Wednesday, March 09, 2016


When I asked for a review copy of this book by Katherine (Katie) Towler, I had in mind her lovely literary novels placed on an island between and during world wars. Somehow I thought THE PENNY POET OF PORTSMOUTH would be an old-fashioned tale of a long-ago poet who made rhymes and stood on the street corner to sell them.

Nope. If I had looked more closely at the book's subtitle -- A Memoir of Place, Solitude, and Friendship -- I might have made a better guess. But all's well, because I found myself blissfully engaged, page after page, chapter after chapter, in one of the most wonderful surprises of my literary year.

Katherine Towler's life focused on writing from an early age; she was writing poems at 10, and as a young adult she craved both solitude (for writing) and diversion, the kind that comes from moving often. To her own surprise, after years of learning to spend time alone in pursuit of her best writing, she married Jim when the two of them were 35, in a midlife marriage with a great deal of gentleness and ample space to be herself. The couple settled into a rented space in an older home at the edge of the tidal waters of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in a neighborhood where their cat, at least, felt immediately at home.

And it was through a neighbor's cat that she first exchanged word with Robert Dunn, a poet himself, living nearby in far less comfort than she had. Katie's slow dance of becoming acquainted with her coastal town and its residents needed to balance with her urge to withdraw, to create for herself the solitude she felt her writing demanded. Her early perceptions of Robert gave her an ideal to look toward: a man who walked slowly around the town keeping to himself, not making conversation, not even meeting anyone's gaze, living the life Katie believed that her craft -- and his -- demanded.
I admired the nimble grace with which Robert navigated this territory, his ability to maintain a guarded privacy while, in a limited fashion, letting people in. He appeared to have mastered something fundamental I wasn't sure I ever would, though I was feeling my way toward my own kind of balance. For the first time, I appeared to have found a place to live where my warring impulses could coexist, and in my marriage a relationship that could accommodate, although not always easily, my need to disappear.
To Katie's surprise, a connection she formed with Robert through Portsmouth choosing to select him as the town's second Poet Laureate -- she was in the selection group -- tugged her into Robert's circle of friends. It wasn't just the surprise of being chosen for this, but even more so, the discovery of  how many people considered themselves Robert's friends that startled her. Then came the biggest surprise of all: Robert's decision, step by prickly step, to involve Katie in his efforts to stay alive and keep writing while struggling with the diseases that poverty and aging (and cigarettes) put into place.

The struggles that ensue will seem achingly familiar to any creative person agonizing over how to manage enough privacy while also contributing to a family or community. In Towler's book, the frictions of two writers in need of inner solitude -- she with her novels and Robert with his poems -- also come laden with New England revelations about how difficult poverty can be, and how embarrassing and humiliating the lack of power in a personal life becomes.

The slow pace of discovery of Robert's life and secrets mingles with Towler's own slow movement into strength as a published author, a tide of rising and falling parallel to the nearby ocean's. The two poets also intermingle their life lessons in terms of spirituality and religion. Although none of Tower's own poems appear here, those of Robert's often call upon familiar texts while simplifying the language to paint the New England town life accurately, like this one:
Vesper sparrows, turnable of bellbirds,
the small owls have called from tree to tree.
No need to comfort or be comforted.
Pitched high or low, grief is a kind of love
and so must be. Or no one else will know
when the sparrow falls, least of all the sparrow.
       --- Robert Dunn
I ached with Towler in both the beautiful unpeeling of her own life here -- that of Katie the writer adapting to settling in one place -- and the slow realization of Robert's life through his requests to her and her own discomfort in filling his needs. Suspense builds in the telling, as we readers realize, with Katie, the inevitability of Robert's illness and oncoming death, and the enormous efforts of personal sacrifice that both he and Katie choose to make in the long and unpredictable process.

Make time for this one. Pick up a copy or two now (if you've read this far in the review, it's likely there will be people you love, to whom you will want to give this book), but set it on the shelf or table for a quiet rainy afternoon when you can relinquish Ordinary Time and settle into the deep, long sweeps of the narrative.

I will never face writing in the same way again. And the next time I visit Portsmouth, New Hampshire, I expect to be haunted by the ghosts of Robert Dunn and the younger, struggling writer who was Katherine Towler before she stepped forward into her own strong ability to evoke such a portrait as THE PENNY POET OF PORTSMOUTH.

[From Counterpoint Press, and available through bookstores and online.]

No comments: