For some time now, I have / lived anonymously," Jean L. Connor writes in her first collection of poetry, A Cartography of Peace. "No one / appears to think it odd. / They think the old are, / well, what they seem." But the following lines compare the "anonymous" older person to a great egret whose "silence is / a lie. In his own pond he is / of some renown..."
The same might be said of 85-year-old Connor, who lives quietly in Shelburne's Wake Robin Life Care Retirement Community, tending the small garden she planted when she moved in 11 years ago. In the "pond" of poetry, she is indeed "of some renown." Her poems have appeared in such journals as Hunger Mountain, Yankee Review, and Baltimore's 15-year-old Passager, devoted to the work of authors over 50. National Poet Laureate Ted Kooser chose Connor's poem "Of Some Renown" for his 2005 American Life in Poetry series.
Last year, the editors of Passager decided to use Connor's poems for their first foray into book publishing. The slim, elegant paperback volume was printed by Vermont's Stinehour Press and designed by local artist Dani Dennis, whose cover images of dark boughs and quiet water capture the contemplative texture of Connor's poems. Her lyrics are terse, seldom exceeding 25 lines, and weave their webs of imagery outward from a seemingly simple scene or object -- a garden, a glacier, a darkening field. Some poems use sly wit to evoke human social interactions, with their "tyranny of small things / of indecisiveness." Some gesture at current events, such as a "world / that has stumbled into war." But most remain focused on the act of contemplation, the silent converse of an individual with a thing or a place.
Connor's poems suggest a gift for seeing transcendence in the ordinary, what William Wordsworth called "a sense sublime / Of something far more deeply interfused." A lifelong Episcopalian who was actively involved in creating a lay ministry at her church in Albany, New York, Connor says that, in her poems, "There's nothing in the way of dogmatic teaching, so much as drawing us into saying, 'Look.' I think one aspect of spirituality is an ability to give thanks for what we have already," she explains. "If one observes beauty, then there is an element of praise, too, and of wonder."
In a poem called "Keeping the Silence," the poet describes herself as "hold[ing] a space apart" where she can "hear apples fall" and appreciate the slow slide of autumn into winter, "praising the gold / of diminishment." "Silence is very rich. It's able to receive gifts of creativity and beauty and spiritual strength that one does not experience with too much busyness, too much radio, too much TV, too much talk," Connor says. "It's always been a source of strength, understanding, perception."
Many of the poems paint aspects of Connor's garden through the seasons. Opening her book to a piece called "On Their Own," in which she writes of an "old garden" that has almost outgrown the need for tending, Connor matches the flowers described there with the ones in her own garden, which stretches 15 feet beyond the apartment's small green patio. "Daffodils, in the second line, I have them right here. Iris, peonies, a rose or two, clematis on the post, I have it. The forget-me-nots are just over. I have planted it so that almost every season, there's something in bloom. I who grow older can do less for them, but they still keep coming." Flowers, Connor says, are "not so often metaphors as a springboard for thoughts. They cause you to stop and look and think."
If Connor's poetry revels in scenes of vernal rebirth and autumnal ripeness -- fat pumpkins, bees "wading" in flowers -- it also draws a sense of wonder and beauty from silent, seemingly barren snowscapes. "Often if you're in a snow scene, it's quiet," Connor says. "Time has an ample feeling. There are things you can't do when it snows, so you have a different kind of time. You can pause. You can enjoy what you already have."
A native of New York state, Connor says she didn't always know she wanted to write. She was "happy, busy and fulfilled" in her 30-year career as a librarian and "didn't have time to juggle" writing as well. But when Connor retired in 1975 from her job as New York's director of library development, she started writing poems. She had been at it for a decade when she took a Florida workshop with poet William Stafford, which she describes as a "pivotal experience." "That clicked. A group of us emerged from the workshop as friends and fellow poets." Stafford's students developed a round-robin group called "Verbal Events," in which they exchanged poems by mail every two months. "We've kept it going for 20 years," says Connor. Besides Stafford, who died in 1993, she has an abiding admiration for poets Mary Oliver and Stanley Kunitz.
A Middlebury College graduate, Connor returned to Vermont in 1993. "I was seeking a life-care community, and when I found out about this, I was delighted," she says of Wake Robin, citing its "beautiful setting." She became part of a now-defunct group of six local poets who called themselves the "Lake Poets," including Gladys Coburn and Valerie Graham.
Connor writes poems the old-fashioned way, with pen and paper, and revises them as many as 20 times. She says she especially "struggled" with one called "After September 11th," in which she speaks of writing a poem that is a sort of natural eulogy: "a slender prayer of grass, / with purple clover from the fields / to mark each name in the litany / of loss." "I think we were all without words there, and you tend at first to go on much too long," Connor says. "Such occasions call for something grand or important, and none of us are capable of that kind of a poem when faced with a major event. You feel impoverished; your abilities are not quite up to it."
Connor's poems seldom deal explicitly with aging, though they touch on such resonant themes as the continuing presence of dead relatives through stories and the elusive truths of memory. She prefers not to interpret her poems for their readers, saying, "I hope they speak for themselves." Indeed, the poems seem to speak in a hushed but clear voice, giving the reader a gift of heightened perception of a common experience. So it's best, perhaps, to give the last word to a timely one called "Summer":
should be as this one, suspended
and the slow coming on of stars,
the great bear first, then the jeweled
crown. Let every solstice pause,
linger in a meadow, imagined
or real, blue with lupine,
the fields wide, the self small,
a place afloat between this
fixed earth and the transparencies
of clouds. Give silence room,
there anger seeps away. Out of the hidden,
fireflies may come to semaphore
a blessing. Beneath the deepening sky,
bright wands and an old cartography of peace.