In the tradition of such outstanding biography-in-poetry collections as Maurice Manning’s A Companion of Owls about Daniel Boone and Sharon Chmielarz’s The Other Mozart, Annie Boutelle’s first collection probes the layered life of one of nineteenth-century America’s most popular poets, who is now almost forgotten. The Celia Thaxter who speaks these poems disturbs the placid myth created around her public persona, and focuses on the fierce mysteries and ironies that frame her. Boutelle carefully reveals Thaxter’s childhood on the stark Isles of Shoals off the New Hampshire coast; the trap of a Victorian marriage; the struggle to invent herself as a writer and painter; her celebrated circle of friends, which included Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Greenleaf Whittier, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Childe Hassam; and the hard-won serenity of her last decade. At the fringes of Thaxter’s life a wider world clamors, particularly with the onset of the Civil War. At the center rests a quiet, almost elliptical silence.
Like fine champagne, these poems ravish. Clear, airy, crystalline, they move us into an elemental world where “nothing is left but water, / air, and the uncertain space between.” The spare language resonates. With restraint and lyric tenderness, Boutelle leads us toward a woman who shifts from pose to necessary pose, who survives in these pages with intelligence and grace: “The grave / flesh melts. What’s left / is light as bone.”