By Paula Horvath

In poetry that stitched together images from the opposite ends of a continent, Eastport’s
Tom Sexton offered listeners insight into his almost 83 years of life, a journey that’s led him
from New England to Alaska and back. His gentle, poetic sketches, often punctuated with humor, told of the world, animals, and people he’s encountered. The Sunday, March 5 Eastport Arts Center audience, which included Sexton’s wife Sharyn, eagerly followed every step of the way.

Tom Sexton transported listeners at a Sunday series program, March 5. Photos by Bernie Cecire and Paula Horvath.

Sexton’s presentation, part of the Sunday Afternoons at the Arts Center series, was also a
farewell of sorts to this seaside village that’s been his winter home for many years. He’ll be
moving back to Alaska permanently, he told the audience, and is now sorting through thousands
of drafts of poems that fill his Eastport home.

It wasn’t Sexton’s first poetry reading at the EAC, and although he’s officially giving up
his home here, he promised he’d be back. Perhaps it’s not surprising that a man born in Lowell,
Massachusetts, would find it hard to leave New England completely. Growing up amid the
working class of this milltown, Sexton appreciates the factors that shape this country’s often-
immigrant working class.

From his book Cummisky Alley, this is “Monotype of the Concord River Mills”:

Far from the print hanging on my wall,
a few battered old brick mills remain.
A tree grows from the sagging roof
of one as if its roots can keep a wall
from falling into the river below,
but in the print every brick glows
as if a mason has shaped it from light.
Is that bridge made of cloud or granite?
Inside one of the buildings, my mother
is about to meet my father for the first time.
Look how her auburn hair falls over one eye.
All the looms are singing. This I know to be true.

But it was in Alaska where Sexton made much of his life. After a stint in the Army as the
1950s turned into the 1960s, he attended Salem State College, graduating in 1968 with a degree
in English. Afterward, it was onto the University of Alaska where he earned an MFA and then
helped establish the university’s English department on its Anchorage campus, where he taught
English and creative writing.
Although he retired from teaching in 1994, he didn’t retire from the public eye. In 1995,
he was selected Alaska’s Poet Laureate by the members of the Alaska State Council on the Arts
and confirmed by the state legislature. He served in that capacity until 2000.

Along the way, Sexton has published 10 books of poetry. Much of those are skillfully
drawn memories of the natural world, and Sexton readily admits he’s smitten with ravens and
wolves, blueberries and salmon. Sexton’s poetry captures intimate glimpses of nature that many
of us are often too busy to see such as those in “Old Man Walking in Snow.”

Three crows chatting in a leafless tree
adjusting their glossy black gowns
like oblates like magistrates
glancing down at me
as April snow begins to fall.
It covers the ground in a blink.
I try to catch a flake on my tongue.
I could be inside a magical globe
a snow-globe like no other
following crow tracks toward Labrador
in snow that will never cease to come down.

Sexton’s attention to the world’s details and his unique ability to translate them into his
poetry is a trait that has been noted often. The New York Times said he is an “avatar of how to
look hard yet write simply.”
The Anchorage Daily News echoed that sentiment: “There’s no
obscurity here — no need to puzzle out the hidden meanings of his poems. He is acutely
observant, choosing sensory details that bring a reader into the life and lives he describes.”

And it hasn’t been just Alaska that has captured Sexton’s imagination. His time spent in
Eastport and other spots Down East also figure hugely in his poetry. This, for example, is the
poem “Passamaquoddy Bay,” which was published in his book For the Sake of the Light: New and
Selected Poems.

The moon was lifting the bay
like a bowl of hammered silver
from the dark, or so it seemed to us
who had not seen it for many years.
We left the house and walked past
summer cottages to the water
where we watched in silence,
our tongues as mute as lead.
Later, we placed our last bowl of black-
berries on the table by the window.

Eastport and the EAC thank Tom Sexton for sharing his view of the world. And we look
forward to his return.

Sunday Afternoons at the Arts Center programs are held in Eastport Arts Center’s cozy
downstairs Washington Street Gallery, amidst rotating exhibitions. Admission is by voluntary
donation; proceeds are shared equally between the presenters and EAC constituent group The
Concert Series, which offers year-round programming run by volunteers. No one is turned away
for lack of funds.
Find the full 2023 schedule and more posts about upcoming and past programs