The Cranberry Island Series

Donald Wellman
Dos Madres Press, 2012, 118 pp, $17

The Cranberry Island Series

Review by Eric Hoffman

Maine fascinates me. As a resident of Southern New England, and a transplant from the Midwest, Maine remains a decidedly romantic destination: its dense inland forests, its rocky shores, picturesque yet rough, dotted by lighthouses and small islands, its beaches pebbled gray, its quiet inlets accompanied by the siren song of the foghorn, or the bells of lobster fishermen's boats arriving in docks with their catch. I am also drawn to Andrew Wyeth's paintings, and to the poetry of Philip Booth and George Oppen. I can now add Donald Wellman to this select group of Maine artists worthy of attention.

Opening this essay with a bit of autobiography seems fitting, given that Wellman's book is primarily autobiographical, an exercise in what Wellman calls 'autoethnography,' where 'the self is a product of interactions, a product of the field of shifting and counter-posed physical and communal forces.' Indeed, this book is a rich palimpsest - including poetry, memoirs, photographs, even musical charts. Wellman's guiding spirit here is the Charles Olson of The Maximus Poems; Wellman includes an essay on Olson's major work, 'A Poetics of Transcription,' in addition to a memoir of his interactions with Olson (and Olson's with Cranberry Island). The essay on Olson means to illustrate Wellman's use of Anglo-Saxon traditions in these poems as similar to Olson's utilizing Mesopotamian and Pre-Colombian cultures; Wellman's translation of the medieval poem 'The Seafarer' is among the highlights of this collection, a decidedly fresh, brave and carefully honed condensation of the Old English poem. I commend Wellman for his careful articulation of the poem's brutality and desperation.

It's a minor quibble among this book's many strengths, but the essay on Olson's poetics seems misplaced, sandwiched between 'The Seafarer' and a grouping of poems, thematically linked meditations on how natural forces interact and shape the natural world, a metaphorical extension of Wellman's view, set forth in his preface, of the self as a 'product of interactions':

A voice calls the names of the fathers
who made the stone alphabet
who carried stones into the sea
and made new lands with old names

The hand that knots water
at times
untwists the threads,
at times
writes lesson and season

does transcription slide the melody
up or down?

It alters timbre and signature.

Wellman might have placed the Olson poetics essay at the front of the book, as it makes an excellent theoretical introduction to the poetry that follows. Similarly, the memoir on Olson, 'My Life, Tangent to the Charles Olson Circle,' would fit better at the book's conclusion, rather than its current position, again interrupting a series of poems, as it refers back to a number of the works preceding it. This might have lent the collection a nice book-ended feel. A minor quibble, granted, but I think an important one for a work that utilizes such an array of sources - later in the book, Wellman presents the reader with extended biographical ruminations mixed with poetry, photographs, even genealogical charts and chronologies. Wellman clearly intends each aspect of the book to echo and resound off its constituent parts - 'fields traversed by multiple vectors' - as it stands, their placement, I think prevents the work from coalescing into a satisfying coherent whole.

That said the constituent parts have much to offer. Wellman sees these poems as 'intrusions, veins within the prose of historical and ethnographic material collected here,' and the poems are for the most part wonderfully evocative of Cranberry Island and its surrounding environs - its geographical features, fauna, its weather, but most of all its denizens. Be they shop farmers, hunters, or homemakers, Wellman's carefully attenuated lines capture the rich tapestry of human experience:

An old wife tells 
	of oxen that disappeared
She gazes through the lattice of her fingers
Her eyes above her eyes continuing
behold a quiet age

The makers of red pots
did not disappear.
A technology  of woven grass developed,
vessels of birch bark
more lissome and easy to carry.
Motion and countermotion,
stone to bone,
iron to tin, plastic heads
on fish traps.
('Many Gates')

The autobiographical prose sections further enrich this tapestry. These sections are somehow less intrusive than the Olson essays, perhaps because they share with the poetry a common subject matter and tone. The first autobiographical essay, 'Cranberry Island: Remembered Histories,' is essentially a family history, while 'Witness: For Elsie' is an expansive meditation on family history, economics, genealogy, geography, health and memory and how all these various factors intertwine and make up the precious and confusing texture of life. Meanwhile, the poems grasping with these same subjects at times achieve a kind of haiku-like concision:

Horses hauled boats
from the yards onto the mudflats.
The tide lifts them from the cradle.
('The Pool')

Bottles in a cabinet
One with aspirin
The cap frozen with rust
A Shard of mirror
and a parrot's beak
Secured trophy-wise.
A touch cures toothache.

Near and far, the mountains: Penobscot, Pemetic
Roofs of mansions, meadows, proper
and inappropriate 
nouns, knowing		The sense
is gray rose rock
('Some Nouns')

'The horizon, a receding limit, everywhere the same' 

Such lines are quintessentially Maine in character, as anyone who has lived or visited there can dutifully attest. Ultimately, what Wellman reaches for in this excellent volume is the radiance of one line from the poem 'Beginning at the Shore' (and indeed, all things in Maine begin there): 'The impossible is known in the familiar.' A wonderfully succinct description of poetry, I think, and most certainly, an apt description of the poetry found here.