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Julia Bouwsma

Maine Poet Laureate, 2021-2026

To A Mainer Living 100 years from Now

Just after I was appointed Maine’s Poet Laureate in August 2021, I was asked by the Maine Arts Commission to write a poem for inclusion in the state’s Bicentennial Time Capsule, to be opened in 2120. The outgoing Poet Laureate, Stuart Kestenbaum, had already written a poem celebrating Maine’s history and people. As the project had been delayed a year due to COVID, there was now time for me to contribute a poem as well, and I was asked to write one with an eye toward Maine’s future. The resulting poem was “To a Mainer Living 100 Years from Now.” I had never written a public poem before, and I was simultaneously excited and terrified for the opportunity. The assignment itself felt particularly impossible. How was I to write a poem about Maine’s future a century from now? I would not be alive in 2120. And frankly, amidst the looming threat of climate crisis, I wondered if anyone would ever open the time capsule, examine its contents, and read the poems.

How do you write a poem when its audience is composed only of hope?

And I should add that I am not by nature a terribly hopeful person. But I am someone who loves a challenge, and this was a challenge too thrilling to pass up. I worried on this poem for several months before I actually wrote it, but when I finally sat down, it came together much more quickly and naturally than I had expected. When I thought about the future, I felt unbearably small, so I knew that I wanted to write an epistolary poem in order to claim some intimacy in the face of such a vast stretch of time. Similarly, I began the poem with something I know personally and deeply but which also reminds me of my own smallness: the woods of my hilltop in western Maine. And from there I tried to lean into my love of Maine, my uncertainty, my fear and my hope—braiding them together, alternating between that which I did know and that about which I could only speculate. I tried to let go of any expectations for the poem and simply surrender to the rhythms of writing it. This was actually pretty easy because I didn’t think of it as a public poem in the traditional sense. In a way, it felt like a very private exchange. After all, no one would really be reading it, just some person or people who did not even yet exist and perhaps never would. That last part turned out to be wrong, however. The Maine Arts Commission shared the poem on their website and on social media, and it ended up with a much larger readership than I had anticipated. Some months later, a pair of wonderful videographers from the Arts Commission worked with me to make a short art film of the poem as well. And reactions were largely very positive. Many people loved the natural imagery and intense emotion—the way the physical presence of Maine’s landscape, our home, bound itself to the poem’s fabric. Some others, I believe, were a bit horrified by the more visceral aspects, as well as the edge of apocalyptic imagery. Ultimately, I think the abstract, hypothetical nature of the poem’s audience was a great creative gift because it allowed me to ignore the noise and just write a poem from my heart. “To a Mainer Living 100 Years from Now” is very much a me poem, a poem I would write anyway, and as such I’ve included it in my current collection-in-progress, Death Fluorescence, and have been reading it regularly at readings around the state. The experience of having so many people relate to the poem also made me think differently (and with less fear) about the process of writing public commissioned poems. I am currently at work on another very different public poem, and while that project isn’t likely to be one I’ll include in a book, I find myself deeply moved by the connective power of public poems and by the invitation to consider audience more broadly than I typically have in the past. To a Mainer Living 100 Years from Now The other day I stood beneath an ash tree as old as the time between my writing this letter and you reading it. Inside the green moment of the forest, I traced my finger across the ash’s trunk, grooved bark staggered like vertebrae, a deer bent back to listen, quiet flanks reddening the stillness before crouch became bolt and it leapt into a lattice of blackberry cane and brush. Tell me, unknown friend, what has dissipated from our home and what remains? Does it still snow hard enough to swallow your footsteps in light? Do you drink sap each spring, boil your sorrow into new waft and gold? We lived here at the edge of the old rituals, lived there until we could not discern our hope from our fear— wildfire smoke smeared a low brow of bruise, a language written in billowing keloids and contrails, vanishing welts of vapor. Are you still repeating our same old violences or have you learned new ones? Can you wring a chicken’s neck with your hands—twist and pull the throat in unison as my grandmother’s grandmother did and I do now? Or have you colonized Mars, erected skyscrapers of cosmic concrete? Scientists are at it now, discovering a building material of human tears, sweat, urine, blood. It hardens fast and cheap, stronger they say, than anything we’ve ever known before. For you I wish nothing but birdsong. I wish you a pond of peepers screaming spring thaw. And all those apple trees I planted—it’s early autumn now, their striated skins seeping blush into white flesh as they ripen— do they still stand on this hill? Pick one for me, please, if they do. Bite down among stippled wormholes and taste our blinding sweetness.

 



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