Poet Carl Little of Somesville shares an artistic take on daily life. ISLANDER FILE PHOTO

MDI poet voice of proletariat



MOUNT DESERT — The mundane in daily life is rarely lost on Somesville resident Carl Little, an art lover and writer and a poet.

Whether he is picking up his shirts at the dry cleaners, meditating as his car is tugged through a car wash, or watching his Saab get a lube job, it’s all fodder for the keyboard.

“Something has struck me, or I spent enough time at a place to get a sense of what is going on,” Little said of the “Ellsworth Suite” series of poems that sprang from his working life in Ellsworth starting in 2001. “The poems have just arrived according to the muse.”

He has two poetry collections: “3,000 Dreams Explained” (1992) and “Ocean Drinker: New & Selected Poems” (2006). His poetry also has appeared in the “Paris Review,” “Off the Coast,” “Hudson Review” and “Words & Images,” among other publications.

Little has been soaking up Ellsworth since April 2001, when he started as marketing and communications director at the Maine Community Foundation and began commuting into town from his home in Somesville.

“If something strikes me, that kind of gets the poetry juices flowing,” he said.

His take on Gold Star Cleaners on the Downeast Highway percolated for a while.

“I have wanted to write about that for a long time – this sense of the citizens of greater Ellsworth flowing past with all of their different costumes and outfits and clothing,” Little said.

He has a special rapport with Gold Star that dates back to the days when it was located in the strip mall on High Street.

Little dropped off a jacket one day and forgot he had a photo slide in a pocket showing a painting he decided not to talk about during a recent presentation.

“I went to pick up my laundry and the woman behind the counter, without batting an eyelash, pushed the slide across the counter,” he said. “It was a painting of a nude with a rope tied around her. The woman didn’t say a word.”

“Dry Cleaners” is dedicated to the late Janwillem van de Wetering, a Dutch novelist who lived in Surry and was a big fan of Ellsworth.

“He just loved all of the services and having everything in one place,” Little said. “There was never any parking problem, which he loved. I wanted to acknowledge him at least through the dedication.”

The intention of the Ellsworth poems, he said, is to celebrate those who go unsung – such as the tellers at banks’ drive-through windows and the people speedily processing bottles and cans at the Redemption Center.

Little has fun with his poems, inviting readers familiar or not familiar with the Ellsworth habitat to discover the extraordinary in the ordinary.

“There is word play in some of these poems and that really comes from my father,” Little said. “He wrote light verse, his name was Jack Little, and he published in some distinguished places, such as “New York” magazine. He was extremely clever.”

Little never knows what might work its way into a poem.

“Ellsworth Car Wash” is dedicated to John Anderson, a zoology professor at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor and author of “Deep Things Out of Darkness: History of Natural History.”

Little had just finished reading Anderson’s book, which discusses, among others, explorer Alexander von Humboldt’s seafaring journeys.

Right about the same time, Little made an expedition of his own through the Ellsworth Car Wash.

Ellsworth Car Wash

For John Anderson

After paying seven bucks for “just a wash”

suddenly you’re with Humboldt

sailing across the stormy Caribbean,

spray from all sides obscuring

your vision, huge strips of kelp

slopping against the bow.

Then just as suddenly the voyage ends:

Coming through the other side of the squall,

blasts of hot air blowing you dry,

you regain your sea legs.

A new land lies before you: Rite Aid

and the road to Bar Harbor.

 

In “Night of the Living Shopping Cart,” he mentally photographs an eerie scene and creates a poem that is amusing, eerie and a little sad.

The idea for that one came to Little one night while he was walking out of the now defunct bookstore.

“The lot was completely dark and empty and watching this shopping cart going across the parking lot, on its own, wobbling – it was just really spooky and weird,” he said.

Oh, and there is no Mrs. Jenkins, although her presence adds a bit of pathos at the end.

“Mrs. Jenkins is just any woman, any person,” he said. “I had this image of a homeless person. I was thinking of someone elderly, of old age or desperation and my own personal need to get home and put the groceries away.”

