An Artist She Don’t Look Back” (cf. the Bob Dylan song “She Belongs to Me”); “Successful Business Woman Who Didn’t Make It In The End”;  “Volunteer Here, Volunteer Everywhere.”

An extremely matter-of-fact voice distills each image and feeling to the sharpest possible bite in the plainest possible sentences. This plain-spokenness reminded me throughout of the plain-spokenness of Camden poet Dave Morrison. They both apply this simple rhetorical device, often wryly, to much of the same personal subject matter, Morrison evoking in his way a sense of curious bafflement, O’Leary in her way a sense of somber bafflement, both determined to make something meaningful and usable out of it in language, thought and feeling.

Morrison might have written “The House,” imbuing it differently, to a different effect, but saying the same thing in a very similar way:

 

Even though we called it the house,

not home, and I had not lived

there for years, I never emotionally

moved out of that old place

where I grew up

before it physically collapsed

onto itself. Hearing the news,

I drove there,

stopped across the street,

looked up from my car,

at the rubble.

 

Good.

I’ll never have to

try living there

again.

 

I don’t know if these are kindred, or synchronistic, or merely stylistic similarities, but distinct harmonics detonate, at least for me, between these two midcoast Maine voices.

Ellie O’Leary worked for years as an under-the-publishing-radar force in Maine’s poetry world, and recently moved to Amesbury, Massachusetts, where she now serves as poet laureate. I wish we’d had a collection of her poetry to go on a long time ago. It bites deep, and echoes there.

“Breathe Here” is available by direct order from North Country Press, through local book stores, and from 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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