By David Nilsen
Galvanized, the new collection from Vermont poet Leland Kinsey, is a document of the hardship and rough-hewn beauty of living close to the land, in reach of its temper but also its embrace. Kinsey grew up on a Vermont farm, the child of a long line of such folk who clung to existence in the face of a cold north wind, working impossibly hard because to do less was to starve. These poems–some new, most from his seven previous books since 1991–are more closely tied to a particular place than any others I’ve read, and bring Vermont into a vivid focus, painting a landscape and a way of life I had never associated with the state.
Kinsey’s poems are beautiful but brutal pastorales, uncompromising in their depictions of the strain and heartache of living off the land. At times these poems feel like catalogs of woe, running through lists of injuries and tragedies, but they are never self-pitying, and they are never dishonest. The occasional joys of such hard lives are also given their turn, from necessary late night swims in glacial ponds to wash off the sweat and chaff after a day of baling, to summer baseball games, to barn dances to thank the neighbors for helping rebuild a burnt down farm building. Kinsey remembers sledding as a child, the near-suicidal danger of this diversion, the danger less impending than that of their farm work because it was chosen:
“We mostly slid at night to tell
if cars were coming,
no stopping at the corner
except by ditching at forty miles and hour,
blood and fractures either way.”
– page 97
More than anything, these poems chronicle survival, an endeavor that for Kinsey’s family was often a fraught and unforgiving one, but one that laid down from time to time in the shadow of joy. There is a wry humor underlying much of this poetry, rarely spotlighted but often teasing at the edges of harder truths, a humor that undoubtedly served its own role in the family’s endurance. In “Riding in the Open,” Kinsey recalls countless rides on top of farm loads in his youth, experiences that were sometimes fun, a chance to rest, and sometimes quite dangerous, and often both:
“I think of how we mostly could not talk,
cheeks puffed out by the force of wind,
any conversation blown back passed us,
ears wind stopped,
and of the holding on,
and in the face of the black despair
we were all prone to,
– page 96
There is a section of the book containing poems from his 2004 collection In the Rain Shadow, a series of poems he wrote during his extended visit with his cousin in Tanzania. These poems present a jarring change of landscape and culture initially, but it quickly becomes apparent to the reader–as it did to the poet–how much there is in common between the experience the inhabitants of this impoverished nation have had in trying to scrape a living from the harsh African environment and the struggle Kinsey’s own family and ancestors had in prying a living from the glacier-scoured hills of northern Vermont.
Galvanized concludes with selections from Kinsey’s most recent collection, 2014’s Winter Ready. Living as close to (and off of) the land as Kinsey and his family have, many of his poems deal with the seasons, the heavens’ rationing of sunshine and rain, and the cruelties and wonders of winter, but this final section hones in on the way the calendar in a cold-weather climate bends around the gravity well of winter. Spring is about escaping it and planting as soon as the ground warms. In summer it can almost be forgotten as crops grow high and the sun beats down. But by fall, everyone knows what’s coming. Crops are gathered, wood is chopped, repairs are made, food is laid in. Winter will spare no one who isn’t ready. These poems perfectly encapsulate the simple clarity with which Kinsey documents the hardship of living as he and his family have, wasting little regret or resentment over the fairness of their lives. There simply isn’t time for it, and nature is as unforgiving with human life as it is with animal. In one of the new poems in the book, he summarizes this while talking about a recent fishing excursion. He set two trout eggs on a rock by the river, and while he had his back turned, they were snatched up by an opportunistic gull he hadn’t noticed a moment before:
“Eggs, and no gull noticed,
gull, and no eggs to be seen,
no one’s rights involved,
just, quick as that,
– Fish Eggs, page 7
I was unfamiliar with Leland Kinsey before this anthology, and I look forward to backtracking through his work in the future. He is a singular poet, deft with his words but aware his greatest asset is the strange and wondrous life he’s lived; he forefronts those experiences over flourishes of language, using his narrative skill to show us a scene, a people, and a place, and he trusts in the raw beauty and grace and pain of those details to do the work for him, which they certainly do.
Galvanized is available now at GPL.