In reviewing the life’s work of a major poet such as Philip Booth (winner of the prestigious Lamont Prize and the Academy of American Poets Fellowship for Distinguished Poetic Achievement), reviewers often adopt the conventional strategy of discerning evolutionary patterns—or stages of growth—in the various volumes that form such a retrospective collection as Relations: Selected Poems, 1950-1985. Philip Booth’s work, however, does not adhere to that familiar pattern. He seems to have found his distinctive and convincing voice early, so the style and subject matter of his first published book, Letter from a Distant Land (1957), do not differ in any substantial way from those of Before Sleep (1980)—or from the content and approach of the previously unpublished poems that form section 2 of Relations. From the outset, Booth spoke in the spare, hard New England dialect that he came by naturally, since he grew up in New Hampshire and in Castine, Maine, a peninsular village where his family has resided for some 185 years. That setting accounts for the primary imagery of Booth’s poetry: His poems resonate with vivid images of the sea, the rocky meadowlands, and the deep-drifting winter snows. The language and the imagery are consistent throughout his work, and, even though Relations contains a few patterned and rhyming poems on the opening pages, his more typical prose poems, free verse poems, and diarylike entries are also plainly in evidence. There is, in fact, a marvelous wholeness to the work, giving the reader the uncanny feeling that in every new poem Booth has gone just a little deeper into himself and the terrain he knows so well.
Two examples (from the 165 poems that comprise the book) serve to illustrate Booth’s particularly effective way of capturing and inspecting the inner and outer realities that define human existence. As the title of his book suggests, Booth believes in the subtle relations that bind together all the apparently disparate features of experience. This notion of relations seems to derive, in part, from the writings of Henry David Thoreau, another New Englander and an obvious hero of Booth (two long poems in the book are addressed to Thoreau). The following lines from Thoreau provide an epigraph for Relations: “Not until we are lost . . . do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.” One might accurately observe that all the poems in Relations reveal Booth in the process of finding himself, especially those poems which describe his profound relations with his family and the ancestral family home in Castine, Maine. That old home, with its accumulated layers of dust and family memories, provides the setting for “Stove,” a poignantly nostalgic poem that takes the reader back to a rainy November day in 1932, when the poet was seven years old and his grandfather was dying in a room upstairs. The big black stove with its nickel trim and brand name (Wood and Bishop, Bangor, Maine, 1911) is a genuine physical object that triggers a whole range of deeply felt associations regarding Lora (the maid), Boyd Varnum (the deliveryman), and even the wood chips and old copies of the Bangor News used to fire up the stove. The poet’s whole childhood comes back to him, especially his vivid childhood recognitions of life and death:
I can still smell the litter of spanielswhelped between the stove and the wall: there’svenison cooking, there’s milktoast being warmed onthe farthest back plate, milktoast to send upstairsto my dead mother’s mother.
Nostalgic poems about his family suggest Booth’s deep poetic reach into the emotional and associational realms that always enclose the simplest reality. Whether writing about the seascape, the winter, or a highway, he always captures another reality that lies just below the surface, in a place where memories, dreams, and associations adhere tenaciously. In “Bolt,” for example, the poet is plainly fascinated by the surface of the bolt, which is as “long as a small boy’s forearm,” with rusty threads “gorged and ridged/ like a mined-out range of hills.” Yet his imagination begins to function, too, as he muses: “God/ only knows what it once held together.” The bolt becomes a metaphor for whatever holds together all the potentially disintegrating...
(The entire section is 1868 words.)