FAIR WARNING: LEO CONNELLAN AND HIS POETRY, edited by Sheila A. Murphy and Marilyn Nelson; Printed Matter Press, Tokyo, Japan, 2011; 140 pages, trade paperback, $18.
If I had to name four writings that might help a flatlander understand what growing up in uncomfortable means in Maine felt like during the mid-20th century, they would be: the novels of Ruth Moore; Carolyn Chute’s “The Beans of Egypt, Maine”; Patricia Ranzoni’s “Settling”; and Leo Connellan’s Maine poems, including “The Clear Blue Lobster-Water Country.”
The understanding would still be a long, white-capped dory row from the actual experience. But in these books you at least get honest and therefore often painful accounts of the how and why of Maine personalities, which share varying degrees of taciturnity, skepticism, tendency to self-deprecate, hesitation to cooperate, desire to be isolated, desire to be accepted, cartoon-character propensity to complain, withering apprehension of irony, chronic half-real, half-fantasized feelings of humiliation, almost unabated subcutaneous rage, the weightsome hallucination that the only sensible thing to do is drink, and an autumn-struck sense of supernal natural beauty.
In Leo Connellan’s poetry, all this comes distilled to about 180 proof. As a number of the contributors to “Fair Warning,” a part-scholarly, part-belles-lettres collection of articles about and in tribute to Connellan, his poetry is not for the frail of heart. But with pure Maine irony, it is also for everybody. Not sure I want to speculate on what this contradiction implies about “everybody.”
And for the most part, neither do the contributors, about three dozen of Connellan’s friends, family and literary acquaintances. The articles are mainly personal reminiscences on the Rockland-born man and poet who lived 1928-2001, was on the road at the same time as the Beat generation and came sideways (meaning outside academia) into literary prominence in the 1970s to eventually serve as poet laureate of Connecticut. There can be little doubt about Connellan’s importance, or (once the scholars sort out their wayward differences over what constitutes a canon) eventual importance, in Maine’s literary history. Unusual energy and vividness drive through his verse that should survive the decades and provide clear entry points to what people actually felt and thought in our time, regardless of politics and wars. Most of the collection contributors seem to think so, too.
All the writers give seemingly honest accounts of a man whom they pretty much all characterize as honest, blustery, unabashed and, like we say, larger than life. Some of them seem somewhat preoccupied with their own living rooms or missing grant funding, but many of the most illuminating (to my mind) statements come from Mainers. Christopher Fahy of Rockland in “The Ache of Exile” gives possibly the most no-nonsense, sharply defined recollection of Connellan as a literary acquaintance. William Carpenter’s review of “The Maine Poems” (1999) provides a crisp prolegomenon to the verse in general and is a nice complement to Sanford Phippen’s illuminating introduction to the collection itself. A reading by Baron Wormser (former Maine poet laureate) of “By the Blue Sea” makes groundwork for closer study of Connellan’s poetics. Possibly the most revealing, and quickest, character sketch among contributions from Connecticut and elsewhere comes from his widow, Nancy Connellan, and Vivian Shipley’s biographical essay “Leo Connellan: Every-Man” provides a concise rehearsal of his life and works, an article that might have been better placed toward the beginning rather than toward the end of the book.
But really, who can complain? This book is intended to keep Leo Connellan on the literary map of Maine and New England, and does its work.
The next step is to pick up a collection of Connellan’s verse. Fair warning: You may find it goes down hard at first, but once you have the taste, it’s supernally beautiful. I never knew Leo Connellan, but he speaks for me.
“Fair Warning” is available from through printedmatterpress.com.