Featured Poet: Janet Sylvester, Somersworth
Janet Sylvester’s first book of poetry, That Mulberry Wine
, was published by Wesleyan University Press. Her second book, The Mark of Flesh
, came out with W.W. Norton. Her new book of poems, Breakwater
, is under consideration at a number of publishers. A collector’s edition chapbook of poems, A Visitor at the Gate
, was hand-printed and bound by Shinola Press. Sylvester’s poems have appeared in many journals and anthologies, including The Best American Poetry
, Harvard Review
; Georgia Review
; Virginia Quarterly Review
, Poetry Daily
and many others. She is a recipient of the Grolier Poetry Prize, a Pen Discovery Award and a Pushcart Prize and has been awarded multiple fellowships to the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She directs the low-residency BFA in Creative Writing Program at Goddard College in VT and teaches a class on writing and environmental crisis at Harvard Extension.
Before moving to Portsmouth, NH in 2008, I lived in Kittery, ME for a year and commuted to Boston for work. I crossed the now missing Memorial Bridge countless times. Stopped on the bridge one frigid February day, I looked to my left at the harbor and saw what appeared to be a visual artist's rendering of a spiritual state: water, lit with dozens of slightly tilted triangles made of steam in ineffable shades of silver, copper, pink, and pale blue under the early-morning sun. The vision was riveting, and then traffic was given the signal to move forward. I discovered that the phenomenon is called sea smoke. It's the heart of the poem, beating in that sinuous collocation of canals, river, and harbor islands, a tidal place. Living in Kittery, and then Portsmouth, the daily motion of the water, visible or invisible, informed who I was. I can still feel it. When I began to work on the poem, layered as most of my poems are, this heart beat among other images of the place the water moved through--its history, its present vivid as the backyard's old apple tree. I was home; I wasn't home yet. Little did I know. When the tide recently returned me to New Hampshire, I re-learned its truth. "Sea Smoke" was originally published in Blackbird.
Frost on a window, indistinguishable from roses
knotted into a curtain, burning
as blue dawn drains into it
from the backyard apple, its parabola
of ruddy spheres
what’s left of summer. Across the fence, a red boat’s dry docked,
buttoned against snow
that won’t arrive until later.
Warming your hands
at a cup of coffee
in the kitchen, you send your wish into the hemlocks, and
beyond them, to the bridge
that takes you away, commuting days.
You want to root here,
into the water’s going
and coming, to be home, to be home, in this old place
long skirts hurried
through to the small barn
a Mexican restaurant worker rents
now. Instead, you layer sweaters,
walk out to scrape ice from the car, coughing, like luck, into drive.
Past the Square that plows
have already heaped into drifts,
you slide onto the bridge
and—how can it be worded--the braiding tensions of the current,
the light the world flows inside,
have turned to precious metals.
Every register of platinum
and rose gold issues into
the frigid channel, coaxed
by sun into thermal plumes, bright steam cooling to droplets bent
by air into pyramids—
dozens of them—
seemingly still. You
stop, idling for minutes
to let the bridge raise, then drop; the day’s first fruit, a form of fog
exhaled by water,
already gone, as
the future accumulates
in the rear-view mirror: an apple tree,
dirt-brown, disappearing into the vanished chapel of its leaves.