ELLSWORTH — The mundane in daily life is rarely lost on Carl Little, an art lover and writer and a poet.
Whether he is picking up his shirts at the dry cleaners, meditating as his car is tugged through a car wash, or watching his Saab get a lube job, it’s all fodder for the keyboard.
“Something has struck me, or I spent enough time at a place to get a sense of what is going on,” Little said of the “Ellsworth Suite” series of poems that sprang from his working life in Ellsworth starting in 2001. “The poems have just arrived according to the muse.”
He has two poetry collections: “3,000 Dreams Explained” (1992) and “Ocean Drinker: New & Selected Poems” (2006). His poetry also has appeared in the Paris Review, Off the Coast, Hudson Review and Words & Images, among other publications.
Little has been soaking up Ellsworth since April 2001, when he started as marketing and communications director at the Maine Community Foundation and began commuting into town from his home in Somesville.
“If something strikes me, that kind of gets the poetry juices flowing,” he said.
His take on Gold Star Cleaners on the Downeast Highway percolated for a while.
“I have wanted to write about that for a long time — this sense of the citizens of greater Ellsworth flowing past with all of their different costumes and outfits and clothing,” Little said.
For Janwillem van de Wetering
Suits and such winging by,
while you wait for shirts,
light starch on hangers,
get your jollies watching
parade of skirts
patch of gray ultra suede,
favorite tattered overcoat,
Marine uniform —
clothes of men and women
you’ve never met,
citizens of greater Ellsworth
who hand in pink slips
for something pressed,
clean as a whisper,
a blouse or bell bottoms,
even see-through curtains
to frame the view
from your bedroom
where shirts and skirts
are strewn and later
gathered for the cleaners.
He has a special rapport with Gold Star that dates back to the days when it was located in the strip mall on High Street.
Little dropped off a jacket one day and forgot he had a photo slide in a pocket showing a painting he decided not to talk about during a recent presentation.
“I went to pick up my laundry and the woman behind the counter, without batting an eyelash, pushed the slide across the counter,” he said. “It was a painting of a nude with a rope tied around her. The woman didn’t say a word.”
“Dry Cleaners” is dedicated to the late Janwillem van de Wetering, a Dutch novelist who lived in Surry and was a big fan of Ellsworth.
“He just loved all of the services and having everything in one place,” Little said. “There was never any parking problem, which he loved. I wanted to acknowledge him at least through the dedication.”
The intention of the Ellsworth poems, he said, is to celebrate those who go unsung — such as the tellers at banks’ drive-through windows and the people speedily processing bottles and cans at the Redemption Center.
Too easy, the play on
redemption, but sorting
green glass from white
is a feat, latexed hands
darting and digging
in the ripe trough
clatter and clink,
pulling out Snapples
and Heinies, tossing
tall boys and teas,
keeping the count
as another car
pulls up, filled
with nickels and
a few 15 centers.
It’s New Year’s Eve
when empties proliferate
across the land
and each of us
resolves to abstain
even as we load
the pick-up with
PBR and Bud Lite,
toasting to a
clean slate as the man
hands us six singles
and change and, yes,
Little has fun with his poems, inviting readers familiar or not familiar with the Ellsworth habitat to discover the extraordinary in the ordinary.
“The Tellers (Drive-Up)”
Music of each vehicle enters
their haven: heavy
metal, Mahler, Elvis.
And they hear the noise:
a snippet of news or
They smile no
matter the situation:
six transactions by
a single elderly man,
toothless local leering,
woman with howling offspring.
From without you see
family photos taped to
underside of counter
where the tellers deal
with walk-ins. Here’s
what keeps them sane:
studio shot of twins,
a child’s painted heart.
and scrape of pick-up
catching the edge
of the building.
They tuck deposit slip
into pneumatic missile,
wink and thank you
then apply Purell
to their hands, liberally.
“There is word play in some of these poems and that really comes from my father,” Little said. “He wrote light verse, His name was Jack Little and he published in some distinguished places, such as New York magazine. He was extremely clever.”
Little never knows what might work its way into a poem.
“Ellsworth Car Wash” is dedicated to John Anderson, a zoology professor at College of the Atlantic and author of “Deep Things Out of Darkness: History of Natural History.”
Little had just finished reading Anderson’s book, which discusses, among others, explorer Alexander von Humboldt’s seafaring journeys.
Right about the same time Little made yet another expedition of his own through the Ellsworth Car Wash.
Ellsworth Car Wash
For John Anderson
After paying seven bucks for “just a wash”
suddenly you’re with Humboldt
sailing across the stormy Caribbean,
spray from all sides obscuring
your vision, huge strips of kelp
slopping against the bow.
Then just as suddenly the voyage ends:
Coming through the other side of the squall,
blasts of hot air blowing you dry,
you regain your sea legs.
A new land lies before you: Rite Aid
and the road to Bar Harbor.
In “Night of the Living Shopping Cart,” he mentally photographs an eerie scene and creates a poem that is amusing, eerie, and a little sad.
“Night of the Living Shopping Cart
”They cross the lot
pushed by December wind,
stop and start as if maneuvered
by a distracted shopper who
gave up on aisle 9 and
headed for the great outdoors.
They spook me coming out of Mr. Paperback.
