Philip Booth

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Philip Booth’s list of accomplishments is impressive, and his reputation is international, but he was, most of all, a humanist speaking to an individual audience, one person at a time. Although he is widely identified as a regional poet who wrote of life in a harsh, cold northern climate, Booth’s subjects cover the whole range of human experience. The powerful forces of nature and how humans relate to them play prominently in his work, but his poems also speak of other human concerns: love, sex, marriage, children, aging, poverty, death, and the mysteries of existence. In his earliest collection, Letter from a Distant Land, his poetic patterns are fairly traditional; however, later poems exhibit less attention to traditional form and sometimes an abandonment of rhyme and stanza. In all Booth’s works, the struggle of form and matter are present; his themes are of human loneliness and vulnerability set against the impersonal forces of nature. This struggle is never fully reconciled, but the poet examines the need for the coexistence of humankind and the natural world.

Letter from a Distant Land

In the sonnet “Good Friday, 1954,” which appears in Letter from a Distant Land, the number of lines and the rhyme scheme follow the traditional pattern, but the poet uses slant rhyme, with “lodged” and “judged” ending the sixth and eighth lines. The poem’s final line reveals Booth’s closeness to the New England school headed by Robert Frost and its belief in the moral function of poetry: “To spike a rumor sacrifice a man.” “The Wilding,” another early poem, issues a springtime call to love; Booth plays on the sexual suggestiveness of jack-in-the-pulpits and maidenhair fern. E. E. Cummings’s playfulness is echoed in “a sweet fern questionmark/ whorls green as green is today,/ and ferns ask no answer a swallow/ can’t fly.” The youthful joy and exuberance of this poem fill the reader with hope and expectation. Another early poem, “First Lesson,” instructs a daughter about trusting the father who is cradling her head in the “cup” of his hand as he gently urges her to learn to swim. Just as the swimmer learns to trust the sea, a person can learn to survive by remembering experiences that, like the sea, “will hold you.” “Chart 1203” captures the essence of sailing’s allure and challenge in saying of the sailor, “He knows the chart is not the sea.” The Atlantic coast is threatening, Booth says, only for the sailor who is not familiar with its eccentricities and relies on charts and maps alone to guide him. The sailor must have “local knowledge of shoal/ or ledge.” The poem celebrates the thrill of meeting a challenge and surviving through a combination of good luck and skill.

The volume’s title poem, “Letter from a Distant Land,” combines slant rhyme and true rhyme. The poem, a lengthy meditation about the area around Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond and the changes it has undergone since the nineteenth century, is written in terza rima, with long sentences and a doubly alternating rhyme scheme. The rhyme and meter are, nevertheless, so subtle, with approximate combinations such as “desk” and “risk,” that the reader hardly notices them. In this way the poem does have the flavor of a letter written from a distant land to a friend, with themes of the connectedness of writer and reader, the natural world and human values.

Weathers and Edges

In Weathers and Edges , New England voices speak with terse language and dry humor. The arrangement of the poems moves from works such as “Heart of Darkness,” which deals with...

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large human concerns, to personal poems of private experience such as “Cleaning Out the Garage,” and then outward again to a series of sea poems set on the Maine coast. The reader of “Heart of Darkness” is struck by the short lines arranged as a column on the page: The poem itself is presented as “some sort of base/ to start out from.” The stanza arrangement in “Cleaning Out the Garage” is less lean. Filling out the page, its four stanzas move from nine to ten to eleven and finally to twelve lines, ironically accumulating lines as the garage is cleaned out and its contents diminished, and ending with an almost Frostian moral: The speaker has learned, after discarding all the “useless stuff” stored since his boyhood, “how to let go what won’t do.” “Report from the Scene,” an immediate description of the effects of severe local thunderstorms on boats moored in a Maine harbor, is arranged in eleven two-line stanzas; in it, the forces of nature seem nearly overwhelming, but two people “with reflex love” reach for each other and face the storm. The individuals watching the violent storm are an image of human vulnerability in the face of natural forces, but as the two reach out toward each other, they and the storm are able to coexist.

Available Light

Several works in Available Light try to come to terms with harsh winters, the freeze of a late spring, the poet’s Puritan need to take inventory constantly, and the nearly mystical experience of a dream. “Entry,” a terse, honed poem that is skinny on the page, describes bitter cold weather that has lasted for four days, drifted snow coming in large flakes, and a “small sun.” The poet’s words “quicken,” or give life to, the silence and allow an entry for him, suggesting Booth’s fascination with the life-giving power of words. “Adding It Up” uses what light is available as the speaker’s mind begins to open up before dawn, while he lies in bed tallying his life and its concerns. As his mind opens and he meticulously counts, his body prepares for the first humorously ordinary job of the day: “cleaning up after/ an old-maid Basset in heat.” With humor the speaker looks at himself and inventories his Puritan characteristics: being sorry, worrying, counting.

