“How the Stones Came to Venice” by Gary Lawless; Littoral Books, Portland, Maine, 2021; 80 pages, paperback, $18.95.

“How the Stones Came to Venice”

Gary Lawless, who for a variety of reasons has been one of the bright lights on Maine’s literary radar for about 50 years now, has a new book, “How the Stones Came to Venice.” It’s not an easily summarized book, but it’s the most magical I’ve read in a while.

I use the word “magical” advisedly. The book’s overall effect is to accumulate into a spell that has guided your mind through what feels like a vast, intricately meaningful dream.

What that dream is about: The book’s origins involve a journey Lawless and his wife, Beth Leonard, made to Venice to research the stone the island city is built from. Some of the stones turned out to be from granite quarries in Maine and Vermont, others from neighboring Croatia, Greece, and Turkey. Lawless and Leonard visited all these places. The book comprises a series of poems and short prose pieces written in and about these visits, with illustrations.

The poems are made of diction and statements so simple they by themselves can seem almost childlike. In “Driving home from Belfast” (where Lawless grew up), “I hear the granite singing / And it is alive” – kind of new-agey sounding and so bald as to seem superficial. But they build up along a winding road from Belfast, to the quay in Venice where modern literature’s greatest teacher Ezra Pound walked, to a Greek Orthodox ceremony for the environment, to Istanbul where “every / stone … / Contains a prayer”, back to Casco Bay and “Damariscotta Lake” near Lawless and Leonard’s home in Nobleboro, where these lines, similar in simplicity to those of the singing granite, now seem imbued with a powerful sense of the ancient natural history of all our surroundings:

 

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Do the loons tell their children

Stories of this lake?

Do the stones remember the glacier?

In the clay, clamshells from

Ten thousand years –

Do they dream of the ocean?

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It’s as simple as that, and as complex. For the poetic rhetoric that’s at work here is that of Pound’s “Cantos,” where phrases and fragments containing history build up into the music of mystical ideas (as UMaine scholar Carroll Terrell explained in his book about Pound’s poetry, “Ideas in Reaction”). One of Pound’s refrains concerned “the stone taking form in the air,” an image implying the aesthetic relation between sculpture and poetry; we find the echo of this exact imagery on page 1 of “How the Stones Came to Venice”: “Spirit rising through rock, / sung out.” Pound himself turns up, in Venice, 15 pages later.

The book is illustrated with photos and digital art (including alchemical symbols) and set in fonts of manual typewriters from the Pound era, all laid tastefully on glossy paper colored to look yellowed and ancient. The result is a book of environmental poetry containing history that casts the same kind of spell as the “Cantos,” if you know how to read.

Lawless and Leonard have operated Gulf of Maine Books in Brunswick for decades. “How the Stones Came to Venice” is available through Littoral Books and local book sellers.

• • • • •

“In Light of Stars” by Bruce Willard; Four Way Books, New York, 2021; 80 pages, paperback, $16.95.

“In Light of Stars”

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“In Light of Stars” is the third collection of poetry by part-time Boothbay Harbor resident Bruce Willard. Cast in mainly brief lines and sometimes peculiarly fragmentary phrasing, the book’s roughly three dozen poems ruminate on personal memories and poignant domestic moments in a kind of dreamy, starlit glow.

Typical of the imagery and rhetoric, “An Image of Heaven” begins: “One pattern in the sky means rain is close, / another, high winds aloft. // There’s a way stars want to be seen.” This turns out to be dreamy imagery right away, because star patterns don’t prognosticate rain or wind, but clouds can. The poem works it way through plane contrails, a mockingbird’s “circle of songs,” and the speaker’s plaint that he used to be able to identify patterns in such things, but no longer:

 

Now I’m less sure

 

than of the opaque fullness

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storm clouds withhold in summer

 

when we gather to hear the sound

of evening breaking apart

 

The uncompleted phrasing of “I’m less sure (of these things) than of …” and the gauzy abstraction “opaque fullness,” which storm clouds somehow “withhold,” all create a kind of semantic synesthesia that becomes concrete in “the sound of evening breaking apart,” an expression in the range of Rod McKuen’s exhortation, in another era, to “listen to the warm.” At the end of the poem the clouds return, gently prompting “fellowship with the lonely / starships of the night.”

This overall dreamlike personal mood dispensed by most of the poems brings to mind the phrase “self-portrait in a convex mirror,” and there may well be an underlying influence of John Ashbery here, too, whose book of that title made the rounds among American poets of the 1970s and ’80s, particularly those of the confessional strands.

Bruce Willard operates a clothing retail and design business in Southern California and is the author of “Violent Blues” and “Holding Ground,” both available along with “In Light of Stars”  from Four Way Books and online book sellers.

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

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