Conrad Neumann’s poetry describes the ocean world and the man who measured it

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Conrad Neumann at his home in Chilmark. —Stacey Rupolo

Sometimes this job is so damn good, I’d do it for nothing.

Spending time recently with A. Conrad Neumann is an example. Mr. Neumann, 83, is a “cricker” born and raised, and he has published a book of poems about which old friend Arnie Reisman gave me the heads-up. (Note: “cricker” is a term used to describe Chilmark natives familiar with Chilmark Creek.)

Now, it’s rare to find an 83-year-old publishing his first book, poetry to boot, so that’s a story right there. But when you also find a man of considerable parts, with straight-ahead life wisdom, droll wit, and a curiosity that doesn’t quit, it’s pure manna. Those character perspectives show up in his book, “Up-Island Poems: Tales of a Life on Island & Sea.”

Mr. Neumann is an educated man with three degrees, including a Ph.D. in oceanography, his career specialty. But if you talk with him, you wouldn’t know it, and he’d likely not tell you unless you asked.

Nowadays, Mr. Neumann and Jane (Spaeth), his wife of 55 years, summer in a little house in Chilmark and winter in North Carolina, where he taught oceanography at the University of North Carolina for more than 30 years.

Along the way, he measured, charted, and explored most of the world’s oceans, from the surface and from more than two miles below it in an early submersible.

How he got there is one part of the story. “Growing up, I wanted to be like my friends — fishermen, swordfishing. But my mother wanted my sister and me to go to college. To us, college was just a name on the sweatshirts of summer college kids.

”There wasn’t a lot of money. My father had died and my mother was a town clerk; that didn’t pay much. But summer renters told us there were free colleges in New York for city residents,” he said, adding, “I benefited from contact with summer people; they were at their best and I was old enough to enjoy talking with them and the wider horizons they provided.”

So after two years at Tisbury High School, young Conrad moved to Queens to stay with family, allowing him to complete his last two years at Bayside High School and to meet the two-year city residency required for free college.

“When I told Carlton Mayhew, skipper of the swordfishing boat I worked on, about my New York City plan, he said, ‘Well, I don’t know much about New York, but I’d keep my own counsel if I were you,’” Mr. Neumann recalled.

Good advice, since there wasn’t a career called “oceanography” in the late 1940s, and young Conrad ignored the advice that he become an electrical engineer and followed the counsel of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) director Columbus Iselin to study science and math.

One thing led to another — a geology degree from Brooklyn College, a master’s in oceanography at Texas A&M, three years charting oceanography for WHOI, a Ph.D. from Lehigh, and eventually his teaching and research career at UNC. He worked for two years at the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C., and his work on deep-sea deposits, coral reefs, and sea-level and climate change gave him, and us, a good read on those issues.

He commented on McMansions built close to the ocean in an interview several years ago: “If you can see the sea, then the sea can see you.” He’s described the phenomenon as “the place where greed meets the ocean.”

He’s got a good read on his personal history interspersed with his poems in “Up-Island Poems,” and it’s worth noting that while most memoirs reference the rich and famous the authors have encountered, Mr. Neumann references Carlton Mayhew, Columbus Iselin, and Stanley Poole.

There’s a fusion of left brain with right brain in the man that allows us to hear him in the 41 poems and five essays in “Up-Island Poems,” a rich tumble of variously versed work.

There’s not much guessing about meaning in his words. “I guess my poetry is for people who don’t read poetry. I wrote some poetry in the ’70s for fun, then joined a poetry circle and found I had both a lot of poems and Martha’s Vineyard in me, stewing around in my head. I’ve done more writing since I retired. Maybe I waited too long, busy writing scientific papers and proposals.

“But it’s a great way to lash out against boredom, and I’m lame and deaf now, and the world doesn’t always look as brilliant as it should. Writing is energizing, the Island is so full of things that I didn’t know were in my head. And sometimes writing is like using a copy machine — you turn it on and it just keeps going.”

It does keep going. In “Cellar Holes” and “The Stone Wall,” I hear echoes of Seamus Heaney’s writing about his beloved Irish landscape. And though Mr. Neumann merely skewed an eyebrow at the mention, T.S. Eliot’s “Prufrock” ran through my mind after reading “Whose Are the Hills of Chilmark?”

Mr. Neumann is reserved about comparisons with other poets, and prizes readability as a goal: “I read poems in the New Yorker and think, ‘What the hell does that mean?’ Poets go in and out of readability, I think.

“Anyway, my family and friends have been bugging me for years to write a book, and now I can tell ’em, ‘Here’s your damn book,’” he said with a grin.

 

“Up-Island Poems: Tales of a Life on Island & Sea,” 132 pages, paperback. Available from Up-Island Books, P.O. Box 71, Menemsha, MA 02535.