“The Cranberry Island Series” by Donald Wellman; Dos Madres Press Inc., Loveland, Ohio, 2012; 108 pages, trade paperback, $17.
Summering on the coast of Maine is a tradition going back at least into the late 19th century, and the atmospheric memories generated in those week-long, month-long or season-long visits seem to persist lifelong and run deep, especially when they’re made in childhood.
Donald Wellman, now of Weare, N.H., made those summer visits to the Cranberry Islands in the 1940s and ’50s, and came away with what, according to “The Cranberry Island Series,” appear to be quintessential Maine-coast memories. The book is an effort to unfold not only the specific events and details that make a Maine island, well, magical to recall, but also to explore deeper connections that are felt but difficult to articulate.
Wellman’s exploration takes basically three rhetorical tacks: prose memoirs; lyric poems; and prose explanations of the connections in his life and writings to Charles Olson, a poet of Gloucester, Mass., who was associated with the Black Mountain and Beat poets of the 1950s and ’60s, and whose ideas about language and literature spawned influential enclaves of literary study.
Wellman calls his approach “autoethnography.” He explains: “Autoethnographic poetry is an investigation into the nature of self or ego as a phenomenon that arises in the interactions between the one and the many, the body and the polis “¦” If this seems abstruse, don’t worry. All he means is that he means to explore who he is by investigating what happened around him on the Cranberry Isles of the past and present.
So along the way, we get a lot of homely details about his family and neighbors on the islands around midcentury, the kind of stuff genealogy buffs and town historians love. (“In 1948, the time of my earliest visit to Cranberry, I was four, seven when Aunt Sadie passed. The warm cow’s milk that she served gave me to have a queasy stomach. She kept the last milk cow on the island, although Carl Hardy kept a bull for several years thereafter.”)
Interspersed with the recollections are passages touching on the islands’ deep past as landing points for Native Americans and European explorers. Because of his own connections with the Black Mountain poets, Wellman is fascinated by the fact that Olson and his family spent time on the islands, and among the different old photos and maps is an inset timeline detailing that history.
These prose passages occupy more than half of the book, and in their academic moments can be heavy going, depending on your reading purposes. The real jewels, though, are the lyric poems. In open forms strongly reminiscent of Olson’s poetry, Wellman crystallizes the sensory materials that summertime memories inhabit. For example, from “Heath”:
Bleached, tangled limbs, shorn of bark
Samphire and glasswort root in rust colored water “¦
Rock and bog cranberry
Belong to the heath family
A rib bone, light as paper balances
on stems of cotton sedge
Subarctic orchids, petals, compass
Flow lines in rock, trending south and west
Life begins here
This is the exact atmosphere of Maine coast summer. It is closer to the heart of the autoethnographic reality than all the prose in New England.
Donald Wellman, a professor of humanities at Daniel Webster College in New Hampshire, is also the author of translations, literary criticism, and books of poetry that include “Fields” and “A North Atlantic Wall.”
Dana Wilde’s collection of essays, “The Other End of the Driveway,” is available from Booklocker.com. http://booklocker.com/books/5473.html