Set against such straightforwardness, “Dreamscape” has a visionary quality in its carefully shaped free verse. In contrast to “Supposition with Qualification,” in which the speaker struggles with wanting to give himself up to experience, the speaker in “Dreamscape” lets the dream experience take control of the poem. The opening stanza describes the familiar road to town as the speaker has “always” known it: the steep hill, the filled-in old British canal, the spruce trees, the five houses. The certainty of “always,” however, is denied by the vision of the road in the dream. In the second stanza, beginning with the word “but,” the poet presents the road in his dream, with the left side now cleared into pasture in which “miniature bison” are kneeling. Avoiding the questioning of experience found in some of Booth’s earlier works, he neither can nor wants to explain this dreamscape. The organic process of the poem takes on a life of its own, offering a sharing of the dream’s experience and suggesting the chance that this dream experience opens up a wholly new perspective.

“How to See Deer” comments directly on the subtler theme of an earlier poem, “Shag.” “Shag” first describes the poet’s observations of seven cormorants (shags), follows with ruminations about what ornithologists say regarding their strange flights, and concludes as the poet continues to observe and to row “as if/ on vacation from knowledge.” Here Booth has tried to let the experience speak for itself, and to avoid explaining it or generalizing from it. “How to See Deer” makes a similar point, but much more overtly, in contrast to Booth’s usual practice: by advising, if one purposely sets out to see deer—or, by extension, to experience anything—that the deer will not be seen. Serendipity is a factor; however, taking “your good time,” trusting “your quick nature,” learning to listen and to observe, to “see/ what you see,” will permit one to experience joy. Perceptions and experiences cannot be forced; if, however, one is alert and receptive, one is able to participate in life.

Before Sleep

Like Booth’s earlier works, Before Sleep is divided into parts, but they are concurrent rather than consecutive, with tightly woven interaction. These pieces are separated into poems and “Night Notes”: The forty-three poems appear on numbered pages indicated in the table of contents; the eighteen “Night Notes,” offering commentaries on the poems to which they are juxtaposed, appear between listed poem titles and are not given page numbers. The collection’s title, reminiscent of the famous Frost poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” brings to mind the long sleep of death. The poems themselves, however, offer meditations on how to live life. There are no formal stanzaic patterns here; rhyme and even approximate rhyme are absent. Figurative language is also sparse; Booth uses mostly simple words and gives particular attention to the word “nothing,” which exists by itself, contradicting the view—held by Booth in his early years—that nothing exists in isolation.

The opening poem, “Not to Tell Lies,” describes a man who wishes to strip life down to the barest essentials. Initially, the lines are short, but they quickly become longer, only to shorten again to the single word “lies.” This arrangement is striking, for it suggests a wedge used to force the truth into a limited space, without anything extraneous. The poet is coming to terms with his age, having reached his sixth decade and returned to live year-round in the ancestral Maine home. Items in his upstairs room, “which corners late sun,” include a schooner model, the portrait of a daughter, a rock brought from Amchitka by the speaker’s doctor, an ancestor’s photograph, and books by Henry David Thoreau and Herman Melville—men who also made outward and inward journeys. As in earlier poems, Booth uses sea metaphors—for example, his bed has been:

 moored . . . perpendicular to the North wall, whenever he rests his head is compassed barely west of Polaris

All the poem’s other words catalog what he has gathered and sorted through “in order not/ to tell/ lies.” Following this poem, and integral to its meaning, is a “night note” introducing the idea of “nothing.” The room just described is nothing, Booth says, when separated from the life he lives within it; the person, the poet, is more “vital” than the room, and his “virtue” is “not/ in my own life to live/ as if nothing/ were more important.”

As the collection progresses, one senses the nothingness of death but also the meaning and sometimes the meaninglessness of life. “The House in the Trees,” the collection’s final entry, pictures a continuous moving toward life, affirming the possibility of continuing to build for the future, although, like the house “in the process/ of being built,” the poet’s life and art may not reach complete fulfillment before his death. In this process, in the sense of “constantly being arrived at,” life and art are affirmed.

