“All of us dazzling in the brilliant slanting light”: Barbara Crooker’s “Strewn”

Not exactly right, but you get the idea.

Not exactly right, but you get the idea.

Last week, my uncle, who lives in Maine, came for a visit, which was excellent in all respects except that it was too short. And it just so happened that last week’s American Life in Poetry column, curated by Ted Kooser (which I highly recommend as a way to get into poetry–the poems are about the experiences of everyday life, and are always accessible) featured a poem by Barbara Crooker about the Maine coast.

“Strewn” is beautifully detailed. I love the list of broken shells that the speaker describes, and the idea of the sunlight on the beach like “a rinse / of lemon on a cold plate.” But it’s the turn at the end of the poem that brings the other people on the beach—and by extension the reader—into the speaker’s orbit that still resonates for me days after reading the poem.

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Recommended Reading: The Lobster Kings, by Alexi Zentner

photo (5)Cordelia Kings was born into royalty — lobstering royalty, that is. Her father, Woody, is the most respected lobsterman on Loosewood Island, a small community on land claimed by both Canada and the United States. The Kings trace their family history all the way back to Brumfitt Kings, a painter who was the island’s first settler, and it’s a history in which the sea’s bounty goes hand-in-hand with a curse: the death of the first-born son in each generation.

Unlike her two sisters, Cordelia loves lobstering from the moment she sets foot on a boat, and considers herself her father’s rightful heir, in more ways than one. But as Cordelia grows up, Loosewood Island changes too. Threats both within and outside the community surface: people on the island are selling meth, and fisherman from a nearby town are making a power play for Loosewood’s waters.  Cordelia has her own problems, too: a married sternman she can’t help falling for, sisters whose proximity makes tensions rise, and a father she adores who isn’t getting any younger.

As you might have guessed, Alexi Zentner’s The Lobster Kings* was inspired by King Lear, but is not a retelling in the vein of, say, Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres. Like Lear, however, The Lobster Kings is a family drama with repercussions outside the family unit, and as you can imagine, since Loosewood Island is off the coast of northern Maine, you’re in for a hell of a storm.

Woody Kings may be a patriarch with three daughters, but he’s a cautious man (generally), and a loving father to all his children; his concern for his daughters’ welfare and theirs for him makes The Lobster Kings one of my new favorite father-daughter books. If Woody’s ever mad, it’s with the kind of madness that could overtake any of us in the throes of grief.  He’s feared by his enemies, and very well respected by his fellow lobstermen:

He was the king of the harbor, and his grandfather before, and there would come a day, probably, when I’d take over. We made decisions as a group–to shorten the season, to fish less traps, to stop letting cruise ships dock in the harbor–but anytime we made a decision, big or small, there was always a moment when every man would look to Daddy to see if he agreed. (111)

Cordelia’s love for her father is built on a foundation of respect. Lobstering is immensely difficult work, and after reading this novel, you’ll never look at your lobster roll the same way. Take ropes: “Warp scatters everywhere. Good lobstermen will keep their warps organized, lines coiled and out of the way, where they need to be, and so will the bad lobsterman. Highliners and dubs alike, they keep the ropes neat. The only lobstermen who don’t keep their ropes neat are dead ones” (47).

This kind of realism and awareness of danger permeates The Lobster Kings, even as Cordelia relates present events to analogues in the island’s semi-mythic past. Her narration is interspersed with accounts of Brumfitt Kings’s paintings and the stories behind them. In Cordelia’s view, “Brumfitt was just trying to capture the sea and its power and how little control we have over it. He was just trying to capture the darkness” (161). With lovely, evocative language, Mr. Zentner brings these paintings to brilliant life; you can almost see them hanging in the MFA. Here’s one of my favorite descriptions:

My favorite picture of Brumfitt’s wife is probably Marriage Bed. It’s dated from the first year of their marriage. Brumfitt’s wife’s hair is splayed down her naked back, the sheets billowing and creased around her lower body, leaving an amorphous shape below her waist that Daddy thinks looks like a mermaid’s tail. I’m not sure that I agree with Daddy, but there is something else in the picture that makes me think of the selkie myth instead; pushed partially under the table is a stool, and on the stool is what appears to be a coat made of sealskin. Maybe Brumfitt stole her skin, but loved her enough to offer it back. And maybe she loved him enough that she didn’t take it up, loved him enough that she refused the gift of her skin returned, loved him enough that she let him keep her skin, let him keep her bound to Loosewood Island, to Brumfitt Kings. (217)

It’s this kind of painting — in the nebulous space between the feel-good seascapes that grace dentists’ walls and threatening pieces beloved by art critics (Loosewood Island’s second major industry is tourism) — that draws in both Cordelia and her father. This blending of the real and the perhaps-real, the mythic, in swirls of artful description, is what will draw readers into The Lobster Kings.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday: An interview with Alexi Zentner, author of The Lobster Kings.