“Kingdom of Beauty” by Stuart Kestenbaum
Maine Poet Laureate, 2016-2021
When I was appointed poet laureate of Maine in 2016, one of my first thoughts was that I’d be asked to write occasional poems. It felt like a laureate’s responsibility and not one that I was looking forward to. It made me nervous to think of having to create an on-demand poem for an audience that would have specific expectations. As it turned out, it wasn’t a big part of the work that I did as laureate. I gave readings around the state and developed a weekly program on Maine Public Radio program where I read poems by Maine writers. I produced a series of short films for Maine Public Television where Mainers (from a boat captain, to a chef, to a carpenter, to the Governor) spoke poems written by Maine writers. My focus was to reach audiences that might not be expecting to hear poems. I was after those interludes when a poem can send a listener into a different time zone—the slower time of poetry—and transform the moment.
It wasn’t until I was in the fourth year of my five-year laureate term that I was asked to write an occasional poem. That was in 2020, and the occasion was the bicentennial celebration of Maine’s Statehood.
I’m at my best as a writer when the connections I’m making are fluid and lead me to an unexpected place. A poem commemorating statehood had the potential to be the opposite of that. The initial audience for the poem was to be the legislators and government officials at a Maine Statehood Day event, which was also being televised. Here I was, someone who has lived in Maine for many years, but is still ‘from away’. I didn’t want to presume I knew more than I did or reach for a profound proclamation. I wrestled at first with finding a way into the poem. I knew that I wanted to write about those things that had shaped me—the weather, the landscape, the quality of light, the often hardscrabble ways people make a living, and the ingenuity that abounds in rural communities.
As I wrote, it became apparent to me that I was focusing on the beauty of Maine. The images that came to me were the ones that I had observed over the many years that I’ve lived here. The opening image was of the state’s beauty salons—how ubiquitous they seem. I thought of people making beauty in them, as if they were small factories. It seemed an appropriate way to celebrate.
Through the writing, I had rediscovered my own experience and was seeing where I lived with new eyes.
As it turned out, Maine’s Statehood Day in March of 2020, was canceled. COVID-19 was shutting down the world. The event was rescheduled for the following year and canceled again. I never had the opportunity to present this poem to a larger audience, but I often include it in my own readings. Maybe it was destined to travel in the world in the way that poems do best: a reader, a listener, a moment.
Kingdom of Beauty
on Maine’s Bicentennial, Statehood Day, March 15, 2020
There are so many beauty salons in Maine,
you see them everywhere, in old brick buildings
of refurbished downtowns, in strip malls,
in trailers, in cities and villages.
Our beauticians must be doing more than cutting hair,
they must be making beauty itself.
How else to explain its abundance all around us:
The way the first light of morning touches
the tops of the spruce trees across the harbor,
or a mackerel sky blankets the heavens,
or the way the fog drifts over the barnacles
working quietly in the waves without us.
How else to account for the blue light
in the deep snow, the soft drift
of fallen apple blossoms in May’s air,
or the crimson of the blueberry barrens
where the glacial boulders work their slow way
over the land. Even if our beauticians haven’t
manufactured all of this, and we gratefully
acknowledge the touch of the divine hand
wherever we look, they remind us that our hands
can help make beauty too. We can see
the evidence everywhere: In the circles
of burned rubber made by the pick-ups
dancing over the black top, in the curve
of a canoe’s bow rippling a silent lake,
in the space inside the split ash basket,
in the prayer of a white steeple,
in the patched quilt on the bed,
in the sure way an elegant knot is tied to hold
a load on a trailer, for aren’t work and beauty
a partnership? Think of the hands that held
the chisels and wedges to build foundations
of granite block. Let us praise the ingenuity
it takes to cut and lift and place ancient stones
to bear the weight of the present and the future.
Two hundred years later, a house still standing,
faithfully greeting today’s light.