Jack Mayer wins prize for book of poetry
Living here in Addison County, it’s a fair guess that most of us like nature; many of us might even say we “love it.” Whatever it is, we’re all certainly thankful for it. And during this time of year, it seems fitting to recognize the things we cherish — even amid a pandemic.
Local pediatrician and poet Jack Mayer has spent more than a moment contemplating his thanks for the natural world. In fact, his most recent book of poems, “Poems from the Wilderness,” is a collection about his “love of the backcountry, trail-walking, camping and the ‘wilderness effect’ — a unique sensation of aliveness and deep connection.’” Mayer composed all of the poems while walking alone in the woods over 40 years. Just last week, the book was named one of two winners of the Proverse Prize 2019, an international literary competition.
“It’s a real honor,” said Mayer after he got the good news. “I’ve been writing these poems down for years… Then maybe two years ago, I decided to try and pull them all together into a collection, with the trail being the thread that binds them together.”
“The trail” Mayer’s talking about is, of course, Vermont’s Long Trail and the Appalachian Trail. No, he’s not an end-to-ender; not quite, but very close.
“What I discovered as a young man is that I’d scribble notes while hiking, and those turned into free verse,” he remembered. “Then when I’d get to a shelter book I’d write down some of the poems.”
The shelter books contain journal-entries left by hikers — “a potpourri of hikers connecting” Mayer explained.
“We choose our identities with trail names when we go into the wilderness,” said Mayer, also known as “Mountain Poet.” “They’re other dimensions of our personalities that we try on. When we’re on the trail, we make a conscious effort to release our civilized names; to go into an altered state or reality.”
Leaving poetry in the log books was “amusing and inspiring” for Mayer. Now he hikes with a notebook and at least one pen in his pocket, and writes as he walks.
But he can only write when he’s alone.
“When I’m alone on the trail it magically opens this vista,” he said. “It becomes an entirely different metaphysical experience. With no conversation, I slip right away into this particular and unique bible that is ‘wilderness.’
“Being in wilderness releases something uniquely creative within us … and there’s something mysterious about how we access that,” Mayer continued. “There are all these unseen connections in nature among all living things in the woods. Constant connections that we’re not privy to, unless we make ourselves available to it. It’s the idea of mindfulness — moment to moment nonjudgmental awareness — and it’s rare for us to tap into this.”
Mayer notices that it might be human instinct to “find respite in nature from the challenges, threats and travails of life in the flat lands. We head into the mountains,” he said. “Taking care of ourselves and each other by connecting with reassuring elements of wilderness.”
That was true for Mayer as a young boy when he’d escape his “rough neighborhood” in New York City, to go hiking in the Catskills with his uncle. “Living where I was pretty much scared all the time, and then suddenly to be in such a beautiful, peaceful safe space — that gave me my love of the wilderness.”
A similar feeling might be with us during these times with COVID, where the safest place to be is out in open air with lots of space and few people.
But Mayer’s book doesn’t require the reader to brave the brisk winter elements to benefit from his musings. Nope, “reading this collection is like going on the trail from your very own living room,” he said.
The collection is divided into five sections: forest, trail, physics, spirit and music. Mayer thinks of these poems as “a larger way to look at our human experience; our attempts to understand physical existence.”
He selected this section of “Northwest wind” to sum up what the poems are all about:
I catch a glimpse of the ineffable,
the ephemeral, the everlasting,
trying to reckon which is which.
What remains is faith and doubt –
the miracle of our implausibility.
Mayer concludes the book with the section “Music,” which comes from his experiences singing to the dying — something that’s been on Mayer’s mind for the past few years.
“I’m in the autumn of my life,” he said. “My sense of appreciation and wonder only deepens as I get older, and it gives me a sense of calm about transitions. Birth and death and resurrection are a part of every process in nature — like a rotting log sprouting new growth… Sure there’s a sadness associated with it, but also an understanding of the natural cycle we are part of. We are not so apart from nature. It feels like a coming home and it’s reassuring.”
Mayer thanks the wilderness for all of this knowledge and perspective, as he writes in “Wilderness.”
Thank you, Wilderness, my old, old friend
who, upon reunion after my year-long absence,
asks for nothing and gives everything.
Someday soon, we’ll share a park bench,
you and I, on a sunny autumn day.
Tears will blur, because soon I will leave you,
and I will say, “Thank you,” again.
Editor’s note: The Vermont Book Shop will be hosting a Zoom virtual reading, Q & A and discussion with Jack Mayer on Thursday, Dec. 3, at 7 p.m.
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