Maine poet Peter Kilgore (1941-1992) finally gets his due, or at least a solid literary and historic foothold, with the publication of “Quarry,” a delightful, carefully selected grouping of his works. It is enhanced by a short, sharp introduction from friends and colleagues Bruce Holsapple and Dana Wilde, which sets the stage, outlines Kilgore’s all too brief life and provides a taste of Portland cultural and literary scene in the 1970s. The city was at the end of a long dry period, faced with economic hard times, slum clearance and the storm clouds of the Vietnam War.

Cover courtesy of North Country Press

The appearance of Greater Portland Landmarks, a nonprofit preservation organization, and the rise of a new literary magazine, Contraband, proved among the few bright spots of what became the now-celebrated Portland Renaissance. Among the most memorable poet-editors of that publication, along with painter-illustrator Michael Waterman, were Kilgore and Holsapple. Producing much discussed work and a handful of slim volumes, they were the heart and soul of the scene. In the fullness of time and in their wanderings into the American West, the availability and specifics of their work faded, factors that make “Quarry” a defining publication, both for Kilgore’s poetry and as a key to understanding the production of the Contraband era.

“Quarry” is trimly designed by Michael Alpert, director at University of Maine Press. The poems are selected from 14 sources over Kilgore’s working career, including Openings (1972), River/Road (1975), Drinking Wine out of the Wind (1976), Island Poems (1978-80), Birth Song: for my wife and my daughter (1982), The Bar Harbor Suite (1987) and Elegy (MS 1991).

For the most part, the title of each chapter and each individual piece provide the only points of orientation for the reader. The opening 10½-page offering, for instance, is titled Penobscot but provides few specifics. It starts, “Speed/over blacktop/from the symmetry of cities/ to lonely roads/ out of way/ walked dirt trails/to the waterway/ enter a different/ wilderness.” One moves with the poet through a specific place, but they are spaces felt by the writer, not mapped out for the reader. Kilgore is unwinding a felt universe, a wilderness to get lost in. He keeps his honest yet indefinable distance.

Occasionally, though, but only occasionally, the poems become startlingly more personal such as “Air” and “Water” or “Birth Song: for my wife & my daughter.” It’s as if the reader is able to feel his or her way among the untitled “Island Poems” through the “jay squawk/chickadee/the wind high/in trees/dulse ripening in the sun?” We hear of specific land and sea marks such as “College Rock,” “Hussey Sound” and “overset.” We suddenly emerge from a fog and had a blindfold dropped. Somehow, at least in my mind, the rapture has been broken, and I liked that clearer quality.

Kilgore’s work, as the introduction so neatly states, is “extremely spare intricately handled to the point of a tautness.” Felt moments of energy are instantly transferred to the reader. The poems are often central and direct, never cloying or sappy. Moments of contained spinning time are beautifully captured.

Kilgore grew up on Wilmot Street in gritty post-war Portland, when the city was being reshaped by the tension between urban renewal and historic preservation. Happily, the Kilgore family owned a cottage on Long Island, and young Peter had the advantage of exploring the natural world of Casco Bay as well as the city environment. He played twilight league baseball with his dad before going on to Bowdoin College. There, writing instructor Bill Cohen – later, U.S. Senator and Secretary of Defense – introduced him to the Beat poets.

After marrying Jeanette DiFilippo, teaching in Southern New England, and becoming a licensed Maine Guide, Kilgore returned to the Portland area and became a force in Contraband. He divorced in 1977 and married Carol Hess of Long Island the next year. He continued as a vital part of the local literary scene for another 10 years. Even after he moved to Washington State, he continued to make visits home. Alas, the introduction tells us, he suffered from severe depression and, far too young, took his own life. Now through the efforts of friends and family, a large part of that productive life has been made available to the rest of us.

William David Barry is a local historian who has written/co-written seven books, including “Maine: The Wilder Side of New England” and “Deering: A Social and Architectural History.” His next book will be a history of the Maine Historical Society. He lives in Portland with his wife, Debra, and their cat, Nadine.

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