Russell Bourne had been writing poetry since he was eight years old. Sometimes, they would emerge from his pen quickly; other times, he’d tinker with the same words for a decade. His writing deals primarily with two topics: the people and places he loves, the latter often being the Northeastern United States (specifically, Maine).
But despite an illustrious career in publishing, as well as serving as a fellow at the Massachusetts Historical Society, Bourne had never actually compiled his poems into any type of coherent work. After writing for so long, and amassing over 300 poems, it didn’t seem possible.
But when he and his doctors decided in January to stop treatment for his Stage IV prostate cancer, he decided to act on the piles of poems that had accumulated over the years. At that time, the prognosis was that Bourne had two months to live.
Three months later, on a sunny Monday in April, Bourne delivered a reading of his newly published poetry collection, titled “Between Sky and Water,” at Lifelong in downtown Ithaca to a crowded room of his neighbors at Kendal at Ithaca. Its front cover features a landscape painting by his daughter. With, as Bourne said it, “a hell of a lot of work” from himself, his four children, Cayuga Lake Books publisher Jack Hopper and others, the book was assembled, designed and printed in just one month. Hopper, Bourne and friend Gloria Wharton all delivered readings of Bourne’s poems at Lifelong at the event. The book is now available at Buffalo Street Books.
Bourne realizes the somewhat somber undertone of the book, but won’t dwell on it for very long. He’s far more interested in celebrating the work put in by those around him to get “Between the Sky and the Water” done as quickly as possible, considering his circumstances. The speed with which it was done hasn’t visibly impacted the book’s presentation either; if one didn’t know, they would think the book passed through the normal, gradual publication process.
“The clock was ticking. I really thought I was going to die pretty soon,” Bourne said. “But with Jack putting the pedal to the metal, and my kids and everybody helping, we got the book done in the course of the month of March. It’s just phenomenal [...] I don’t want to make it a cry-baby story because, obviously, some sort of grace has been given. Some sort of miracle, you might say, has occurred.”
He credits a poetry group made up of Kendal residents, and named after famous poet and former Cornell University professor A.R. “Archie” Ammons, with keeping his writing skills sharp, though he said that he inherently has a love of words. When asked what his favorite poems in the book are, Bourne defers, but it’s clear there are a few that are particularly close to his heart. For instance, “They Fly,” which he read to the audience at Lifelong and is deliberately the second to last poem included in the book.
Please do not believe a picture’s worth a thousand birds, and that that’s the score,
The words which I, the poet, leave are worth a million more,
They fly beyond the frame, the page,
And land upon a lover’s lips
They expire not, nor yellow with age
They extend, soaring beyond the known world’s end,
Launching a million homeric ships
Perhaps the most important element of publishing the book, Bourne said, is a sense of completion. Some of the included poems had been published before, but many of them had never seen the light of day prior to now. The style and tone of the poems differ vastly, although they do adhere fairly strictly to his favorite subjects, highlighted by an enduring adoration of the natural landscapes of the Northeast. Bourne said he wouldn’t take offense to the label of “regional poet,” but that he hopes to allow readers to look at both his life and their own a bit differently when presented through the subjects he has chosen as his muses.
“This isn’t a regional report on any of these subjects,” Bourne said. “It’s using those beautiful things the flowers, the birds, my late wives, as lenses through which you can look at the larger life. When you’re in your 90s, I think you’re allowed to do that.”
He has been published before, several times, but it was always related to historic research or opinion; never before did he set out to produce something self-revelatory. It’s a more intimate level of expression than his previous work, something Bourne is embracing.
“I think that’s good, I think it’s about time to be vulnerable,” Bourne said. “When you have the opportunity to really say what you’re feeling, where you are, then by God, take it.”