Never More There is Newfoundland-based school teacher Stephen Rowe’s first collection of poems. In many ways, it is a typical debut, featuring poems of family history, quotidian observations, formal experiments, and nods to literary models and mentors that take the form of epigraphs, imitations, and quotations.
Like most first books, Rowe’s is wildly uneven, though the variety of approaches the author is willing to take is encouraging: free verse of various sorts is mixed with haibun (a hybrid form employing prose and haiku), rhyming stanzas, and set forms (true or adapted) such as rondeau, glosa, triolet, and sonnet. A sequence of 14 haibun about the speaker’s grandfather is one of the book’s weakest elements. Rowe’s speaker makes explicit the fact that he didn’t know the grandfather well, and the poems have the feel of second-hand anecdotes, the speaker’s self-conscious preoccupation with his inability to tell the story overriding the main event.
Fortunately, the book gets better from there. There are some gorgeous lines scattered throughout (“coursing with the little heat a wound can bring”) and the second section contains a handful of fully realized poems, particularly the hypnotic “I Knew a Maid,” which has the timeless feel of folklore about it.
But it is in the third section that Rowe really hits his stride. The predominantly elegiac poems in this part of the book are the most personal, and it is in this mode that Rowe seems most at ease, most in command of his language. The seven-poem sequence “Lords of Large Experience” is exceptionally moving, as are “The Wallet” (a superb sonnet with a surprising turn) and the anaphoric dirge “Aubade.”
Rowe has the guts to end his book with the word “beautiful” – which Frost famously said a poet should only be allowed to use three times in his life – and he gets away with it, beautifully. Never More There is far from perfect, but with this collection, Rowe announces himself as a poet to watch.