“For the Sake of the Light: New and Selected Poems” by Tom Sexton; University of Alaska Press, Fairbanks, Alaska, 2009; 192 pages, trade paperback, $22.95.
Tom Sexton splits his time, apparently, between Eastport, where word is he keeps a house, and Alaska (hometown unknown), where he served as that state’s poet laureate from 1995 to 2000. My mind being errant, this geographic extremity triggers recollections of Heather McHugh, a poet famous in creative writing milieus since the 1980s who this fall won a MacArthur Genius Grant for her literary accomplishments, and who for some time had a house in Eastport and a house in westernmost Washington state.
In these poets’ youths, a certain nobility was attached to going to extremes to escape the middle. It was commonly believed there was more to life than a tract house, a car, a job and 2.5 children, and many people – Beats, hippies, back-to-the-landers – lit out for what seemed like the wilderness to find it. Today, however, the youthful compunction to detach oneself from dull materialism has more or less vanished in favor of iPods, hats with corporate logos, GPS-toting Jeeps, and “poetry slams,” which Sexton recently objected to on grounds that their true function is not rebellion but the opposite: They “make poetry a part of this aggressive, loud, consumerist society.” What possible personal or social or aesthetic value there could be in screaming haiku is beyond him. And me. And that dates us all. Heather McHugh at the age of 61 is a bit younger than Sexton and a bit older than me.
But these thoughts wander off toward the hinterlands. Back to “For the Sake of the Light.” It is a collection of new and previously published poems, most of them anchored in Alaska, but a handful from coastal Maine. Among those are “Passamaquoddy Bay,” “Lubec, Maine” and “At East Machias.” A few lines from “Crossing the Blueberry Barrens” are characteristic:
No one else was on the road when
We drove across blueberry barrens
Glowing like wind-blown embers.
We gleaned berries from the edges
Of fields raked by migrant workers
Who had moved on into Nova Scotia.
Glaciers had scraped the land to the bone.
I’m not sure if Sexton understands that the barrens keepers pull guns on berry thieves, but in the absence of the violence, the atmosphere of these lines feels true to the atmosphere of the barrens. The same holds for the few other poems about Maine, including “In Waldo County, Maine” which is about the local white fawn who some years ago was being tended by kindly neighbors when a hunter shot her and tagged her (if I remember right) just up the road from my house in Troy. The speaker of the poem offers no judgment of any kind on the death of the deer, the possible cruelty of the hunter, or the possible bathos of the neighbors; the facts are just offered flat.
The language of all the poems here is similarly unwrinkled, with level, speechlike rhythms, but the imagery carries an atmosphere that glances on some cool place in the Maine where we actually live. The rest of the poems in the book, with the same relentless directness, are about Alaska. Without belaboring details, there is a difference in atmosphere between the Alaskan and the Maine poems. I have never been that far northwest, but if these poems are as true to the place as the Maine poems are, then some of the bleakness and solitariness from out there is here. In the book, I mean.
The odd thing is that, for someone who has gone to geographic extremes (house in Eastport, University of Alaska-Anchorage professor emeritus of English, grew up in Lowell, Mass.), Tom Sexton is a poet whose verse is not extreme at all. It is highly imagistic, gently evocative, a pleasure to read, and quite simple to grasp. Not one poem in this collection goes out on a limb of any kind. It keeps to the middle. This is not a censure, just an observation.
What Heather McHugh has been writing in this century, I confess I do not know. I do know that back in the 1980s her verbally accomplished poems did not seem markedly different from other poems being written in creative writing programs, and that now she is a writer-in-residence at the University of Washington, a job that usually pays enough to live quite a comfortable middle-class life.
Maybe the only difference between the rebels of the 1970s and the rebels of the 2000s is in their tone. They both seem to go to extremes to stay right dead in the middle.