Sharing the Poetry of Maine’s Unheard Voices

with Gary Lawless

Back to Constance H. Carlson Public Humanities Prize

Follow Gary has he shares poetry from Mainers of all backgrounds.

Constance Carlson Luncheon 2017-55

Gary Lawless, who was awarded the 2017 Constance H. Carlson Public Humanities Prize on March 24, has long worked to bring poetry and the creative process to the people of Maine.

Over the next several months, follow Gary as his shares poetry from Mainers of all backgrounds. The poems will be released monthly in Notes from an Open Book, the MHC’s e-newsletter, and collected below.


1- Ellen Flewelling Holt


“This is the first poem in the first anthology of poems I helped put together from Spindleworks in Brunswick. We published that collection in 1991. I really was trying to learn what it was like for an adult not to be able to read, and Ellen (who has passed away since the book came out) helped me to really feel it.” – Gary Lawless


I would like to learn to read.

I know one thing I can’t do. Read.
It’s hard for me when I can’t read.
What would I do if I got lost?
I wouldn’t know where I am.
I wouldn’t know what street I was on.

That’s what I want. I want to learn
so I can read signs.
If I could read, I would know
what the signs say.
I could read a newspaper.
Read a book, read the Bible.
Read a cookbook, recipes in a cookbook.
I could put the right things in the recipe.

Tell what size my clothes are.
What size shoes I wanted.
Maybe if I wanted a teddy bear
I could find out how much it costs
or if I wanted a record
or a blouse.
I could find out when the movies are.
I could do that
if I could read.

Ellen Flewelling Holt
from Spindleworks Journey,
edited by Gary Lawless, published by Spindleworks, 1991


2- Kifah Abdulla


Dream 1

I dreamt of a small window
Through it flows clean air
Looking over a blue sky
White clouds travel through it
Flocks of birds pass by like air
I dreamt of a small window

The size of my hand
Overlooking a sea
My eyes travel in it
Into distant waves of blue
The yellow sun comes
Awakening the morning
And the night comes, inlaid with light
A window into which the snow whispers
Suspend in it, the moon and the rain
Into it flow the colors of autumn
And in spring, the fragrant buds
A small window, in which I count
My mornings and my evenings
Nesting in it are my memories
I cultivate in it lush dreams

I dreamt of a small window
The size of my hand
I look from it to see my sweetheart
When she comes from afar
She waves to me
That she is coming soon,
Carrying between the folds of her heart
Happy news
A small window overlooking
Onto the rest of a new age

I dreamt in a place where
My one and only dream was,
And all that I wished for
Was to have a small window
The size of my hand
I dreamt

Kifah Abdulla is a poet and artist living in Portland, Maine. Originally from Iraq, he served in the Iran-Iraq war and was a prisoner of war for over eight years. This poem comes from that experience. It is reprinted with permission from his book of poems: Dead Still Dream.


3- Sharif Elmusa


“When Naomi Shihab Nye gave a reading in Augusta in April, she was asked who her current favorite Arabic poet was. Her answer, immediately, was Sharif Elmusa – a poet originally from Palestine, but now from Arrowsic, Maine. Sharif has twice read at Gulf of Maine Books for our ‘Hummus and Poetry’ evenings. He says that I am turning him into a Maine nature poet, and this poem is from a ‘poetry walk’ I lead at Beech Hill Preserve in Rockport.”


Poetry Walk

As I walked up the path
of Beech Hill Preserve
I kept thinking of the snail of Issa
climbing Mount Fuji,
till a sharp stone warned my left foot
Don’t step on me, else you will trip.
As far as the eye could roam the land
was many shades of green
flecked with red and yellow, white and blue,
was countless kinds of trees and shrubs,
pine and oak, spruce and maple,
raspberries, blueberries and honeysuckle;
with their mouths pressed to the ground,
they blossomed and multiplied,
without gadgets, despite the pompous popish names,
Populus grandidentata, Pinus strobus, Quercus prinus.
Lichen is the language of granite,
said the guide.
Only the trunks of trees
seem to grasp this tongue.
This is why I was overjoyed
to hear the whispers of the little wood-lily
I am in full bloom,
therefore I am,
or the fog that crowned our walk
and veiled the lake and mountains
declare, as if it were an oracle
After I lift,
and I lift when I please,
don’t think what you SEE
is what you see.
The future stirs where the chipmunk hides
in the secrets it hoards.

Sharif S. Elmusa
First published here and in Mizna: Prose, Poetry and Art Exploring Arab America, vol 17.2.2016