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Mornings In Maine: Mark Pawlak’s Poetry Of The Pine Tree State

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Mark Pawlak first began going to Maine to visit the home of his mentor, the poet Denise Levertov, near Farmington decades ago. Later he frequented a cottage at Old Orchard Beach owned by the family of his wife, poet Mary Bonina, and then a cottage they rented at Tenants Harbor. But for the past seven years, Cambridge couple has sojourned for a couple weeks each summer in Lubec.

“It’s the most northeasterly town in the United States,” Pawlak says. “It’s the first sunrise of the United States.”

The town is the setting for his new poetry collection “Go to the Pine: Quoddy Journals 2005-2010,” published by Lowell’s Bootstrap Press last month, which he reads from at the Grolier Poetry Bookshop, 6 Plympton St., Cambridge, at 5 tonight, Nov. 9. The title comes from a quote from the Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō: “Go to the pine if you want to learn about pine…”

The 64-year-old poet makes his living teaching math and directing academic support programs at UMass Boston. He co-edits and co-publishes the Hanging Loose literary journal. With a busy schedule, a challenge is how to carve out time to write his own poems—like the one from his last book, 2006’s Official Versions, that was included in the 2006 edition of the poetry annual The Best American Poetry.

“I do a lot of my writing in summers when I get a brief respite,” he says. In Lubec, he’s often up at dawn to read poetry and write, then take a long relaxed bike ride that frees his mind for thinking. Go to the Pine is Maine as seen from someone from Away. In Quoddy Journal 2005, he writes:

“Lone lobster boat in the distance, plying the water between dark landmasses heading for open sea. White clapboard and red roof houses on Quoddy Head cleanly etched by the gaining light. Picture postcard perfect!”

The poems are suffused with a sense of leisure, of being on vacation and so having time to carefully see. And that can allow things to snap into crisp focus, as in the Watercolor section of Quoddy Journal 2006, he writes:

“Chicken-wire fence

edges weed-wigged rocks

bordering a field

where sheep graze,

while sparrows and starlings

hop and peck among

clumps of close-cropped grass

peppered with droppings.”

It’s observational writing, and accessible, built on catalogues of specific nouns, salted with reflections, cute quips and samples of dry Maine humor. Pawlak says his diaristic style is inspired by 16th and 17th century Japanese haibun poetic prose and haiku journals (particularly the writing of Bashō) filtered through 20th century Modernist styles (New York School, Objectivism).

“It’s a form that I find that’s a kind of opportunity to work in the open air,” Pawlak says, “to be out in the streets among people, or to be in nature, and to be observing and report, attentive to one’s surroundings.”

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