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NEW ENGLAND LITERARY NEWS

A newly found, nearly lost poet; a virtual literary festival; and an online group reading of ‘Moby-Dick’

A vintage photograph of the late poet Malcolm Miller.
A vintage photograph of the late poet Malcolm Miller.Patricia Langmaid

Finding a forgotten poet

In 2014, a poet in Salem died alone in his public housing apartment, aged 87. Malcolm Miller had little by way of possessions, but thousands of dollars in cash, and over 3,500 poems. Such was what retired Salem State creative writing teacher Rod Kessler found, having been listed, unbeknownst to him, as Miller’s emergency contact. Kessler, and a group of other Salem writers, sifted through the poems and the resulting collection, “What I Am Always Waiting For” (Grayson), reveals a poet of extraordinary lyricism, in moments near-mystic insight, an ardent and awake appreciator of what it is to be alive. He reminds us of what is on offer: “Once there was a moment/ not of time but endless/ flowing now/ I breathed it and was/ almost the god/ all secretly are and is.” The poems are of a place — the North Shore, Italy, Maine with its “raw bones of things/ the rasp of brine in air wind-roughened” — and of the whole wide-sweeping cosmic scene. He writes of daily things, birds, gas stations, shoelaces, and launches out, touching the freedom from “meaning anything.” His life was difficult, in part by choice; Kessler explains in the introduction that he rarely held a job, never owned a car, lived homeless for a time. A sense of seeing beyond distracting trappings of our existence saturates these poems. “I acquired through sense/ the purity of animals/ within which I soon knew/ how stupid we all were/ with our pretense of living/ how stupid we are still /through the world is a splendor.”

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The whale

“‘I fear not they epidemic, man,’ said Ahab from the bulwarks. . . . But now Gabriel started to his feet. ‘Think, think of the fevers, yellow and bilious! Beware of the horrible plague!’” So wrote Herman Melville, and the Provincetown Public Library is following Gabriel’s caution and holding its fifth annual “Moby-Dick” Marathon virtually this year after the in-person event was COVID-canceled this spring. The library teamed with Provincetown Community Television and recorded a shortened version of the marathon, involving over 35 readers, and comprising nine videos. They’ve recently released the first three and will roll out the rest one-by-one over the next weeks. The production value is strong, and textual prompts offer context and background. The hour-plus-long videos are a manageable way to bask in Melville’s singular sentences, and a story of a descent into the unconscious seems an especially apt one for our days of quarantine. To watch the videos, visit vimeo.com/showcase/ptownmoby.

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A virtual festival

The Salem Literary Festival will hold its 11th installment online this year, bringing a range of authors and events over the course of four days, running Sept. 10 through 13. The festival opens with a conversation between Chris Bohjalian and Jim DeFilippi. The next evening’s keynote conversation involves Kiley Reid, author of “Such a Fun Age,” and Halle Butler, author of “The New Me.” There’s a smattering of kids’ programming on the morning of Sept. 12, and a number of panels for adults throughout the day. Calvin Hennick, Grace Talusan, and J.D. Scrimgeour will talk about “Writing My Life,” and Adrienne Brodeur, Jeffrey Colvin, and Marjan Kamali will explore “Reclaiming Identities,” among other conversations. The festival’s final day includes a robust selection of YA panels on fairytale retellings, immersive fantasy, suspenseful storytelling, and political activism. For a complete schedule visit salemlitfest.org.

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Coming out

Bestiaryby K-Ming Chang (One World)

How To Carry Water: Selected Poemsby Lucille Clifton, edited by Aracelis Girmay (BOA)

World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks and Other Astonishmentsby Aimee Nezhukumatathil (Milkweed)


Pick of the week

Alicia Frehulfer at Yankee Bookshop in Woodstock, Vt., recommends “Conjure Women” by Afia Atakora (Random House): “A historic novel set in flashbacks of slavery in the Deep South, told through the undulating memories of a town’s healing woman.”

Nina MacLaughlin is the author of “Wake, Siren.” She can be reached at nmaclaughlin@gmail.com.