“Impenitent Notes” by Baron Wormser; CavanKerry Press Ltd., Fort Lee, N.J., 2011; 96 pages, trade paperback, $16.
Baron Wormser has been possibly the steadiest voice we’ve had over the last 30 years of poetry in Maine. He lives in Vermont now, but served as Maine poet laureate from 2000 to 2005, and for a long time, starting in the 1970s, lived a sort of back-to-the-land life in western Maine as a school librarian and encourager of creative activity. Time and space change, but not the voice, it seems.
“Impenitent Notes” is the eighth and latest book-length entry of his ruminatory, incisive, somber-rhythmed, character-driven, ironic verse. The characters range from wrangling prostitutes (“One morning in California”) to poet Leo Connellan (“For Leo”) to a wayward Mainer with all-too-familiar injuries to body and soul (“The hitchhiker”) to many others including, well, a number of versions of himself. They all uncover by word or drama ironies that are painfully recognizable from real life. And as always, an ear for carefully refined language will find here the shapely, understated, reserved prosodic power-punches Wormser has been delivering steadily for decades.
A good many of the poems are recollections of youth — whether lost or not isn’t exactly clear, because unlike in Longfellow the mood is not pensively wistful but objectively pensive. A memorable chord strikes in “Buddy Holly,” where the narrator and his wife in a mundane drive to the grocery store noodle philosophically with the idea that American energy, “the bravest promise the human spirit / had made so far,” had turned into mere vehicular motion. Then suddenly they are tumbled by a radio broadcast of a Buddy Holly tune into the vitality of that dynamo. Their savor of “the pure thrall / of foreshortened American joy” (Buddy Holly died in a plane crash at 22) is an epiphany of finger-snapping memory and desire. Then, back to the confines of the car: “Our beautifully engineered beast rolls on.”
That moment of energy which so many of us remember fondly from the 1960s as a bright, shining moment of our own creative and intellectual participation in something larger than us, Wormser reminds us, was also a time of terrible emotional conflict. The narrator’s minor league rock bands (“My Bands”) and time served in school (“Missile,” “Hebrew School”) nudge the borderlands of wretchedness that was in a way the heart of what Buddy Holly, and the other musicians and poets mentioned in these pages, lifted people out of. It’s what we measure the present imprisonment of American intellectual life against. In “Population 4,672” ( a version of which first appeared in the pages of this newspaper), a speaker, quietly watching a dismally cliche-ridden, copied-energy small-town parade, observes:
We who knew who Gandhi, Georgia O’Keeffe, Albert
Camus, Ben Webster and Walker Percy were
Had amassed a civilization in our heads.
Surely we could get this one down.
No punches pulled here — the disposition is resigned but impenitent. The world is what it is, to re-use the phrase of a Sufi mystic. This verse is so well-made, so biting, and feels so true to life here, I don’t really know what more you can ask for in this particular corner of literary space-time.
“Impenitent Notes” and Wormser’s other books, including “Scattered Chapters,” “Subject Matter” and “The Road Washes Out in Spring: A Poet’s Memoir of Living Off the Grid,” are available through his website http://baronwormser.com and www.cavankerry.com.