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A review of John Elsberg's poetry collection, Not Quite Ocean

John Elsberg (August 4, 1945 – July 28, 2012) was a longtime advocate of literature in the Chesapeake Bay region. He was a noted author, editor, teacher, and mentor. His poetry was published in complete collections, chapbooks, anthologies, journals, and blogs. After my first reading of Not Quite Ocean, a collection of forty-eight poems from Paycock Press, $12.95, it seemed important to learn more about this so-called “regional” poet. There is a rich trove of tributes and articles on the internet. And that label of “regional” is quickly dispelled as one reads about Mr. Elsberg’s wide sphere of influence.

The collection, compiled by Connie Elsberg, in hand is a representative selection of poems, in roughly chronological order, which shows a broad range of style and form. Elsberg had a special interest in Haiku and Tanka poetry in the latter part of his career and there are some fine samples of those poems here, notably, “Eight Haiku” “Three Haiku” “A Haiku Sequence” and three separate “Tanka” entries. But what is striking is how the author’s other work already seemed to be full of that sparse richness associated with those Japanese forms. Even in “Pastoral”, the second piece in the collection, Elsberg exhibits a deeply quiet tone with a lovely economy of words; “Some sprawl across/ the brook, on rocks/ scattered/ with all the fierce/ abandon…” and “except the water/ that is/ always/ the bottom line.”

Another interesting aspect of this collection is the inclusion of two versions of two separate poems. The opening poem in the collection “Ode to Charles Ives” reappears in “Ode to Charles Ives #2” a few pages later. The second ode is a longer and more conversationally filled out piece. Also “Pastoral” on page 3 is followed on page 5 by “Pastoral Fragment”. The first poem is written in four short line stanzas, the second in a twelve-line single stanza. Many of the same fine phrases appear in both poems. Compare: “But most lie more simply/ on beds of leaves/ already slipping/ into oil: an almost” to: “Beds of leaves already slipping/ Into oil: an almost comfortable,” and we see a difference in rhythm and inferences of meaning. If the chronology of these poems is accurate then it would seem that the author liked to expand and give slightly different emphases on an idea, rather like a composer doing variations on a theme.

There are playful and humorous poems in this collection. “Michelangelo’s Dream” is a sort of pictograph poem, the word “rough” typed repeatedly until we see, in an evolving diamond shape, the word “abracadabra” appear, only to disappear as the “rough” lines continue down the page. “Maturity Comes Hard” is a tight little lesson with its final lines “but circular/ reasoning/ has misled before” coming at us like an ironic punchline. And there’s a rich five-word poem under the seven-word title “Poem on Walking Down an Icy Hill”. However, the funniest poem in this vein is a found poem called “Mayor Barry”. To quote it would give too much away, so buy the book and see for yourself.

But for me the stars of this book are the poems that draw emotion and insight from natural settings: “Virginia in Late August” is meditative and haunting, “The Brook” where “the water/ beneath the ice turns away” becomes a sort of paean to letting go, “Wetlands” in which the narrator’s father is fading among strong images of shoreline and those swampy areas just behind the dunes, and “The Beach” where the narrator finds a way to be both at one with a natural place and at one with himself. Another particularly beautiful poem is “Island Ice” which opens “watermen/ of the Chesapeake/ oyster dreaming” and is a vivid sketch of a sequence of small scenes that make up a kind of loving tribute to the people and places of the Chesapeake shore.

And there is more, much more, in this collection that will appeal to lovers of poetry. Some poems are lyrical stories, others are visions of places and natural scenes. Many are gentle probes into the nature of what it is to be human. Still, others are vehicles to carry the reader into a quiet contemplative place. This is an exceptional sampling from a gifted writer, a writer who grew as he journeyed through a poetic life of quiet wisdom.

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