Christian Barter Poetry — Introduction by Betsy Sholl

Christian Barter is an award-winning poet whose most recent book is Bye-Bye Land, winner of the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award.  Besides being a poet and teacher, he works on a trail crew planning and overseeing construction and rehabilitation of hiking trails on Mount Desert Island.  Christian combines a rich, vibrant intellectual capacity with deep knowledge and respect for physical labor and those who do it.  His work comes out of deep thought rooted in land and the people who work with it.   These two poems grow out of his work as Poet Laureate of Acadia National Park. “Ile des Monts Deserts” was first published on poets.org for The National Parks Project.  “The Venture” was published in The Friends of Acadia Journal.   There is a sense in these poems that knowing history  is part of how we can continually renew our vision and our commitment to honoring the world, natural and social.   Betsy Sholl

 

Île des Monts Déserts

Christian Barter

It is very high, and notched in places, so that there is the appearance to one at sea, as of seven or eight mountains extending along near each other. The summit of most of them is destitute of trees… I named it Île des Monts Déserts.

—Samuel de Champlain, 1604

1.
When Champlain sailed into Frenchman’s Bay
and saw this island’s evergreen mountains
blown clean back to ledge along their ridges,
this utterly foreign land,
an island foreign even to its coast—

it’s founded on a piece of Africa,
brought with us in the drift—

I know there were people living here but I’m thinking
of Champlain because he was coming from
a world not all that different from ours,
of crowded, elbowing streets and long-hour shifts,
a landscape cleared and plowed, and paved and built,
the power to change tight-fisted held by a few,
and grinding, messy wars that go on and on,
from which he had returned to make this voyage—

When Champlain sailed in here in one of those
square-rigged ships that can only follow the wind,
the whole crew thirsty, in clothes that must have been
putrid, having stared for months at nothing
but water, sliced at the world’s edge cleanly

and saw this place we still see from the ocean—

huge rock pushed through by a liquid fire
then sledged by mile-deep ice into a thing
of character, and then grown over
by the green that rules this world—

did he believe again, or for the first time,
in the holiness of the earth, the unassailable
authority of Earth, its calm command
beyond whatever temper tantrum Man
throws on its floor, or did he think

he’d simply entered heaven?

2.

This isn’t exactly the question I have in mind.
Perhaps it isn’t a question.
But I like thinking about Champlain catching sight
of this humped jungle, these long heads lifted
thoughtfully, then sailing closer
until it became a world—

thinking about his era’s view of the earth,
in which, wherever you sail, it just keeps
sending up mountains and lakes and beaches and forests,
how easy and right it must have seemed
to believe in a power far beyond ourselves,
in a kind of benevolent infinity…

I guess I am looking for my own direction
in the world such as it is—
like his, but lacking that one key hope:
that when this land is ash, there will always be another—

looking for my own way to think of Acadia,
this ever-more-precious island we’ve somehow kept
wooded, and rocky, and punctured through with clear lakes—
enough like it was that if you hold
your finger across the houses at its feet
you can still, sailing into Somes Sound,
see more or less the place that Champlain saw

and, also, know the place for the first time—

which is always the feeling of powerful beauty, isn’t it?—
that something has been here the whole time
and we are just now seeing it,
and must now reconsider all our theories
that there could be such a place—

or poem, or string quartet, or person?

3.

They come in droves now, a long string tugging them
ever across the land bridge to gaze down
from the steep western cliff of Cadillac
into the open eye of Eagle Lake,

the tree-massed mountains of Penobscot and Sargent
building up beyond it as if the land were still gaining power,
their sheer cliff walls like cities left by dreams,

and the ocean laid out flat, its moss-tuft islands’
miniatures of cliffs and beaches calm
as if you had imagined them—

Is it the kind of life you could live
that you see here?  At Champlain’s request,

French Jesuits came next, to bring around
the souls of those already here; they set up camp
at Fernald Point, and I wonder, too,
if they saw where they were—the cliff

of Saint Sauveur behind their shelters
standing up, god-like, its sheer rock plunging
straight down into water, down through murk
for leagues to find its ancient footing—

or just the prospect of some better place?

 

 

The Venture

Christian Barter

on the occasion of the centennial of Acadia National Park

May I, composed…
of eros and of dust…
Show an affirming flame.
—W.H. Auden

May we not trample this place.
May we be mindful—
truly mindful, like when you’re climbing something steep.
May we come here in love, the way pilgrims come
to certain tombs.
May we come here in hope, the kind of hope
that makes you courageous,
like Martin Luther King’s hope, or the first day
in a second career.
May we not bring our baggage with us.
I know we are always traveling,
but may we not bring our resentment,
or the sharp-edged pieces of our broken loves.

