Sea Level


Out of stock

poems by

Paul Nelson

Poetry book, 78 pages, cover price $14

ISBN: 978-1-59948-150-0

Release date: 2008

Paul Nelson comes from Norwegian and Finnish immigrants, who just after WW1 became stone cutters in the granite quarries of Vinal Haven, Maine, where they also fished that island’s waters. A bit further “downeast ,” in Machiasport, almost to Canada, Nelson worked an 1873 saltwater farm summers and year round when not teaching as Visiting Artiist here and there, finally as Professor of English and Director of Creative Writing for Ohio University. He raised sheep, a few beef critters, gardened, cut wood and lobstered on Machias Bay. His imagery emerges from this experience, and the “downeasters” he knew. Maine is home, but he has sacrificed the “ethic of hardship” as a younger man’s way, for fishing the North Shore of O’ahu. His five books include the AWP Winner, Days Off and the University of Alabama Press Series selection, The Hard Shapes of Paradise. He has won an NEA Fellowship. Sea Level gathers poetry, written for universal concerns, over a quarter century of life in Machiasport.

With lush language and images that are bracing as the lace of ice-floes, Paul Nelson extols the beauty and cruelty of the sea and those who live with it. Mesmerizing in its vividness, honesty, and heart, Nelson’s Sea Level is a book that belongs on the shelf of every downeaster and every (like me) downeast wannabe.

–Michelle Boisseau


Here at land’s end, days
just beginning to stretch,
ice plates broad as shed roofs
happen to attach and sometimes lift
mats of peat as thick as whale blubber
napped with eel grass.

Come spring, gulls, ravens, gallinules,
compulsively picking the tidal marsh,
hop from one to another. The agent ice
disappears, as agents seem to do. The mats
round and settle like cut sods
in the graveyard on the hill.

My father carved a full-sized loon, shavings and dust
piling at his feet as the shape from poplar took
its place in air. It will never be a loon.
But if I carried it down to the marsh,
set it on one of the mounds, sooner or later
an eagle or osprey, perhaps ambitious marsh hawk
would stoop, helplessly, as some decoyed
hunter in the fall would be compelled by the sitting duck,
the fear of missing something,
to stud its painted feathers with steel shot
chilled by passing briefly through the universe.


A green chair sits on the landfill,
hell still smoldering.
Red-eyed Atlantic herring gulls
perch on its back and arms,
watch for stuff to roll in, big
black bags to spear and tear, white ones
choice from immaculate kitchens.
At night, bears appear like nuns.
The chair squats there, all summer,
because the guy who drives the bulldozer
leaves it alone. With binoculars
I can see it clearly from my place.
A dump-picker prods and rips with a meat hook
for cans and bottles, copper, aluminum, lead and brass.
Everyone seems to know what they are doing,
what with this chair, the fullness thereof.

The field beyond vanishes uphill and over
topped by a new, glassy house
built for a state trooper …facing inland,
above the blue tinsel bay.
We are safe.

An old man in a gray fedora
gets out of a new white Buick,
struggles onto my lawn and sits on the stone wall.
He asks me if I can be saved,
his cane head an ivory angel. Wiseguy,
I tell him angels are all over the place;
they hover above the mounds.
Beaks tipped with blood.

And there’s the trooper’s pink wife,
swinging her bags in wonderful arcs.
She knew where to build a house!
Will absolutely furnish it.

He looks at me, teeth
rotten with gold, asks if I know Jesus.
I know the past piles up
and the value of land improves.
He says that He doesn’t suffer fools.

Maybe He suffers belief.
Maybe He thrives like a gull…
…on its throne.

He limps away toward his car.
He is much, much happier
to be so sad for me.
Sunset fires up the new house.
The dump is closing forever,
the sea relaxes.
Friday is the last day.


Below the barber shop, perched on ledge
above a deep, rich pool, men stand on thumb-ish boulders,
or wade the strength of the eddy, casting
filaments as spiders do, toward nothing but hope,
that promontory. This is metaphysics.

Under the bridge, salmon
cleave shadows and rocks, roll up, leap,
thrilling hell out of anyone, as they steer
toward some ignoble backwater
to drop their eggs, squirt milt all over the gravel.
This is truth.

Between the cast and the fish floats the fly.
All winter long a grown man with fat fingers,
under a high-intensity lamp, hangs above a tiny vise,
slowly wrapping silk and hair and fluff around a hook’s shaft,
devising an amulet, having failed all summer long
to raise a fish. He knows a man is lucky
if even inspiration hits once or twice a lifetime,
though some, infinitely patient, gifted with presentation,
do better. This is art.

In the looping backcast, instant of intention and
forward delivery, there is much to think about.
The fly, so foolishly bright, or hackled
pathetically drab, floats or zips the currents
that seductively compose the Machias.
Ichthyologists question that salmon
strike because they’re mad.
To get to their beds? Be rid of milt?
Leap to loosen roe? Because they’re bored?
Hunger? This is speculation.

Men watch the angling from the shop window,
wait their turn in the cranked up chair
where I’m throned in the mirror.
A boy stoops before me as if to be knighted.
He picks up tufts of my hair, drops them in a baggie.
“Yellow,” he says, “they’re crazy for yellow.”

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