‘May Darkness Restore’: Sexton’s poetry, ‘all grown up’

Last week, as rain pelted his hand-built house and the 600-acre ranch it faces, Sean Sexton settled in at a harvest table piled with books of poetry, including his latest, “May Darkness Restore.” It was two days after Sexton’s return from the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, where he had been invited to read for the eighth time in nine years. And it was the day before Valentine’s Day, when he read to a packed room at the Vero Beach Book Center.

Sean Sexton reads passages from his book, May Darkness Restore, followed by a book signing at Vero Beach Book Center Feb. 14, 2019. [Kaila Jones/ 32963]

Sexton, who is a talented painter and clay artist in addition to working his sizeable cow-and-calf operation, was designated the county’s first poet laureate in 2016. By then, he was already known as the local poetry ambassador, staging and wrangling top national poets to read here at the annual Laura Riding Jackson Poetry and Barbecue event for the past nine years.

Last year, tornado warnings drove the reading and its catered barbecue indoors for the first time; this year’s April 7 event will again be at the Heritage Center. It will include three of the top poets from Elko; headliners who helped draw the crowd of 15,000 to the annual event, Sexton says.

“I just called and asked them,” says an elated Sexton. Here, there will be a maximum of 250 seats. Already at least one fan at the book center was anxiously inquiring as to when the Laura Riding Jackson Foundation website would offer tickets. (The answer: soon.)

Poets Andy Hedges of Lubbock, Texas; Joel Nelson of Alpine, Texas; and Randy Reiman of Cascade, Montana, will be reading here that Sunday.

Sexton also gets the credit for recruiting talent for the Lenten Organ and Poetry Series, begun two years ago at Community Church of Vero Beach. Nelson will arrive two days early to read April 4; Alfred Corn of Rhode Island, a poetry barbecue alumnus and one of the poets who wrote a blurb for Sexton’s new book, will read on March 7; and two other barbecue alums, Gianna Russo of Tampa and Miami’s Mia Leonin, will read March 14 and April 11 respectively.

“May Darkness Restore” is his second collection of poems, following 2010’s “Blood Writing,” which has sold 2,000 copies.

Two days before the Book Center signing, he slipped a copy to folk-rocker David Crosby, whose sold-out concert at the Emerson Center Sexton was still euphoric over the next morning. He had Crosby’s latest album cranked loud over the rain; turning it down to read a poem or two, allowing the lowing of a nearby cow to drift through open windows.

Sean Sexton reads passages from his book, May Darkness Restore, followed by a book signing at Vero Beach Book Center Feb. 14, 2019. [Kaila Jones/ 32963]

“This is like Volume 2,” he said of the book. “We’re getting old. Our parents are gone, our children are grown and the horizon is now about here,” – he lifts his hand to chest level – “instead of way out there.”

Since “Blood Writings” was published in late 2010, Sexton lost his father Ralph Sexton, then his mother Hildegarde. He saw daughter Julia have her first baby, and his son Mike take the reins of the family cattle operation.

And as he approached the distal edge of middle age, Sexton managed to fall even more deeply in love with his wife, artist Sharon Sexton, a relationship he examines in his recent poems.

“The first book really did comprise that early married life. This book is my poetry all grown up.”

The poems of “May Darkness Restore” reflect what Sexton calls “an education” delivered by his new editors at Press 53, the Winston-Salem-based imprint he discovered after leaving Anhinga Press, which published “Blood Writings.”

The young assistant editor at Press 53, Christopher Forrest, worked tirelessly and enthusiastically with Sexton, he says.

“We had 14 separate hour-long conversations on the phone. He never once said, ‘Look, man, I don’t have time for this stuff,’” Sexton says with a laugh.

The editors wanted all the poems Sexton gave them, but asked for eight to be revised. It was during those dialogues with Forrest that Sexton said his writing skills noticeably advanced.

“The great thing is he loves my poetry. Having somebody who’s not only telling you what’s wrong but telling you what’s right – that’s the rare thing.”

Sexton finds much of his subject matter for paintings and poetry in the vista he looks out on, though it’s the house itself that charms visitors even on approach. A few of the architectural details, including an elaborate iron door, were supplied by his grandfather Waldo Sexton, himself a dairy farmer from Indiana, who built the Ocean Grill and similar Vero landmarks. Others details of the home, like the colorful mosaic stepping stones embedded in the front walkway, are the work of wife Sharon, well-known for her ceramics and sunny naive paintings.

By contrast, Sean Sexton paints in the realist style. The cover of his new book is taken from a massive 72-inch-by-84-inch oil painting, “Allegory of Work,” a still-life of rusted tools, a slab of steak and a roll of barbed wire, among other things.

His efforts as a painter earn at least one poem. Titled “Scraping an Old Palette: On the occasion of painting a self-portrait at 60,” he cleans an old palette of its 25 years of paint, taking first a chisel and finally a hammer to find a “dismal heat and softness inside,” as the pigments that were the “makings of grass, bark, leaves,/ sunlit rises, and hammocks of trees,/dark ravines, whole tablesful of subjects/ crumble into the can beneath. Intent unbinds, cascading with each stroke …”

His workday in the fields is packed with treasures for the painter poet. “The cow’s tooth fragment/ I found, glittering in the grass,/ on a walk in the field – is keen/ to the touch as a risen sun in the eyes,” he writes in a poem. The tooth, “stained of the land’s grassy teas,” is “the essential accessory” to chomp enough for three: “calf at her side, the unborn and her daily portion.”

On Friday March 1, Sexton will share readings from his book at the Laura (Riding) Jackson Foundation Writing Center on 14th Avenue during the First Fridau Art Walk.

Elswhere in Florida, he has been asked to inaugurate Bok Tower Gardens’ Pollinating with Words poetry series April 13 in Lake Wales, where he will be joined by his longtime friend Bill Maxwell, the renowned opinion writer with the Tampa Bay Times who got his start at the Fort Pierce Tribune.

In Orlando, Sexton has helped curate Lay of the Land: The Art of Florida’s Cattle Culture, an exhibit sponsored by the Florida Cattlemen’s Association at the Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens in Winter Park. Sexton, who has paintings in the exhibit, will join poet Hedges for a reading at the show’s closing reception April 12.

Main image: Sean Sexton reads passages from his book, May Darkness Restore, followed by a book signing at Vero Beach Book Center Feb. 14, 2019. [Kaila Jones/ 32963]

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