Katherine Towler’s new memoir is more than an account of her odd friendship with Portsmouth, New Hampshire, poet Robert Dunn. Although she paints a vivid portrait of the eccentric and intensely committed writer, Towler also recollects a New England seaport in transition. By juxtaposing the steadfast poet and the transforming small city, she asks compelling questions about the longing for creative solitude and the need for community.

Having spent her post-college years moving from one location on the Eastern Seaboard to another, Towler, author of the novels “Snow Island,” “Evening Ferry” and “Island Light,” arrived in Portsmouth in 1991 wondering whether she would finally be able to put down roots.

Writing is her life, she says, “the reason for getting up in the morning and going to bed at night, the justification for any number of choices that sometimes baffled” her friends and family. Towler desperately wanted to be a novelist, and she was obsessed with “an intense desire for months of uncharted time and hours of unbroken silence.”

While exploring the rough-edged but low-key colonial city, Towler kept running into a shabbily dressed, lone walker who barely acknowledged her as they passed.

KATHERINE TOWLER

Katherine Towler

She writes, “This strange little man moving like a leaf nudged by the wind, his body bent in such a stoop that he appeared not much more than five feet in height, though he was clearly taller, belonged among these streets that had once been cow paths. He struck me as a figure, like so much in the landscape of Portsmouth, out of another century.”

This anachronistic individual, whom Towler suspected to be homeless, was Robert Dunn, the renter of a second-floor room on Towler’s street. Dunn, she learned, was noted for producing tiny volumes of verse and selling them for a penny a piece. Give him a dime and he insisted on returning nine cents in change.

Dunn worked afternoons as a custodian at The Athenaeum, a private library on the town square, but few folks in town knew much about his personal background. He lived without a phone, car or computer and appeared to take sustenance mainly from coffee and cigarettes.

As Dunn and Towler struck up a tentative, prickly friendship, she began to glimpse the uncompromising power of his poetry (many examples of which are included in this memoir). After Dunn was appointed Portsmouth’s first poet laureate, she came to understand how well respected his work was and how many people cared about his welfare.

She writes, “I treasured Robert the way many people in Portsmouth treasured him, as someone who helped to make our town unique and, walking the streets as he did, gave them character.”

The connection between the poet and his environment is central to Towler’s book. She writes, “He made Portsmouth his canvas and for thirty years covered these streets with an eye to picking up every unexpected treasure, every small revelation, every window into other lives.”

Towler provides her own deft portrait of Portsmouth at a time before property values skyrocketed and long-time local businesses gave way to hotels and upscale chain stores. There’s an elegiac quality to her descriptions, and she carefully leads the reader to an understanding of how difficult it would be now to maintain a lifestyle as spartan as Dunn’s, when housing is less affordable, inexpensive food is scarce and fellow citizens are more distracted and too harried to lend a hand – or even notice the need itself.

She writes, “What is happening in Portsmouth is no different from what is happening in thriving urban centers on either coast of America: the widening gap between rich and poor and the homogenization of our public spaces, with money, not a shared vision of community life, as the driving force behind it all.”

Dunn needed solitude, but time spent alone on the fringes of society often comes at a cost. Beset by chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Dunn eventually found his health on an ominous trajectory. He pulled himself through one hospital stay after another, but was only able to do so with the help of friends and acquaintances, especially Towler.

Towler and Dunn’s relationship didn’t always run smoothly. He resented many of her intrusions into his private life, while at the same time making demands on her time and attention. She admired his uncompromising attitude toward his creative output, while chafing under the responsibility of looking after him.

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She writes, “He let me in, but only a little, and only because he had no choice. In the end, I was someone indefinable to either of us, part family, part nurse, part surprised bystander.”

It is through this push and pull between vulnerability and self-reliance that Towler brings Dunn to vivid life on the page. With illuminating anecdotes and clear-eyed observations, she lets the reader see how he both celebrated his art and maintained a private space within himself. The scenes at the end of his life – as he chose to accept the inevitable with as few compromises as possible – are especially poignant, without drifting into sentimentality.

As Towler discovers, real life doesn’t provide the kinds of neat answers fiction allows. Dunn’s story remains, she writes, “riddled with certain mysteries, just as his life remains a book of blank pages on which he left only the poems.”

Those poems alone might have sufficed as a legacy, but “The Penny Poet of Portsmouth” succeeds in helping keep Dunn’s artistry alive.

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a native of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at:

mikeberry@mindspring.com

Twitter: mlberry