Little has had his own experience with seemingly mind-numbing occupations.

His first job out of college was as a guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan.

“That was a lonely job, although my company was Rembrandt, Seurat, Balthus and other artists,” said Little of his time with the Robert Lehman Collection. “I was desperate to get work. I was an English major. That’s always a moneymaker.”

After six months, Little moved into sales at the front of the museum where people at that time – no more – could order individual Christmas cards.

“A few days before Christmas, it would be madness, completely wild,” he said. “I did that for a year or so.”

Another in the pantheon of interesting placements was his job with an entertainment company that put on laser shows around New York City.

“One of the jobs was an opening segment for a show on TV at the time, ‘That’s Incredible.’ We got permission to beam the name ‘That’s Incredible’ across the Hudson to The Palisades.”

As an undergraduate at Dartmouth, he won the Academy of American Poets Prize, which he said shifted his interest from fiction to poetry.

The poem was called “The Poet’s Wife Complains,” and although he was not married at the time, it foreshadowed “all the things that a wife had to put up with living with a poet,” he said.

He has a master’s degree in French from Middlebury and a master’s in fine arts from Columbia, where he studied with poets Charles Simic, Charles Wright, Stanley Kunitz and Stanley Plumly.

“That was a wonderful education,” Little said. “I got to meet people like Derek Walcott and Seamus Heaney, who both won Nobel Prizes in Literature. I met a lot of the great poets of the time.”

But he was tugged in another direction as well, a deep appreciation of art.

His mother, brother and uncle were accomplished artists, and Little began writing about art in 1981 and calls it his “second life.”

His books include “Edward Hopper’s New England,” “The Watercolors of John Singer Sargent,” “The Art of Francis Hamabe,” “Eric Hopkins: Above and Beyond” and “Nature & Culture: The Art of Joel Babb.”

He also has produced several books on Maine artists, including “Art of Acadia.”

“I will always say I get the greatest satisfaction writing a good poem because it’s completely from myself – the most creative act, if you will.”

Little has said that he is always “seeking solutions” in his poetry, looking for just the right word, just the right rhythm, just the right imagery.

“Yeats said the closing of a poem would be like the closing of the lid of a box,” he said. “There is the finality of it. You’re looking for that complete unit, that piece of writing that is whole. It’s sort of a fantasy that you could ever do that. You might get there through writing a lot and doing a lot of revision.”

“I don’t do enough revision,” he said, “working over and over again. I found that some poems come almost in one fell swoop because I have done a lot of work to get there.”

“To the Lady Who Sets out Lawn Ornaments Every Morning”

Alpha leader, how lost

in thought you seem, placing

black silhouettes of dogs

wearing neck bandannas

across the grass, arranging

Canada geese in a comely flock

that fools a few folks driving by,

yours an art of proper placement,

the right number of figurines,

not too many Tweety Birds.

 

Trolls regard mini lighthouses and

whirligigs make a fine racket

along the route after a truck

goes rushing by toward Bar Harbor.

Cars distort in blue glass globes

reminding you of mirrors at the fair

that thin you down to nothing.

A little black bear clinging

to a post is your favorite, not

because the animal’s so cunnin’

but because you can relate

to a creature holding on

for dear life every day.

Little said he spent a lot of time on “Dry Cleaners,” fiddling with stanza breaks and line breaks and trying to shape it into “the most felicitous form.”

“There is a lot of that craft involved in writing a poem,” he said. “People talk about carpentry when putting together the poem.

At the time of the interview, he was reading the literary biography of the late Philip Booth of Castine, whom Little calls a master craftsman of poetry.

“He would go through 30 to 40 versions trying to get it right,” Little said.

One of the pleasures of writing poetry, he said, is when the audience enjoys it.

“Car on a Lift” was printed in the former Bar Harbor Times, and the Midas shop cut it out of the paper and had it tacked to the wall.

“I thought that was the ultimate honor,” he said. “It’s an acknowledgement that you touched someone.”

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