Relations

The title poem of Relations is a poem of affirmation; the speaker does not deny life’s uncertainties, but wonders at the miracle of each moment, amazed at the movement of the spheres,

    . . . by how         to each other    we’re held, we keep    from spinning out           by how to each other    we hold.

The staggered placement of the poem’s lines suggests how each line relates to those that follow and precede it. “From broken dreams,” says the poem, “we wake to every day’s/ brave history.” That all persons do this, that history involves experience, and perhaps as well that opening oneself to each day’s experience is “brave” indicate the commonality of persons, their dependence on one another. As the poem progresses, the speaker becomes more personal, naming his village’s zip code, 04421, and a specific woman. Janet, the town’s postmaster, is “spun into light” by the planets’ movements, as all people are. Moving from the specific person in Castine to the inclusive “we” once more, Booth combines thanksgivings for his peninsular village and, by extension, for life.

Relations includes selections from all Booth’s previous collections, as well as thirty-one new poems. The later works use terse Down East language, slanted syllables, and simple Anglo-Saxon diction, omitting rhyme and meter. The fragmentation of short lines and stanzas gives these poems a conversational quality. Woven into these works is the theme of human isolation but also of love and connectedness with the world, for the poet often looks to nature for answers and for the reassurance of order. The title poem, “Relations,” explores relationships not only of people to one another over space and time but also among lines in a poem, of words to other words, and of the limits the poet imposes on them. These poems do not offer certainties for the reader, but rather uncertainties, as the poet struggles to find his way through questions such as “Where did I come from?” and “Where am I going?” Booth speaks of this searching as a “coming to terms” with experience, and of human relationships as giving meaning to life.

Originally published in Margins, “Supposition with Qualification” questions the eternal mystery of being. The speaker discusses a man who “if he could say it” certainly meant to do so, but who is never clear about what “it” means. Instead, the man intended to say “how it felt when he let himself/ feel.” It is, however, difficult for him to let himself feel anything without allowing his mind to get in the way. The poem includes several question words: “what,” “how,” “when.” Even with the need to know suggested by these words, the man does not want to intellectualize but to feel, to “give himself up,” although the qualification itself, “if he could say it,” suggests his inability to do so, as well as the human need to question and articulate experience.

“The Man on the Wharf,” which is arranged in direct two-line stanzas, describes a man, drunk with Jim Beam whiskey, who has lost his woman. He watches another man shuck clams; although he does not know why he watches, one senses in him a questioning about his life and his loss: He “swallows no answer/ but questions in bourbon this seeming harbor.” “Seeming harbor” questions what is real and what is imagined, while the man turns to perhaps the most fundamental source for answers in the poem’s concluding lines: “The sea is all he can ask.”

“The Stranding” journeys inward, as the first-person speaker puts his eyes to the eyes of his own skull to look through both pairs of eyes into his own head, only to find a “stranding,” a sense of being left alone in a helpless position, of being separated from his essential self. The speaker, though, can hardly see himself, and, when he considers calling to his inner self by name, he realizes that the inner self whom he can barely see is listening to porpoises, not to the self on the outside calling to him. Perhaps in answer to the universal question “Who am I?” the speaker finds isolation. In simple, carefully sharpened language arranged in stanzas of three short lines each, the poem successfully creates the effect of the speaker explaining to an individual listener what happened as he searched for himself.

Reminding one of David Wagoner’s “Return to the Swamp,” “The Question Poem” also deals with eternals. What does the wind mean? What “sudden discipline” determines the course of birds’ migrations? Do the seabirds fish for answers, too? No answers are offered, but like any human being, the speaker finds it impossible to imagine a world in which he himself is absent. He does seem to find some hint of a response to his questions in the mysteries of the sea and its creatures as they move in their carefully ordered, delicately balanced relationships to one another.

Selves

Booth alludes to the theme of Selves in Vermont Academy Life (Fall/Winter, 1979/1980): “I read because . . . my many selves . . . need to experience other lives.” In Selves, once again, he presents beautifully moving, tightly made, sometimes humorous poems that employ a minimum of figurative language. The volume’s prologue, from Wallace Stevens’s Esthétique du Mal (1945), introduces the theme of the many selves within each human being. Participation in these poems allows the reader to become part of the creative process and, in turn, to begin to discover his or her own many selves. The poems combine philosophical speculation about universal mysteries with ordinary, mundane topics such as losing a glove, splitting wood with a wedge and an ax, and spreading manure. While commenting on each person’s inability to feel another’s feelings completely, and while expressing concern for the future given past and present ecological disasters, these poems give thanks for life, music, sex, food, and relationships, for awareness, consciousness, and wonder. Traditional rhyming and restrictive forms are eschewed in favor of the comfortable patterns of common speech, so that these works are very accessible.

