The last place on Earth you’d think the Muse might make an appearance is in the stern, marbled halls of justice.
But to Maine Assistant Attorney General James “Jim” McKenna of Augusta, the subject matter for inspired poetry is to be found — not while wandering “o’er vales and hills” — but while unraveling the entangled web of crimes and misdemeanors.
Law and poetry may seem to be strange bedfellows, but to McKenna, there are no irreconcilable differences between the two.
“In law, you’re dealing with legal rights; in poems, you’re dealing with emotional rights. As a lawyer, you have to put yourself in the shoes of your client. You have to understand,” he said.
That point of view is summed up in his short verse
I listened with specific sympathy.
But not to your words.
Your trembling hand — that
was the material fact
• • •
“Whether dealing with the legal world or poetry world, at the end, you’re always dealing with people. Consumers who contact our office are in bad shape and need help. When you write poems, you are writing about the same type of people,” he said.
McKenna has been an assistant attorney general for 30 years. His job involves consumer protection, enforcing the Maine Unfair Trade Practices Act and working with a large group of volunteers who mediate consumer complaints. He lives only two miles from his office at the State House in Augusta.
“I ride a bike when the weather is good,” he said.
Dry, ironic humor is the hallmark of his work, as seen in the prose-poem
“Waiting for Her Uncontested Divorce”:
When we first met
he seemed to me better than
a daily paper — all the breaking news,
odd facts, comics.
But later, he seemed
all editorials and letters that
were never answered.
Oh, and personal ads.
And legal notices.
• • •
“A lot of my poems are plainspoken,” said McKenna. His material is loosely based on real-life cases and experiences, but names and situations are fictionalized.
“Basically, I take notes when ideas seem weighty or resonant enough to merit a poem,” he said.
He rarely writes in the first person.
“I’m more interested in writing about other people. I’m trying to accurately describe the different hands that people get dealt.”
Recently, he has compiled an unpublished collection of poems titled ”The Common Law.” Currently, he is sending out the manuscript to publishers.
His poems have been published in various literary reviews, such as Negative Capability, an angry, hip, New York ’zine; The Cafe Review, a quarterly based in Portland; and The Literary Review, a quarterly published by Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey.
“My publication credits are about two poems a year, over 30 years. … I get a lot of rejections. My wife says, why don’t I just send my poems to her and let her reject them,” he said.
His poetry occupies an unusual literary niche, in that it deals largely with everyday people hit by a host of legal woes. Some poems reflect on law-school days. One poem, “Kennebec Police Log, June 11,” strings together 12 haikulike, three-line verses inspired by a daily cop log — human calamities condensed in a nutshell.
“Probably, you can’t major in law-related poetry. It’s somewhat unique,” said McKenna, who graduated this past June with a master’s in fine arts degree in writing and literature from Bennington College in Bennington, Vt.
He took the two-year, low-residency course, because being a poet is a lonely vocation, he said. And, he could take the course while working.
“It’s one of the reasons why I wanted to go to Bennington. For the past so many years, I was writing completely alone. I thought it would be good to mix with like-minded people. It was something I always wanted to do.”
For the course, he had to read five poetry books per month, write poetry reviews and compose his own poems, now part of his collection, he said.
“I found it really hard. … It had been years since I’d been in school. All my classmates were younger than I. It was exhausting. I just managed to graduate,” he said. Bennington’s MFA program uses a pass-fail system.
Sending his poems to course instructors was tough on his ego.
“It was nerve-wracking. They had a lot of criticism. They take poetry very seriously. For example, they said my poems were longer than they needed to be. So, in one poem, I was concentrating, trying to reduce it, so that it would have a diamondlike essence,” he said.
But when it came time for the analysis, the instructor told him: “I thought that poem would never end,” McKenna said.
The barrage of analysis prompted his self-critical poem, “My Poetry,” which offers this closing summary:
A jury seeks facts. But also lessons.
My poems need better witnesses,
And better questions.”
• • •
Overall, he was impressed by the MFA program.
“The advice I got was very good. The faculty was quite interesting. They’re not English professors who are part of the Bennington faculty but professional poets,” he said.
The writing program also exposed him to poets he might never have encountered.
One of his favorites is Thomas Hardy, better known for his classic English novels, such as “Far From the Madding Crowd” and “Tess of the d’Urbervilles.”
“He stopped writing novels and spent the rest of his life writing poems. His poems are terrific,” McKenna said.
His favorite Maine poets are Wesley McNair, Ira Sadoff and Baron Wormser, he noted.
McKenna, 63, first began writing poetry four decades ago, while majoring in English at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, where he graduated in 1967.
Then he attended Boston University to work toward a master’s degree, but halfway through the program, he switched tracks and applied to law school at Georgetown Law in Washington, D.C., a four-year program.
While attending Georgetown’s night school, he taught first-year English literature at Notre Dame Academy in Washington, D.C. He graduated from Georgetown in 1974.
He is married to Jane Orbeton, a nonpartisan lawyer for the state Legislature. They have two grown children. He and his wife eventually settled in Maine because of her family ties in South Portland.
“I’ve always loved poetry. … I really enjoy the act of writing — trying to find the right words. … If I were going to summarize what I’ve learned, it is that writing poetry is a serious business. You have to give it your all,” he said.
All poems published in this article are copyright James McKenna from the 2009 collection, “The Common Law.”
Lynn Ascrizzi is a freelance writer and lives in Freedom.
• • •
The following poems are from “The Common Law,” an unpublished volume of poetry written by Maine Assistant Attorney General James McKenna.
I’m my own home, your Honor.
I didn’t trespass. And you
know as well as I do
the Shelter’s not safe.
Here’s what I do. I go
to the laundromat and put
my three blankets in the dryer,
50 cents worth.
Then I put on my four shirts
and my four pants
and my four pairs of socks
and when the blankets are warm
I find a safe place and wrap
myself in them and I’m
asleep before they get cold.
I’m my own home, your Honor.
• • •
The Judges Are Parking Their Car
The judges are arriving,
District court, Superior Court.
It’s 7:30 a.m. They have pondered
the briefs, puzzled the motions.
One eases her Mercedes into
her spot by the county jail.
And there they are,
waiting on the sidewalk,
always the same,
mothers holding small children,
staring up, hoping
their husbands will glance down,
through the bars, as
they trudge to breakfast.
• • •