Thursday, May 23, 2013

A Walker in the City: Elegy for Gloucester: A review by Rae Francoeur

NORTH SHORE BOOK NOTES: Peter Anastas' 'A Walker in the City'
By Rae Padilla Francoeur
Cape Ann Beacon
May 22, 2013

A Walker in the City: Elegy for Gloucester” By Peter Anastas. The book is published collectively by Lost & Found Elsewhere: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative and Back Shore Press. 2013. 244 pages. $14.95

I am under the spell of Peter Anastas, who takes me by the hand in “A Walker in the City: Elegy for Gloucester,” and leads me to his grandmother’s stove to take a whiff of her wonderful keftedes, little Greek meatballs seasoned with onions, oregano and fresh mint. We walk to the Fort to watch men unload the fishing boats. We stroll to the library, through Dogtown at dusk, to summer camp to learn to swim. I see the summer gardens immortalized by John Sloan and I feel the restlessness of late August and I hear the quiet murmurings of a friendly neighborhood as the sun sets.

Anastas has compiled, in “A Walker in the City,” a collection of essays he first published in The Gloucester Daily Times and North Shore North in the 1970s, ’80s and early ’90s. This collection highlights Gloucester, not as an artifact of a past era, but as a community of souls arrived “on the brink.” Of what? Inevitable change, loss, annihilation of self? And how is this different from what Anastas faces as he grows toward his own unknown? The book is a layered and intimate conversation between author and reader.

Gloucester, in possession of unique and valuable resources, is a maritime-oriented community whose desire to retain its identity and way of life feels like a protracted and tragic struggle in these beautiful, heartbreaking essays. Gloucester is prey to developers who have won more than a foothold here. Will this one-of-a-kind city fall to a familiar default mode, one seen at so many seaside communities whose unique characters have been overwritten by hotels and shops and boardwalks?

Anastas begins with many eloquent reminiscences of his childhood, spent at the epicenter of what is still a captivating, dynamic community. In his urgency to capture the essence of his childhood and its symbiotic link to Gloucester, he manages to present a multi-sensory recreation of what we thought we’d lost — our youth. At the same time, he chronicles a community’s struggle for the survival of self. Sense of place, he writes, is the chemistry between particular people and a unique landscape. Change the landscape and change the people. Save Gloucester and save yourself.

I wonder, what is more alluring as subject matter — Gloucester’s years of struggle or Anastas’s? He’s self-aware, engaged in self-examination and somber even in his most eloquent and successful reincarnations of youth. Read the essays in Section I: This Side of the Cut and transport to a childhood so real that the buzz of a cell phone or even the honk of a car will seem surreally out of place. He may or may not mean to do this, but these beautiful evocations, so tinged with melancholy, are both warnings and, in a more hopeful bent, models. It doesn’t have to be too late. Anastas admits to his “perpetual condition of bereavement.” He carries a weight for all of us.

Roger Martin, poet in Rockport, once called Lura Hall Phillips “Rockport’s prod.” Phillips compelled people to work hard for the arts, for Rockport and for the betterment of the community. She wasn’t subtle, like Anastas is, with his sweet nostalgia that can easily be mistaken for simply that. (He says his nostalgia is functional rather than regressive, meant to demonstrate the extent of the loss.) She was an arm twister where Anastas relies on his fine skills as writer of essays and fiction, and his years-long commitment to his subject matter.

Anastas worries, in a few essays, that today’s youth are not close to the land and the community. They are less in touch with a natural world, the one he revels in, where an owl’s hoots announce a certain point in winter’s progression. Our sense of place is who and what we are, writes Anastas. If we don’t notice, what will happen?

Rae Padilla Francoeur’s memoir, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” is available online or in bookstores. Write her at Or read her blog at 2or follow her @RaeAF.22