Impenitent Notes

by Baron Wormser,
CavanKerry Press, 2010,
87 pages, $16.00,
ISBN: 978933880235
Buy the Book

I first encountered Baron Wormser five years ago at a talk he gave at the Portland Public Library, in Portland Maine, about his book The Road Washes Out in Spring: A Poet’s Memory Living Off the Grid.

I was fascinated by his unassuming account of living with his family for nearly twenty five years in a house in Hallowell, Maine, without electricity or running water. They carried water by hand, grew much of their own food, and read by kerosene light, settling into a life that centered on what Thoreau had called “the simple facts.” Yet ironically, as Wormser claims, their choice to “live off the grid” was neither statement nor protest: they just happened to have built their house too far back to afford to bring in the power lines.

Over the years, Wormser has been described as a realist whose poetic voice is rooted in everyday life, popular culture, and the emotional complexities of ordinary people. In his ninth poetry collection, Impenitent Notes, the former poet laureate of Maine, who is widely published and the recipient of numerous prestigious literary awards, leaves the impression of a man comfortable in his own skin, yet equally perplexed, angered and enlivened by the world around him.

Many of his perceptions in these poems profoundly capture men and woman in a state of social, political and economic crisis.  In “Ode to Time,” Wormser writes: “You’ll get to sit around the assisted living facility / and make bets on who will go next.” He writes about “another Republican president / who squares morality with greed and smiles about it,” then remarks: “Time is an ugly polluted river.” In his poem “Evenings,” he observes: “Futility rises as well as anyone in the morning.”

In his especially poignant poem “Millions,” he contrasts the lives of a hedge fund millionaire and owner of a tree service company with “a few poets / who have mastered the trick of living solely on oxygen”:

          . . . When a ten dollar check

          Comes in the mail for a poem they laugh and use it

          To start a fire in the Jotul of blow down

          Wood that lived its life without cash whatsoever,

          That grew from random seeds that blew in the wind.

His poems cover an impressive range themes, such as the

still sensitive issue of gay awareness in “Winning”:

                                                  It is Thanksgiving

          The day the family salutes the notion of family

          And I was invited as Rick’s college roommate.

          Rick, who was gay, told me he was going to tell

          His folks officially and wanted someone straight

          To be there to “thin out the flak” in Rick’s words.

Later, the father and mother of the gay son retire to Florida, where he still builds model fighter planes and she bakes pies. And:

          Rick’s been with the same guy for over a decade

          And sends me Christmas cards each year

          In which he frets about his waist size.

Like many great poets, Wormser doesn’t avoid difficult subject matter (“Subject Matter” being the actual title of one of his earlier collections) a mother succumbing to cancer, Americans being ripped off by Wall Street, torture in Latin America, the murky life of prostitutes, the despair of the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq. Indeed, Wormser often startles us with how people tend to dodge challenging subjects, as in “The Oil Man”:

          Every drop of oil is the earth’s blood, a sensitive

          Girlfriend once told me while I was putting a quart

          Into my ‘64 Ford. Is that good or bad ? I asked her.

          Sometimes it’s hard to make sense of metaphor.

          No wonder it largely keeps to poetry.

The absurd unreality that advertising offers its viewers and its debilitating effect it can have on the psyche is well captured in “Bud Light”:

          The guy who is buying a twelve pack at the convenience store

          On a Wednesday evening isn’t listening to why we are

          The way we are and how, through words and sincerity,

          We could get better. Even as he puts his hard earned down

          On the slightly greasy, Formica counter

          He’s already sitting on front of the TV

          Drinking one beer after another, quickly.

Readers have become accustomed to Wormser’s range, depth, and uncanny ability to get inside the hearts and minds of his characters. As his probes beneath the skin of simple folk, we see our shared aspirations, disappointments, and defeats, as well as the maddening controlled and uncontrolled influences that threaten to consume us, in a new and refreshing light. And as the word “impenitent” implies, the author achieves this without regret, sham or remorse.

Leigh Donaldson