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New England Literary News

The art of Virginia Lee Burton and this year’s Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize winners

"Gossips" is a linoleum block print by Virginia Lee Burton.Collection of the Cape Ann Museum

Art and memories

Born in 1909, Virginia Lee Burton, a designer, dancer, and printmaker, lived and worked on Cape Ann, and founded and led an artist group called the Folly Cove Designers, a group of mostly local woman focused on block print work. Burton is perhaps best known for her children’s books including “The Little House” which explores seasonal and cyclical change, and “Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel.” In “Folly Cove Sketches: Remembering Virginia Lee Burton,” June Adler Vail, a professor emerita at Bowdoin, and Burton’s great niece, details her relationship to her great aunt and to the place she made her home and art, with warmth and clarity, presenting a place of both magic creative crackle and disciplined work. Vail spent time with Burton as a teenager, and the experience of the “unconventional way of life” and the “beautiful natural setting” informed the way she lived the rest of her life, showing her that “art should be woven into everyday experience. Every human being, with guidance, is capable of creating original work. Focus, discipline, and perseverance are necessary to achieve desired goals in any context. And finally, at its best, making art creates community and, in turn, community nourishes individual creativity.”

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A poetry prize for Conrad

The Poetry Foundation recently announced the winners of this year’s Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, a $100,000 prize which honors the lifetime achievement of living US poets. Among the 11 recipients is poet CAConrad, who lives in Greenfield, Mass., and is currently teaching at UMass Amherst. They’ve written ten books of poetry, and practice (Soma)tic Poetry Rituals, which they define as “a poetry which investigates that seemingly infinite space between body and spirit by using nearly any possible THING around or of the body to channel the body out and/or in toward spirit with deliberate and sustained attention.” Their most recent collection involved immersing themselves in field recordings of the sounds of recently extinct animals. In a poem called “For the Feral Splendor That Remains,” they write: “In a future life / would we like to / fall in love with the / world as it is with / no recollection / of the beauty / we destroy / today.” Conrad has been awarded a Pew Fellowship, a Believer magazine Book Award, and a Creative Capital Grant.

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Verses of a scarred nation

Maine-based poet Claire Millikin’s haunting new collection, “Elegiaca Americana” (Littoral), sounds like an echo of lament reverberating off the crumbling walls and dusty corners of past inhabitations. There’s an elegant ache to the grimness, a sense, amidst the losses and confusions, that there’s sense to be made, or sense to try to be made of the wreckage. And that sometimes that effort at sense-making is all we can do. “Mother’d say, show off your legs / when I was nine years old, which seems sad to me now, beyond even the usual / sorrow of the late 1970s.” Most of the poems are set in the south, where Millikin grew up. “At the edge of town, a gas station waits. / I could fill up, drive anywhere. / But the violence of southern towns won’t leave me.” There’s the possibility of leaving, but even if you do, the scars stay. Millikin writes of our scarred earth (”one can no longer eat fish from the Oconee, too polluted), scarred skin, scarred soul: hers, her family’s, this country’s. “Try to hold it together, / awaken from the bad / dream of knowledge, America.”

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Coming out

Is Mother Deadby Vigdis Hjorth, translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund (Verso)

Come Back in September: A Literary Education on West Sixty-Seventh Street, Manhattanby Darryl Pinckney (FSG)

Seven Empty Housesby Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (Riverhead)

Pick of the week

Phil Clingenpeel at Phoenix Books in Burlington, Vermont, recommends “The Incal” by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Jean Giraud (Humanoids): “Behold this fantastic collaboration between two eccentric artists: Alejandro Jodorowsky’s dystopian sci-fi opus brought to the page with the deliriously sublime illustrations of Jean Giraud. A one-of-a-kind experience for fans of sci-fi, graphic novels, or mind-bending works of art.”

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