There is a theory that nature is perfect as it is;
may we at least look up from time to time,
as Whitman said, “in perfect wonder.”
May we wonder if what we’ve done so far is enough.
May we respect the land, which is to say, ourselves.
May we respect ourselves enough to be honest with ourselves—
to be honest about what this is, and isn’t.
It isn’t ours, for one thing.
Disneyland is ours.
Monticello is ours.
The Constitution is ours.

May we trust what we feel when we are here.
It is almost seditious, it runs so deep,
but may we trust it.
May we trust ourselves
against the common rhetoric that land is to be “used.”
That we, in the end, are primarily users.
You can’t crest Sargent from the East Cliffs’ clamor
to see that bay and islands, and Mansell Mountain
risen from its chair to face you
and think that’s what we are.

May we leave, eventually, as we all must—
after a long weekend
or a brief fifty years—
with this place inside us—
or rather, with this place firmly inside itself.

I know we are always traveling.

May we remember, today,
and also the today of tomorrow,
what it took to keep this place for us:
an athlete’s single-minded concentration
sustained for decades;
a number of fortunes;
luck;
the conviction
that what had been done so far—
and in 1916 it must have seemed like a lot
had been done: the war to restore the Union,
the railroads, Yellowstone, Yosemite—
was not enough,
that “enough” is a misnomer,
the kind of white lie you tell children—

and let us not forget luck—
that maybe one of a thousand of this kind of venture
actually succeeds
in the way that the venture
of Acadia National Park
has succeeded—

in going on being what it was;
in changing—I’m guessing nearly always for the better—
the lives of millions of people;
in showing us something that matters too deeply for words.

Which is a reminder that I have probably said enough,

except to add that the venture isn’t over—
that part really does belong to us
in the way of a family home,
or a promise made to a life-long friend,
or Monticello,
or The Constitution.

 

Dawn Potter Poetry — Introduction by Betsy Sholl

Dawn Potter’s new book, Chestnut Ridge, traces the history of her birthplace in western Pennsylvania through three centuries and various voices.  The poems change in style as the age changes, beginning with formal and moving toward free verse. These poems are a history lesson for us all, letting us overhear many voices from early missionaries when the area was the western front of the country, through the civil war and into the 21st century when men and women begin to shift roles.  Like Maine, areas of rural Pennsylvania have a distinct character that is slowly being eroded by mass culture.  These poems remind us to look and honor the roots of where we come from. It is a feat of skill to move through so many shifts in form and voice.  Betsy Sholl

Dawn Potter is a poet, writer, blogger and teacher who recently moved from rural Maine to Portland.

Laurel Caverns

               1802

In this year
two men were lost in the caverns for three days.

When found,
they were locked in each other’s arms
waiting for the end—

two travelers, eyes wide in the blackness,
ears pinned to the whisper of wings,
the seep of water.

When found, they were locked in each other’s arms.
Breath by shallow breath,
they had fabricated life.

Blind touch bound them.
They stole heat from the brush of a cheek,
the cup of a calloused hand.

And so they survived the ordeal
of never embracing again.

 

Standards of the Pennsylvania State Board of Censors

           1914

“Nothing is censored in Pennsylvania but the poor mans amusement, Why?”
                                             —Anti-censorship banner, Pittsburgh Screen Club

The Board will condemn
any motion picture portraying
prostitutes, houses of ill-fame

a girl’s seduction, her confinement
for immoral purposes, or assaults upon women,
with lewd intent. Refrain from showing

childbed scenes and subtitles that describe them.
Pictures revealing the modus operandi of criminals
are suggestive and incite the weak to evil action.

We disapprove all murder, poisoning,
house-breaking, safe-robbery, pocket-picking,
the lighting and throwing of bombs,

the use of chloroform to render men
and women unconscious, also binding and gagging.
Do not illustrate the traffic in cocaine.

Gruesome and distressing scenes
are likewise forbidden. These include shootings,
stabbings, profuse bleeding, prolonged views

of corpses, lashings and whippings,
lynchings, electrocutions, surgical operations,
and views of persons in delirium.

Avoid scenes in which the human form
is shown in the nude. Do not undertake
the topics of abortion or malpractice,

eugenics, birth control, or race suicide.
The materialization of the figure of Christ
may be disapproved. We forbid

the brutal treatment of animals,
and objectionable language in subtitles.
Depictions of burning and wrecking

may degrade the morals of the young.
Gross and offensive drunkenness,
will never be tolerated

if women are present.
Do not exhibit pictures which deal at length
with gun play, and the use of knives,

and are set in the underworld.
Vulgarities of a gross kind,
such as often appear in slapstick

and may burlesque morgues, funerals,
hospitals, or insane asylums,
are disapproved, as are sensual kissing

and other indelicate situations.
Bathing scenes may pass the limits of propriety.
Avoid immodest dancing

and the needless exhibition
of women in their night dresses.
Do not show women in suggestive positions

while smoking. The argument that your story
is adapted from the finest literature or art
is not a sufficient reason for approval.

 

The Miner Who Loved Dante

           1924

But after I had reached a mountain’s foot,
At that point where the valley terminated,
Which had with consternation pierced my heart,

Upward I looked, and I beheld its shoulders,
Vested already with that planet’s rays
Which leadeth others right by every road.
                –Dante, the inferno, translated by H. W. Longfellow

 

I haven’t wandered your way lately, Nell,
not since the police clapped me up
and I lost my shift at Number 2.

But I remember the porch of our borrowed house
and the pigeons that fluttered up from the roof
when the old lady banged her pail.

And Sue . . .  remember Sue, who sang alto to your mezzo?
In those ragged evenings, how stillness would sift
over the men, old and young, listening from their steps

or squatting outside the canteen, half-full bottles of wine
balanced on the ground between their knees.
Night opened her arms to us like a favorite aunt,

like Lena—plump, smiling, one hand at rest on my damp hair
as a hundred pigeons dipped over the river.
And all the while, Nell, you and Sue sang

of hearts, of summer, of fleeting secrets,
and we listeners believed that the songs were ours.
For no one, no one in the world, was as alive then as we were.

 

The Husbands

                2004

Their work boots were filmed with grease,
and their faces were weary.
They never showed up till the fourth inning.
Knees spread, they let themselves rest
on chairs beside the gravel-pocked ball field;
and when the women hollered, “Good eye, honey!”
at a tearful, trembling batter,
the men smiled like gentle but distracted strangers.

In their houses, a drawer slammed,
a kettle boiled, a hound twitched on the mat.
Televisions gabbled,
and the husbands pined for a secret world.
One drove six hours in dense fog
to a motel in Mississauga
instead of sitting down to supper.
Another stayed up till dawn
picking out “Night of the Johnstown Flood”
on his mother-in-law’s old guitar.

They fumbled with their sadness,
but nothing changed.
Women still clustered along the ball field
sharing packs of licorice, cat-calling the ump,
cheering at bloop singles and horrible throws to first.
The women behaved as if they had front-row tickets
to something magnificent and vital,
but the husbands couldn’t see, couldn’t quite see.

They raised their eyes toward the blackening sky
where swallows wheeled among the mosquitoes.
A child hacked at a pitch,
and the men’s thoughts clung to emptiness.
No one cried, “Cross out this life
that batters you down, and down, and down!”
Like chairs left in the rain for twenty years,
they sat.
Then one day their knees snapped
and they toppled into the flood.

 

Betsy Sholl – Poetry by Craig Sipe, “Reunion in Beaver Falls”

Craig Sipe, a Mainer now, grew up, as his poem says, in Pennsylvania.  But the changing world his speaker describes with poignancy could be any of the mill towns here in Maine as they face decline and try to rebuild themselves.   The poem also looks at how our relationship to our original home can both change and remain the same.

 

 

Reunion in Beaver Falls  (by Craig Sipe)

I am from Beaver Falls Pa,
part of Beaver County,
County Seat in the town of Beaver.

And I can tell you straight-on
that in 27 years I never
saw one damned beaver
…the whole time…

But I did see the night lit up
by blast furnaces all along
the Ohio River Boulevard
on the way to Pittsburgh,

I saw my father bent
by 21 turn shifts in a Cold Draw
pulling pipe, I saw
a thick, gray river
run past the Devout College

On the hill where the mill
fires paid for my brains but burned
my soul in cigarette plumes
over a smoker’s porch

Where the agnostics hung out
over the Beaver River, where
I gave birth to wanting to leave.

I am from Beaver Falls
where the years snuffed out the mills,
laid off a generation,
and seeded the diaspora of the next,

Where every house on every street
was for sale, wishing to dig itself up,
to redeem its soul from mortgage
and the need to change.

Beaver Falls, Beaver County,
County Seat of Beaver,
where a clean blue river

Flows today by a gas station economy,
and the   one each        legacy
donut and pizza shop   still there,

River flowing, falling by me,
stranger on the green bank,
a ghost of quit habits

staring up at the cross on the hill
one bank above the Devout College,
quite the going concern here now,

Hoping for a sign…some portent,
for a blast, for a smoke, for one God
Damned   bully   beaver.

–Craig Sipe