OFF RADAR: “How the stones arrived in Venice” and “In the light of the stars”


“How the Stones Came to Venice” by Gary Lawless; Littoral Books, Portland, Maine, 2021; 80 pages, paperback, $18.95.

“How the Stones Came to Venice”

Gary Lawless, who for various reasons has been one of the shining lights on Maine’s literary radar for about 50 years now, has a new book, “How the Stones Came to Venice.” It’s not an easy book to summarize, but it’s the most magical I’ve read in a while.

I use the word “magic” wisely. The overall effect of the book is to build up into a spell that has guided your mind through what feels like a vast and complex dream.

What this dream is about: The origins of the book involve a trip that Lawless and his wife, Beth Leonard, took to Venice to search for the stone from which the island city is built. Some of the stones were found to come from granite quarries in Maine and Vermont, others from neighboring Croatia, Greece and Turkey. Lawless and Leonard visited all of these places. The book includes a series of poems and short prose pieces written during and about these visits, with illustrations.

The poems are made of diction and utterances so simple that they alone can seem almost childish. In ‘Driving home from Belfast’ (where Lawless grew up), ‘I hear the granite sing / And it’s alive’ – a kind of new-age sound and so bald it seems superficial. But they pile up along a winding road from Belfast, to the quay in Venice where modern literature’s greatest professor Ezra Pound walked, to a Greek Orthodox ceremony for the environment, to Istanbul where “every /stone…/Holds a prayer”, back to Casco Bay and “Damariscotta Lake” near Lawless and Leonard’s home in Nobleboro, where those lines, similar in simplicity to those of singing granite, now seem to be imbued of a powerful sense of the ancient natural history of all our surroundings:

Do loons tell their children

Any stories from this lake?

Do the stones remember the glacier?

In the clay, shells of

Ten thousand years –

Do they dream of the ocean?

It’s as simple as that, and as complex. For the poetic rhetoric at work here is that of Pound’s “Cantos”, where phrases and fragments containing the story accumulate in the music of mystical ideas (as explained by Carroll Terrell, scholar of UMaine, in his book on Pound’s poetry, “Ideas in Reaction”). . One of Pound’s refrains was about “stone taking shape in air”, an image involving the aesthetic relationship between sculpture and poetry; we find the echo of this exact imagery on page 1 of “How the stones came to Venice”: “Spirit rising through the rock, / sung.” Pound himself shows up, in Venice, 15 pages later.

The book is illustrated with photos and digital art (including alchemical symbols) and set in Pound-era manual typewriter fonts, all tastefully laid down on colored glossy paper to look yellowed and old. The result is a story-packed book of environmental poetry that casts the same kind of charm as the “Cantos,” if you know how to read.

Lawless and Leonard have operated Gulf of Maine Books in Brunswick for decades. “How the Stones Came to Venice” is available through Littoral Books and local booksellers.

• • • • •

“In the Light of the Stars” by Bruce Willard; Four Way Books, New York, 2021; 80 pages, paperback, $16.95.

“In the Light of the Stars”

“In Light of Stars” is the third collection of poetry by part-time Boothbay Harbor resident Bruce Willard. Composed mostly of short lines and sometimes particularly fragmentary phrasing, the book’s roughly three dozen poems ruminate on personal memories and poignant domestic moments in a kind of dreamy, starry glow.

Typical of imagery and rhetoric, “A Picture of the Sky” begins: “A pattern in the sky signifies rain is near, / another, high winds aloft. // There’s a way stars want to be seen. It turns out to be dreamy imagery right away, because star patterns don’t predict rain or wind, but clouds can. The poem works through airplane contrails, a mockingbird’s “singing circle,” and the speaker’s complaint that he was able to identify patterns in such things, but not anymore:

Now I’m less sure

only opaque plenitude

storm clouds hold back in summer

when we gather to hear the sound

of the evening that separates

The unfinished phrasing of “I’m less sure (of these things) than of…” and the vaporous abstraction of “opaque fullness”, which the storm clouds somehow “hold back”, all create a kind of semantic synesthesia which materializes in “sound”. of the evening that is breaking”, an expression in line with Rod McKuen’s exhortation, in another era, to “listen to the heat”. At the end of the poem, the clouds return, gently inciting “fellowship with the lonely/starships of the night.”

This overall dreamlike personal vibe imparted by most of the poems is reminiscent of the phrase “self-portrait in a convex mirror”, and there may well be an underlying influence from John Ashbery here too, whose book of this title has made the rounds. among American poets of the 1970s and 1980s, especially those from denominational streams.

Bruce Willard operates a retail and clothing design business in Southern California and is the author of “Violent Blues” and “Holding Ground”, both available with “In Light of Stars” from Four Way Books and online booksellers.

Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine ties on the first and third Fridays of each month. Dana Wilde is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Contact him at [email protected]

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