From Lowell to Alaska: Poet Tom Sexton Travels Heaven’s River
Born in Lowell in 1940, poet Tom Sexton grew up in a working class neighborhood in the city’s Lower Belvidere section. He graduated from Lowell High School in 1958, and then worked a series of odd jobs, including stints as a landscaper, a milkman and an elevator operator in the Lowell Sun building when it was still home to the newspaper’s offices. Not seeing a bright future for himself in Lowell, Sexton joined the U.S. Army in January 1959. He served in the military for a little more than three years, much of that time in Alaska.
Eligible for the G.I. Bill, the 24-year-old Sexton enrolled at Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill in 1964. After graduating from NECC in 1966, he went on to Salem State College, now Salem State University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in English in 1968.
Sexton then enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, a decision he says he made because the university offered him a fellowship, and because he was familiar with Alaska from his time in the Army. After completing his degree program in 1970, Sexton was offered a job teaching English at the university’s new Anchorage campus, a position he held until his retirement in 1994.
Sexton and his wife, Sharyn, still live full time in Alaska. They return to the East Coast every other year to spend the winter at their home in Eastport, Maine.
The author of more than 10 books of poetry, Sexton served as Alaska’s poet laureate for five years beginning in 1995. He is one of the founding editors of the renowned literary journal Alaska Quarterly Review, and he served as an artist-in-residence at the Denali National Park & Preserve in Alaska in 2014.
It was at NECC, though, that Sexton wrote his first poem. Along with a group of other students, he was one of the founders of the school’s literary journal, Parnassus, in 1965, which is still being published today. Over the years, the journal has received several awards and accolades, most recently earning a 2018 Magazine Pacemaker Award for literary/art from the Associated Collegiate Press, a prestigious national educational nonprofit.
Sexton latest book of poetry, “Li Bai Rides a Celestial Dolphin Home,” was published in August 2018 by University of Alaska Press. As with some of his other books, this newest work is influenced by the poetry of Li Bai and Wang Wei, 8th century Chinese poets whose work Sexton has long loved and drawn inspiration from. This influence is especially seen in the book’s second chapter, “Under Heaven’s River.”
Conceived during Sexton’s time as an artist-in-residence at Denali and written in an eight-line format similar to that used in Chinese lu-shih, which, as Sexton notes in the book, is the form used by Li Bai, these poems show Li Bai waking up in modern-day Denali after a night of heavy drinking and tell the story of his attempt to find his way home.
Li Bai befriends a magpie and a brown bear, and manages to narrowly avoid a run-in with a “recreational” trapper who is killing the park’s wolves. Li Bai is mistaken for a Chinese tourist by a park visitor, and in the poem “Almost Fall,” “His old bones ached and he missed his friends.”
But as the summer fades and the sky darkens, Li Bai finally sees “Heaven’s River,” the Milky Way, where “He lifted his arms and his gown/became a sail that lifted him out of sight …” In the river, he meets a celestial dolphin who swims him home to 8th century China.
But Li Bai’s odyssey is not the book’s only journey. The 60-page volume also tells the story of Sexton’s own: He and Sharyn left Massachusetts the day after their wedding in 1968 to drive to Alaska so that Sexton could begin his MFA program.
The poems in the book’s first chapter, “Driving North,” tell the story of this long drive with a sense of wistfulness, elegance, and sometimes with the dry sense of humor that anyone who has met Sexton will recognize. Among the loveliest poems in this chapter is “Alaska Highway Lodge, 1966,” in which Sexton and Sharyn eat omelets at a roadside cafe while waiting for their Volkswagen bus to be repaired: “Outside his shop, a boneyard of tailpipes/and radiators that looked like the shields/of a defeated army.”
Nature, especially Alaska’s, is a theme that repeats throughout in the book. In its final chapter, “The Night Sky,” the natural world is as beautiful as it is sometimes bleak, serving as a metaphor for our own joys, sorrows, accomplishments, failings and ultimate mortality. In “Coda,” the conclusion to the chapter “Under Heaven’s River,” Sexton writes, “We must imagine a world made whole again and live in a way that helps make it possible.”
When asked about his next project, Sexton, now 78, says he’s currently working on an anthology of “Lowell” poems. And it’s true that the city of the poet’s birth still seems very much a part of who he is, both in his still-recognizable Lowell accent and in the way he holds his working class roots close to his heart as both as a badge of honor and a source of strength.