Books — The Breath of Parted Lips

In the tradition of Robert Frost

Contemporary poets speak from Franconia

By Dan Szczesny 

The Breath of Parted Lips: Voices From the Robert Frost Place, Volume II, edited by Sydney Lea, CavanKerry Press, 2004.

Since 1976, Robert Frost Place in Franconia has been ground zero in New Hampshire for poetry.

Besides becoming a museum/home of Frost, the center offers a yearly summer residence to contemporary poets and is also a teaching and workshop center. At some point over the past 25 years, most of this country’s major and minor poet literary figures have either lived in, taught at or read to crowds at Frost Place.

The Breath of Parted Lips: Voices From the Robert Frost Place, Volume II is the second in what one hopes will be an ongoing series of poetry compilations thematically centered around the experience of Frost Place. In 2001, Volume I showcased all 24 resident poets who had lived and written at Frost Place. Now, with Volume II, editor Sydney Lea has compiled a massive selection of poems written by the hundreds of poets who, since 2001, have taught at or lived in Frost Place. Some of the poems are directly inspired by Frost Place; most are not. In all, Lea has gathered together the work of more than 170 poets, many published for the first time.

Like any compilation, this one has hits and misses and the $28 price tag may scare off the less adventurous. But unlike the standard compilations, there are several unique features of this set that make Volume II remarkable

First, Lea, the founder of the New England Review and himself an accomplished author and poet, includes several previously unpublished poems by such renowned poets as Donald Hall, Charles Simic and Wesley McNair. Simic’s three new poems alone, “The Village of Philosophizing Dogs,” “Wonder of the Invisible World” and “Invitation,” are worth the price of the volume. In typically simple form, Simic tells of a garden lunch party in “Invitation” where “We’ll start with cold squid salad, / Minced scallions, garlic and parsley, / And a pot of black and green olives / And homemade bread to wipe the oil, / When we are not sipping wine.” Simple words with the alliterative parallels between the squid, scallions, and sipping, between olives and oil; Simic understands the connection between sound and taste, and by the time the reader finishes the poem, surely hunger is the result.

Second, Lea does not allow the heavy hitters to overshadow the first-time poets. The volume is arranged alphabetically and no single poet is given more than four or five selections. So, one of the joys afforded by this new volume is finding that unpublished poet to call your own. Some of my choices are Martha Andrews Donovan’s ode to growing old, “The Nearness of You,” Siegfried Haug’s “Ploughing in Fall,” a sad poem that uses plowing as a metaphor for exposing the soul and, finally, the funny story/poem “There’s a Pig Outside” by June Coleman Macgrab. In it, the narrator finds herself at a country restaurant being told a story by a waiter who was knocked unconscious by a flashlight, but unable to pay attention to his story due to the presence of a yogurt-eating pig named Carrot.

The volume also features introductions to three poets who have passed away, Amy Clampitt, Jane Kenyon and William Matthews. Kenyon’s is written by her husband, Donald Hall. Finally, in an interesting break from other compilations, the volume includes a generous amount of photos of the poets and teachers at work Frost Place.

Easy to read and accessible for even the novice reader, The Breath of Parted Lips offers a cross-section of both the best poets and those with the most potential. The volume presents a wide range of styles and tone, yet is rooted enough in the New England tradition to be recognizable to anyone who appreciates the wit and depth of Robert Frost. The vocation of poetry is alive and well, and captured perfectly in The Breath of Parted Lips.

- Dan Szczesny

2004 HippoPress LLC | Manchester, NH