One cart headed for the Subaru
I manage to fend off,
its movements palsied by
Night of the Living Shopping Cart.
One cart makes it all the way
to a parking spot near
McDonald’s where she waits
for the Hannaford employee
to come collect her
(maybe not until morning).
It is cold tonight.
Carts are restless in the wind.
Leaving the lot
I wave to Mrs. Jenkins
trembling, losing her grip.
Groceries need to be put away.
The idea for that one came to Little one night while he was walking out of the now defunct bookstore.
“The lot was completely dark and empty and watching this shopping cart going across the parking lot, on its own, wobbling — it was just really spooky and weird,” he said.
Oh, and there is no Mrs. Jenkins, although her presence adds a bit of pathos at the end.
“Mrs. Jenkins is just any woman, any person,” he said. “I had this image of a homeless person. I was thinking of someone elderly, of old age or desperation and my own personal need to get home and put the groceries away.”
Little has had his own experience with seemingly mind-numbing occupations.
His first job out of college was as a guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan.
“That was a lonely job, although my company was Rembrandt, Seurat, Balthus and other artists,” said Little of his time with the Robert Lehman Collection. “I was desperate to get work. I was an English major. That’s always a moneymaker.”
After six months, Little moved into sales at the front of the museum where people at that time — no more — could order individual Christmas cards.
“A few days before Christmas it would be madness, completely wild,” he said. “I did that for a year or so.”
Another in the pantheon of interesting placements was his job with an entertainment laser company that put on laser shows around New York City.
“One of the jobs was an opening segment for a show on TV at the time, ‘That’s Incredible.’ We got permission to beam the name ‘That’s Incredible’ across the Hudson to The Palisades.”
“Car on a Lift”
Nearer my God to thee.
Whee, this is fun,
What a weight
off my radials,
I didn’t realize how
exhausted I was.
Heaven looks like
the upper reaches
of Midas in Ellsworth.
I muffle my sobs (I
am a Saab)
Leave me here, suspended,
if but for an hour
I am high on life
already, the new muffler
will be a bonus.
Heights don’t scare me,
I’m red and a 9000
and could easily get used
to this lofty perch,
the smell of the grease,
the roar of the engines.
As an undergraduate at Dartmouth, he won the Academy of American Poets Prize, which he said shifted his interest from fiction to poetry.
The poem was called “The Poet’s Wife Complains,” and, although he was not married at the time, foreshadowed “all the things that wife had to put with living with a poet,” he said.
He has a master’s degree in French from Middlebury and a master’s in fine arts from Columbia, where he studied with poets Charles Simic, Charles Wright, Stanley Kunitz and Stanley Plumly.
“That was a wonderful education,” Little said. “I got to meet people like Derek Walcott and Seamus Heaney (who both won Nobel Prizes in Literature). I met a lot of the great poets of the time.”
But he was tugged in another direction as well — a deep appreciation of art.
His mother, brother and uncle were accomplished artists and Little began writing about art in 1981 and calls it his “second life.”
His books include “Edward Hopper’s New England,” “The Watercolors of John Singer Sargent,” “The Art of Francis Hamabe,” “Eric Hopkins: Above and Beyond” and “Nature & Culture: The Art of Joel Babb.”
“I will always say I get the greatest satisfaction writing a good poem because it’s completely from myself — the most creative act, if you will.”
Little has said that he is always “seeking solutions” in his poetry, looking for just the right word, just the right rhythm, just the right imagery.
“Yeats said the closing of a poem would be like the closing of the lid of a box,” he said. “There is the finality of it. You’re looking for that complete unit, that piece of writing that is whole. It’s sort of a fantasy that you could ever do that. You might get there through writing a lot and doing a lot of revision.”
“I don’t do enough revision,” he said, “working over and over again. I found that some poems come almost in one fell swoop because I have done a lot of work to get there.”
“To the Lady Who Sets Out Lawn Ornaments Every Morning”
Alpha leader, how lost
in thought you seem, placing
black silhouettes of dogs
wearing neck bandannas
across the grass, arranging
Canada geese in a comely flock
that fools a few folks driving by,
yours an art of proper placement,
the right number of figurines,
not too many Tweety Birds.
Trolls regard mini lighthouses and
whirligigs make a fine racket
along the route after a truck
goes rushing by toward Bar Harbor.
Cars distort in blue glass globes
reminding you of mirrors at the fair
that thin you down to nothing.
A little black bear clinging
to a post is your favorite, not
because the animal’s so cunnin’
but because you can relate
to a creature holding on
for dear life every day.
Little said he spent a lot of time on “Dry Cleaners,” fiddling with stanza breaks and line breaks and trying to shape it into “the most felicitous form.”
“There is a lot of that craft involved in writing a poem,” he said. “People talk about carpentry when putting together the poem.
At the time of the interview, he was reading the literary biography of the late Philip Booth of Castine, whom Little calls a master craftsman of poetry.
“He would go through 30 to 40 versions trying to get it right,” Little said.
One of the pleasures of writing poetry, he said, is when the audience enjoys it.
“Car on a Lift” was printed in the former Bar Harbor Times and the Midas shop cut it out of the paper and had it tacked to the wall.
“I thought that was the ultimate honor,” he said. “It’s an acknowledgement that you touched someone.”