PORTLAND – On a bench before Casco Bay, I look out over the yacht basin, now slated to move west of the bridge because the Portland Yacht Services site has been sold to a developer, and who knows what’s to become of this choice public access to our harbor.
Maybe age makes me more sensitive to the passing of things — their impermanence, not to mention my own. I have to wonder, though, about how often I’m surprised, not infrequently indignant, maybe sometimes even obstructive about change.
You’d think we’d get it, having had nothing but change since before birth. That wizening old guy in the mirror was as sure on his way to becoming who I am now as the baby to the boy, the boy to the teenager — at least, for those of us lucky enough to survive to elderhood.
So I’m looking out over the yacht basin this sunny, brisk morning at all this largesse — motorcraft, sailboats, long, sleek tall-masted schooners, and off to my right, moored at Portland Pier beyond the Ocean Gateway ferry terminal, the cruise liner Carnival Glory, a blockbuster with the water print of a pyramid higher than the six-story apartment building in Manhattan where I grew up, blocking out a huge swath of blue sky and the skirts of South Portland’s coastline.
If that weren’t enough, Muzak blares on the Carnival Glory’s loudspeakers, loud enough to jam peaceful reflection within an eighth of a mile in all directions.
At first, I can’t help asking why I have traded owning one of these luxury or sports boats for my brand of independent life, a life in poetry.
But I can’t not notice all these boats — rowboats to schooners — are moored and empty, their owners and captains being who knows where but certainly not aboard any of them this weekday morning. The only signs of life around the boats are a few young boat hands beginning the job of bringing the fleet of them ashore for the winter.
No, it’s been and continues to be a good life in a good city, doing the work I love, writing poems, learning and performing them and teaching what engages and moves me.
Sometimes I think I might have chosen some other work to enable sailing or cruising the blue, open waters on one of those boats, with names like Wanderlust or Carnival Glory.
All around me, though, are the casualties no amount of money can rescue — from floods in Colorado to the next-door heart attack — and whatever I don’t have and can’t buy pales beside what I love, time and the luck and health to use it, making my choices.
Some voices from behind distract me. One of those rickshaw bicycles — “pedicabs,” we’re calling them — with a pair of tourists, no doubt a couple from the cruise liner, stop to view the statue behind the bench where I’ve been writing.
The driver brags how most tourists don’t get to see this statue; or, if they do, view it in passing on one of the big breadbox tour buses wondering, “Who is that?”
“George Cleeve, the founder of Portland,” I say, getting up and turning to face them.
“Now you see,” the pedicab driver says, “you wouldn’t have known that.”
“Or met me, Portland, Maine’s first poet laureate,” I say, walking over to them. “Would you like to hear a poem?”
“Yes,” they say, all three in unison, and I recite a poem called “Short Morning Song,” inspired on a walk here along the harbor last spring.
“Can I give you something?” the woman says, holding out a few bills. Everyone is smiling — the woman, the man, the pedicab driver …
“No, no …,” I say, resisting.
“Please, please, let me give you something,” she says.
So I take the bills in her hand. I have earned half my morning’s coffee and croissant.
It’s like that with poetry, that is, feeding the spirit and purchasing half a loaf — sometimes. That doesn’t seem to change.
Martin Steingesser of Portland was the city’s first poet laureate, from 2007 to 2009.