Pulitzer-nominated epic poem is cry for America

The Clear Blue Lobster-Water Country, by Leo Connellan. New York and San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 160 pp. $15.95. W. H. Auden once wrote of W. B. Yeats that Ireland hurt him into poetry. In similar fashion, America (and most specifically, Maine) has provoked poet Leo Connellan. His trilogy, ``The Clear Blue Lobster-Water Country,'' which has brought him his third Pulitzer Prize nomination and the prestigious Shelley Memorial Award, is both the story of its tormented narrator, Boppledock, and an anguished cry for his beloved country.

Few American poets since Stephen Vincent Ben'et have attempted this kind of epic lyrical narrative, and it's safe to say that fewer have matched such ambition with the masterly achievement that Connellan demonstrates here.

Book I is largely given over to the middle-aged Boppledock's efforts to win the love of his dead father by defeating a former childhood bully in an imagined road race. This obsession with an absent father is a familiar theme in American letters (witness Willy Loman's preoccupation in ``Death of a Salesman''), but Connellan still manages to make it very much his own. The bully is not incidental, either: ``We are the children of violation'' exclaims the narrator, and the abuse of children, both physical and psychic, surfaces throughout the poem. The quest to wrest his father's love from beyond the grave proves futile, of course. ``Father, we'll/meet again./You can tell me you love me then,'' declares Boppledock.

Book II opens in the alcohol detoxification ward of the Little Hope Hospital. Utilizing a longer poetic line and skid-row dialect, Connellan suggests that his character's illness mirrors that of America. The nation he once understood but still loves has vanished, says Boppledock, who muses that ``We went from the wheel to the moon,/underneath we are sunk in addiction.'' Convinced that ``cure lies in us,'' he bails out of Little Hope. In Book III, Boppledock, wounded while on a peaceful mission to embattled Central America, meditates on the Maine of his childhood, and the plight of his grandfather who emigrated there from Ireland. Here, too, the failure of the O'Dock family becomes America's failure, ``Where common men got/told for the first time in rememberable history/they had a right to the pursuit of happiness/and have not been able to handle it.''

By the end of the poem Boppledock has achieved a hard-won affirmation: ``I am put together again hard, I will break/no further, I have become me.'' ``Cure lies in us'' counsels Connellan again, arguing for both Boppledock and our nation at large.

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