The epigraph poem “Reaching In,” with parallels from physics and probability theory, expresses deep concern with and respect for how each reader experiences the poem. Booth asks his readers to “weigh each word before you believe me”; there is an implied reward for the reader who follows this directive. The first “reaching” in the poem is that of the physicist who reaches in to measure momentum. The second use of the word is literal: The poet reaches through the dark at night on his way to the bathroom, and like the physicist’s changing of the photon’s position, the poet’s “feet displace the shape of the dark.” The third “reaching” is internal but also cosmic: “Reaching in, I trembled the landscape.” The unusual transitive use of “trembled” continues the opening image. The word “you” in stanza 3 begins in reference to a particular person but subsequently moves to the individual reader and beyond. This poem suggests how to experience the poems that follow.

Some of the poems in part 1 are eloquent pictures of rural poverty. With simple, direct language “Poor” describes the impossibility of planning ahead when one has very little. Moose Coombs has never been able to afford the time to seek out seasoned wood for heating the kitchen stove. Instead he has brought home green wood, which burns too intensely and coats the chimney with creosote; the result is a sudden fire that destroys his wife and his house. There are no metaphors here, but the ordinary language brings the event home and shows its pointless tragedy.

In “Civilities,” with humor, fondness, and appreciation, the poet turns to his grandmother’s knowledge of “right words, and which/ to use when.” Without ever using the four-letter word for excrement, Booth makes it humorously present. His portraits of Mr. Bowden delivering and of Mrs. Hooke paying for “spring dressing” are painted with tender humor and fond respect, as the poet, years later, prepares the same perennial garden they tended with “lovely dark clouds of cowdung.”

Further poems in this volume speak of the isolation of aging, of survival, and of the hopefulness of life. “Fallback” poignantly describes an elderly couple imprisoned in a home for the aged. Concrete, direct language brings home the predicament of the old couple, who have been together for sixty-two years. They are now perfunctorily tended by a young nurse who “looks like a grebe” and who cannot and probably does not care to know the elderly woman’s tender memories of love and caring: how her husband in years past spread out his jacket for picnics and how they “made love/ in the sweetfern high on an island.” The husband’s mind is now gone, and the wife’s body is impossibly frail, but the memories are sturdy and real.

“Provisions,” in reaction to a book on survival tactics left on an airplane, speaks against the directions it offers about what to take when one is dealing with a nuclear disaster and agrees only with the advice “Leave objects behind” (especially, Booth says, the survival book itself). His advice, instead, is to take poems, Thoreau, the memory of a tune by Bach, and sustaining memories. As the old woman in “Fallback” finds, it is the experiences of life that will sustain one.

The final piece in the collection, “Presence,” is a poem of wonder. In simple, two-line stanzas, the poet speaks of the singular mystery “that we are here, here at all.” The very title suggests an almost worshipful attitude toward life, that there is a being, a presence, a hint of a supernatural influence felt nearby. “Presence” offers the opportunity for joy in life, brief as it is, and an affirmation of being.

Lifelines

In Lifelines, the new poems comprise a final section. In this grouping, Booth enjoys more than even the formal play that is his hallmark, though with a continuing loosening of exterior borders. Understandably, many of these poems (as do several in Pairs) flirt with the impingement of aging. Memories have further to travel. Losses pile up. However, Booth’s clipped, dignified style—and his occasional humor—hold despair in check. A long poem, “Reach Road: In Medias Res,” follows an old mailman over the rural route he has traversed for decades, defined by the familiar blend of nature and neighborhood. His larger route, his lifepath, takes the mailman and the reader in and out of the books that define another kind of journey, the life of intellect and art that is Booth’s own. At once narrative and meditative, “Reach Road” is a late marvel in a career of many marvels. It is a brilliant, if premature, review of Booth’s territory—a summation.

Although all Booth’s poetry explores the struggle and isolation of human existence, his ultimate response to both is positive. He embraces the old but important observation of John Donne that we are all, with our fears, affirmations, sorrow, and happiness, joined in the large human family. We are part of one another, and we share in the sorrows, mysteries, and joys of life. Booth’s poems, with their universal themes and simple language, enlarge and expand that life.

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Booth, Philip