Reviews

 

In The Working Waterfront, by Carl Little

“So Let’s See What’s Up With This Creature.”

SINCE ESTABLISHING SEASONAL roots on Deer Isle in 1995, writer Deborah Cummins, a lifelong Midwesterner, has fallen deeply under the spell of downeast Maine—and drawn on her surroundings to craft a clutch of memorable poems. Her two book-length collections, Beyond the Reach (2002) and Counting the Waves (2006), reflect inspired local knowledge. Whether reporting on the way islanders greet each other (“Island Wave”), recounting the infamous arboreal transport that held up area traffic for a day (“Apple Tree”), or reconsidering the idea of living on Deer Isle year-round (“Just When”), Cummins brings a fresh perspective to Maine coast subjects.

Now the poet has turned to prose to convey her sense of place. Here and Away consists of a “gathering” of 17 or so personal essays, plus a prologue. Coming from Chicago, Cummins discovered a small community surrounded by natural beauty. “I found myself retrieving neighborly from my lexicon’s back shelf,” she writes, “and dusting it off after years of little use.” She also learns that life on a 12-by-6-mile island “means everybody knows more about you than you think they do.”

Cummins traces the seasonal stay, from opening the house in May to bidding farewell to the island (and her garden) in October. Along the way she writes extended riffs on a variety of subjects. In “Names,” for example, she muses on the names we give to places, on given names, on the names in an island cemetery—a meditation triggered by having her road sign, Bunchberry Lane, stolen.

Writers from away have been known to produce caricatures of locals, or to condescend, or to hang out others’ laundry. Cummins avoids this, writing movingly of members of the community she has adopted. Describing her interactions with Lewis, an octogenarian plumber, she pays tribute to his ability to teach the intricacies of a water filter. “So let’s see what’s up with this creature,” he says.

Poetry, science, philosophy and other odds and ends of writings are woven into the prose. Cummins draws on a wide range of authors, from Gaston Bachelard and Wendell Berry to Amy Clampitt and Pablo Neruda, often using a quote as a springboard for further exploring a subject or theme. At times, her prose takes a natural history bent that brings to mind the essays of Sue Hubbell, another downeast settler from away.

The voice is engaging, personable and often darkly humorous. Maine coast residents may find some of the accounts a bit “been there, read that”—territory well covered by previous visitors taken with a place where, in poet Charles Wadsworth’s memorable phrase, “rock has no plan to be sand” (which Cummins cites twice).

Yet there is a lot here to which one can relate—the ties to home and family, the love of an old dog, the music of the spheres. And in the second half of the book, the “Away” of the title, Cummins delves into her life elsewhere (a section about the death of her brother is especially moving). Like Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea, this book manages to consider the cosmos as it relates to very tangible things. You might say there is love and there is ledge.

(The section “Ebb and Flow” in Here and Away won the 2012 Maine Literary Award in Short Works of Nonfiction from the Maine Writers & Publishers

Alliance.)

 Andrea Hollander Budy, author of House Without a Dreamer

“In these thoughtful, invigorating, meditative essays on the nature of place and home and belonging, Deborah Cummins takes us from her childhood in the Midwest to an island in Maine. And not only to that island, but also deeply among its landscapes and inhabitants. Her meditations are thorough and multifaceted, shining from and through and into. And the writing itself is so rich an experience as to augment the pleasures of reading itself. Her splendid sentences – one can almost taste them – and her particular way of seeing things reside in each page. Hers is a voice most welcome. Not loud, but not shy either. It is a subtle, educated, and singular voice, that of an acquaintance who grows closer as she begins to trust us and we feel increasingly more like friend, eventually even honorary family. In this way her Maine, this island, her parcel of land, her house – all become, in a pleasantly vicarious say, our, as well.”

From Amazon

“Cummins’ voice is well-known in the world of poetry. She now has shown us her prodigious skills as an essayist in Here and Away: Discovering Home on an Island in Maine, where she examines life on a “found island” off the coast of Maine. Some of us never find that special place where we are most at peace, where we fit so well into the landscape. She gives voice to the joy of finding hers.”

Ted Kooser, U.S. Poet Laureate:

"Cummins is a poet with both hands in plain sight. No manipulative literary affections, no illustrations of theory, no personal mission other than to address us directly, with clarity, authenticity, and, above all, with generosity."

From The Georgia Review, Judith Kitchen

"Deborah Cummins’ first full-length collection, Beyond the Reach, explores the intersection of the human and natural worlds. For Cummins, the exterior world offers up solace, its ‘inhuman beauty’ acting as antidote to human pain. In the end, these poems look to the world in order to discover what makes us most human."

“Carefully arranged in three sections, Beyond the Reach begins at the cusp…The first section entitled ‘Passage’…concentrates on the living, even as life is ebbing. A friend, a father, a long-remembered horse, a woman cast in the indeterminate third person learning to spell the world malignancy, a pond with its ‘unstoppable decay’ – each is seen in the period just before death, when life burns most ferociously….The second section, ‘Relics,’ concentrates on things already gone: the past, its oddly haunting anecdotes, its ordinary violences, a stultifying job, an old affair…these poems are animated, charged with the force of recognition, the natural world offering commentary on the interior spaces….The book’s third part, ‘Meanwhile,’ establishes the ongoing cyclical flux that happens in spite of human drama. The sea goes on, and sometimes one needs to be reminded that the tide will turn….Although Cummins takes her cadence from the sea, the speaker cannot lose her human consciousness. The poems remain a chronicle of missed connections… they ebb and swell in service of a human quest. One idea begets another…the human and natural worlds at last coincide….”

From The Laurel Review, Peter Makuck

In Beyond the Reach, Deborah Cummins “uses wide watery expanses as a way to explore the mysteries of place as well as draw connections between the self and the physical world, especially the coastal world of beaches, gulls, and salt marshes which, for her, are sacramental and offer redemption….The ‘reach’ of Cummins’ title is nautical and refers to an unbroken expanse of open water or to the expanse that suddenly presents itself between the turns of a river or channel, often with surprise….Her title points to all that is mysterious about our time-bound predicament, to what is beyond the reach of our understanding.”

Much of her book is about the “the drama of consciousness versus the specter of personal annihilation. We encounter a hospitalized dying friend no longer able to eat, wanting to hear about gourmet meals; an older woman unable to speak after cancer treatments; the father who ‘can’t piss in a tube’ and is ‘speechless as an animal.’ …There’s no denial in Cummins’ view of those final things that loom in the reach and though we are frequently reminded of grave matters throughout the book, those matters only heighten our sense of what is precious, near at hand…whatever paradise we are capable of exists in the present…. Cummins shows us how we save ourselves by seeing, by being aware of time and what it tells us about our poignant, finite condition.”

From Crab Orchard Review, Teresa Joy Kramer

“Cummins’ first book is an abundant pleasure for the reader – the sort of collection that could be read cover to cover, beside a fireplace in an oversized leather armchair. Her narratives are clear and intriguing, keeping a reader’s curiosity level high, and are interspersed with her philosophical questioning – ideas that sneak up on the reader, that are never forced or trite… Her occasional explorations of powerlessness end not in the lack of power at all…something is transformed along the way… Her poetry is capable of addressing weighty, secretive issues with believable directness, issues such as a marital affair, the domestic violence next door, her lack of jealousy over her sister’s motherhood….Even the poems that seem focused on natural phenomenon travel to realms that are definable.” “Her poems resound with integrity, with clarity, and above all with humble, understated courage. She speaks of fear but does not stay in that place, which may explain why her work is satisfying and approachable.”