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MAINE

The guiding light of poetry and place

It took an Irish poet to point me in the direction of Two Lights lighthouse on this craggy coast south of Portland

Cape Elizabeth Light looks just as Edward Hopper painted it.
Cape Elizabeth Light looks just as Edward Hopper painted it.David Lyon for The Boston Globe

CAPE ELIZABETH, Maine — I think I know New England pretty well, but I have to admit that it took an Irish poet to point me in the direction of Two Lights lighthouse on this craggy coast south of Portland. Erected in 1874 to replace an earlier rubble tower, the conical white shaft with its bell jar-shaped gray lantern house sits atop a rocky bluff overlooking Casco Bay.

It is irresistible to artists. Edward Hopper painted it twice, most famously in ‶Lighthouse at Two Lights,″ reproduced in 1970 on a US postage stamp celebrating Maine’s sesquicentennial. Poet Derek Mahon seemed equally inspired by the Hopper painting and by the lighthouse itself. In his poem ‶A Lighthouse in Maine,″ he even gives sketchy directions to reach it, though he’s a better poet than tour guide.

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The drive from Boston to this corner of Cape Elizabeth takes around two hours, but my journey to the lighthouse really began a decade ago in Belfast. My city tour guide would pause every so often to recite a few verses of poetry from memory. That could have seemed corny or pretentious, but it didn’t. He was utterly natural and unself-conscious about sharing the lilting music of the spoken tongue. With such a great canon of Irish poetry to choose from, who could resist?

Beach roses grow out of every cranny along the shore at Cape Elizabeth.
Beach roses grow out of every cranny along the shore at Cape Elizabeth.David Lyon for The Boston Globe

The idea of committing poems to memory appealed to me. Thinking it might be a good mental exercise, I decided to try it myself. But I would draw from the great New England poets. We certainly have no shortage.

Now, I don’t recite in public, but Robert Frost and Archibald MacLeish have fine-tuned rural New England sensibility for me. I’ve learned volumes about writing from Robert Lowell’s startling but perfect word choices and precise descriptions. The lines of these poets and others dance through my head when I find myself awake in the middle of the night, often on a bumpy overnight flight. I can’t tell if my memory or my language skills have improved, but the practice of quietly saying memorable verse has become one of my favorite travel souvenirs.

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In a way, Derek Mahon brought me full circle with a poem about New England by an Irishman — from Belfast, no less. I have learned it and especially love the plainspoken rhythms of the closing lines:

You make a left beyond the town, a right, you turn a corner and there, ivory-white, it shines in modest glory above a bay. Out you get and walk the rest of the way.

So I headed to Maine. Cape Elizabeth Light (its official name) still looks like a Hopper painting, though subsequent development has blocked the view where Hopper set up his easel. The day I visited lacked Hopper’s chiseled light. He must have painted his canvas in the dry air of mid-September. In the summery heat, a beatific veil of light cloaked the tower with glowing moisture, hinting at the proximity of the ocean.

Benches abound along the waterfront trails in Maine's Two Lights State Park.
Benches abound along the waterfront trails in Maine's Two Lights State Park.David Lyon for The Boston Globe

Like any good poem, Mahon’s left me more — far more — to discover on my own. At the foot of the bluff, the long tide had run out of Dyer Cove to reveal a jumble of the smoothest beach pebbles I’ve ever seen. They were almost silky to the touch, and many of the stones shimmered as the light would catch near-microscopic crystals of mica embedded in their dark surfaces. The surrounding rugged coast is made up of massive sheets of slate with grains so aligned that they look like petrified wood. The hulking slates are twisted and turned, reflecting the wrenching trauma when continents split asunder some 200 million years ago. I could imagine Cape Elizabeth fitting like a jigsaw puzzle piece into the towering shoreline beneath the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare.

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I wonder if Derek Mahon stopped to eat at the Lobster Shack at Two Lights, which dominates the knoll beside Dyer Cove opposite the lighthouse tower. I certainly did. When the quintessential Maine experience of eating a lobster roll at a red picnic table in sight of a famous lighthouse presents itself, the only question is ‶Do I want fries with that?″

Photographer sets up on a ridge above Dyer Cove to photograph Cape Elizabeth Light.
Photographer sets up on a ridge above Dyer Cove to photograph Cape Elizabeth Light.David Lyon for The Boston Globe

Ironically, Two Lights State Park, just down the road, has no lighthouse at all. It does have an extensive parking lot, the remains of a World War II gun battery built to defend Casco Bay, and a slew of walking trails along the cliff edges overlooking that cracked and shattered shore. In summer, the air is so thick with the scent of beach roses that even the ocean breezes cannot dispel it. The surf churning on the rocks below looks innocuous — until a swell reaches up to hammer the shore with all the bombast of aerial ordinance. This is why the lighthouse still shines. It may draw in those of us on land, but the pulsing light has a very different message for ships at sea. There is beauty here, and as so often is the case, there is also danger from the rocks below.

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Patricia Harris can be reached at harrislyon@gmail.com.

IF YOU GO

Two Lights State Park

7 Tower Drive (off Route 77), Cape Elizabeth, Maine

207-799-5871, maine.gov/twolights

Open daily 9 a.m.-sunset

Adults $5 (Maine resident), $7 (non-resident), seniors non-resident $2

Lobster Shack at Two Lights

225 Two Lights Road, Cape Elizabeth, Maine

207-799-1677, lobstershacktwolights.com

Open daily noon-7 p.m. (July-August to 8:30 p.m.)

Sandwiches $6-$14, lobster and clams market price


Patricia Harris can be reached at harrislyon@gmail.com.