Combed by Crows and Lesser Eternities

Combed by Crows,
by Dennis Camire, Deerbrook Editions, 2017,
96 pages, paper, $17.49, ISBN# 9780997505160

Buy the Book

Lesser Eternities,
by Jim Glenn Thatcher, Deerbrook Editions, 2017,
122 pages, paper, $17.95, ISBN# 9780999106

Buy the Book

Infinities, earthly woods and gardens, and human language are some of the realms explored by Maine poets Dennis Camire and Jim Glenn Thatcher, both of whom have long been known by many in the Portland poetry scene (including myself).  Their books, Camire’s Combed by Crows and Thatcher’s Lesser Eternities, both recent releases of the Cumberland press Deerbrook Editions, move between the boundless and the infinitesimal, and they find, in the balance, a reverence.

Trout streams and gardens prove rich archetypal settings for pleasure, contemplation, and empathy in Combed by Crows. Camire revels in the comfortingly tactile language of lures and fish stories: a “burly” fisherman is “lured to cast / The ‘fat bodied balsa b crank bait,’” and then to seek solace for the death fishing-loving dad, to find words “as soothing // As whispering ‘Williams Wobbler,’ / ‘Quick-sinking Hopkins Shorty,’ / Or ‘Stanly flat-eye, soft-skirted jig. . . . ’”

In the garden, meditative odes abound — to scarlet runner beans, earthworms, and gardeners’ widows; and such is the power of shoots and tendrils that the poet is moved to wonder, in “Ode to Lettuce, or the Secret Life of Lettuce,” “[j]ust who / Raised Who.” The process and results of cultivation are acts of creative love and spiritual expansion.  In “For The Giant Pumkin Growers,” men carve their harvest into child-size doll-houses and dories, nurturing hopes to let all see that

. . . joy and fascination is what grows
The heart’s own gourd-like organ
To expand so high and wide that, like the
Fascinated October child, you dream, too,
Of crawling inside and, for a while,
Making it home while standing at full height.

Gardening provides just one realm for Camire’s ebullient stylistic whimsies — for the personification, puns, alliteration, and big similes — that course through this book.  He anthropomorphizes US regionalisms of “Southern collards” and “Waspy, sweet corn” in “Observations on the Garden, Fourth of July,” and proclaims climbing peas to have access to “our much praised / Upward mobility.”  And in “Upon Hearing that ‘Bread is the Way Sun Enters the Body,’” he punningly riffs: “I feel this need to knead on my knees. . . . ”

Sound, indeed, is a playground for Camire; he revels in music both subtle and extravagant.  In “Trophy Lake Trout,” as fishermen consider the “metaphysics of bag limits,” they ponder the “apostle fishermen” and “the crucifixion that wasn’t supposed to slip their sweet Jesus into / The slick creel of eternity.”  And abundant alliteration riddles his odes to letters of the alphabet.  In one he acclaims the letter G’s “GQ visage / And garrulousness / So ingratiate / That we deem him / Congenial and gentrified.”  In another, he lauds a shape, sounds, and ethos: “We shape O / Into a perfect circle / And make him the soul / Of ‘cosmos’ and ‘holy’. . . . ”

Just as Camire moves from a small written shape to a vastness of space and feeling, so does he balance limits and infinity, cosmology and stone walls, disability and unexpected transcendence.  In the book’s opening poem, “Ode to Teenagers’ Hairdos in June,” crazy-color dye-jobs turn the mother of a “Down Syndrome child” to tenderly think on how even in his fifties, her boy will “Still seduce her into this world’s strange beauty. . . . ”  And in “Watching the Man with No Arms Teach the Boy with No Arms How to Fish,” the speaker watches in awe to see how, “when the / Bobber dimples / Under with fish,” the fisherman “sets the hook with a karate kick,” then how his toes “Tip-toe / Down / The bass’s / Throat.”

This particular fishing poem, like many of the poems in Combed by Crows, lands clearly and tenderly on compassion, empathy, and praise in the face of fragility, on a “we” that realizes a “sudden wild sense // Of gratitude and reverence. . . . ”  Here, as throughout the book, Camire conjures an uncommon communion in his conclusion that all of us,

like the boy, hope
We can learn to reel in
Such a beautiful
Frightened being.

Praise of creation and fragility, both the infinite and the humble, are also the realm of Thatcher, as he explores the beyond and the body, nature and language, cosmos and selves accrued by story, line, and syllable.  The book’s title poem, Lesser Eternities, places we humans on “an infinitesimal planet” within “eons of endless emptiness”; he muses how, on the “semi-verdant skull of Earth, / consciousness rises slowly, in dim patches / — for how few millennia now?”

Early in the volume, his speaker mulls on naming, how “words rise from our nature to make the world legible, / struggling toward meaning through the stutter of being. . . . ”  And he is, he knows, part of a lineage of namers.  Alone in Athens, he feels within him “the urgent, inexorable rise / Of a teeming procession of spectral humanity. . . . ”  Through encounters with wolves, constellations, and fireflies, his experiences in nature shape his sense of place in the vastness.  In “Consciousness,” out in the snow under a full moon, the speaker “smiles at the joy of being an infinitesimal speck / in the world’s mystery. . . . / finally triumphant for having lived at all.”

Thatcher conducts these meditations, often, via a third-person speaker (a habit he meta-poetically acknowledges in “Different Waters Flowing”: “The third person: He realizes again / how he likes to think of himself this way, / knowing it’s a ruse. . . . ”).  His natural imagery is often striking and precise, as when he describes “[t]he stark pall of still another late November; / grey half-light on dim-shadowed snow, / skeletal trees leaching black veins into a dead sky.”  Or here, finding these signs of spring, in “Waiting for Persephone”: “The droop of catkins / forming in the aspens, the red haze / gathering in the maples, / a deepening blush in the birch-tops.”

His explorations are also rich in epic mythic imagery and archetypal figures of literature and lore.  His docents and traveling companions are Gilgamesh, Li Po, Calypso, Hesse, Beowulf, Atlas, “Neanderthal and Buddha, algae and Christ.”  His travels range from the Lethe to the constellations of Perseus and Cassiopeia.  He writes of a “no-thing” that forms “one atom, the egg of existence,” which in turn forms “the Ur-Word; the primal noun.”  In “Ancestry,” he finds his own material origins in the mythic:

My life is mind, is matter,
Is dry bone and wet flesh,
Labor of love and dance of death,
Mandrake root in Eden’s sod —
. . . ash of Adam and horn of Pan.

It is by such epic influence and by poetry itself that he navigates both the cosmic and the humble trajectories of a man’s life and understanding.  What Basho, Dante, and Quixote have given us, he says, “are gifts of self / and longing — bright flashing moments / when brief shimmers of meaning leap like salmon / above the currents of our unknowing.”

Thatcher’s speaker finds himself dynamically involved in these creative forces when he takes to the page, when he “hurls himself onto it — becomes the page itself; / gets this line down, lets it take him where it will, /. . . alive again in the fury of becoming. . . . ”

And finally, in “Understory,” he imagines those who will find the leavings of his creative acts, of his becoming, noun by verb by line. What these forebears might find, he muses, is “a runic hand-scrawl / scratching itself into granite, sand, leaf, bough, fin, fur, / feather, claw; the commonality of blood and bone and branch — / Histories of a self gone Other.”  It is a legacy in which Thatcher includes all who reckon with our strange presence in the vastness, includes all of us who seek to give it names.

Megan Grumbling