Book review: New Kinsey collection is a double offering
copyright the Chronicle March 16, 2016
Galvanized, New and Selected Poems by Leland Kinsey. Published by Green Writers Press, Brattleboro. 381 pages. $24.95 in paperback.
Reviewed by Chris Braithwaite
As its subtitle suggests, Barton poet Lee Kinsey’s new book is a double offering. It begins with a dozen new poems; then a rich selection of his finest work drawn from earlier books that stretch all the way from Northern Almanac (1991) through Family Drives (1993), Not One Man’s Work (1996), Sledding on Hospital Hill (2003), and The Immigrant’s Contract (2008), to Winter Ready (2014).
Galvanized is a double offering in another sense, as well. To readers who know anything of this area and its history it is a beautifully drafted, richly detailed, four-dimensional map through space and time.
But Mr. Kinsey also takes his readers to the wilds of Labrador, the relentless heat of Africa, the wheat fields and dinosaur-rich badlands of western Canada, and the bars of Havana long before Castro tamed them.
Except for the latter, from which Mr. Kinsey was barred by U.S. law, these are first-person accounts of the poet’s travels. He was toured through Tanzania by a cousin, Erwin Kinsey, who has made agricultural development there his life’s work. And in one of the new poems, “Shouldered,” it is good to see that, even removed from the Northeast Kingdom by a generation and the Atlantic Ocean, the Kinsey spirit survives.
Trying to be helpful, Erwin’s three pre-teen boys roll a large boulder out of a steep, sandy road. The huge rock doesn’t come quietly to rest on the shoulder, but rolls through a coffee plantation, a fence, a garden, a small dam, and two shops before coming to rest against their school.
The poet reports:
The day they told me of it
we walked and talked down every thrashed,
apologized for, paid for, proud inch.
Proud, indeed. Another story for the Kinsey family annals.
When he combined the stories he’d collected from an elderly friend into The Immigrant’s Contract, Mr. Kinsey felt obliged to visit Alberta. His friend had gone out west on a train to help bust the prairie sod, driving one of five ten-horse teams across a perfectly flat landscape.
Mr. Kinsey made the long drive in three days, sticking as close to the railway line as he could.
In the poem “Alberta Wheat Fields” his protagonist, who emigrated to the Kingdom from Quebec as a young man, notices something missing:
I waited for ledges and rocks but the disks
wheeled on, cutting for hour after stoneless hour.
In another of his new poems, “Fish Eggs,” Mr. Kinsey is in Labrador. He’s set aside the eggs he stripped from a catch as a gift for the expedition’s cook. But they don’t make it back to camp. The poem closes with a fine demonstration of Mr. Kinsey’s gift for rhythm:
Eggs, and no gull noticed,
gull, and no eggs to be seen,
no one’s rights involved,
just, quick as that,
But it is the work that emerges from the poet’s precise map of the neighborhood that this reader finds most compelling.
It is intimate stuff, but in detail, Mr. Kinsey warns us in “Horseshoeing,” we must grant him some measure of poetic license:
But any path to or through
the past is an icy road,
whatever the pace,
distorted by speed.
Some of the incidents in his poems are completely accurate, Mr. Kinsey said Saturday in an interview. “Others I manipulated. I’m not trying to write my autobiography. I’m trying to write poems.”
In background detail, however, the poems ring perfectly true. From “Children Sledding on Hospital Hill” he evokes:
… an icy night
so cold the roads weren’t slippery.
And from “Upland Birds,” the grouse’s perfect imitation of machine:
All day I heard the muffled thumps
like the tumble and thuds
of my grandfather starting
his old John Deere tractor
There are surprising similes that could only occur to a writer who grew up on a rock-cursed dairy farm in the Kingdom. From “Swing,” catching fastballs hurled by his father across the stubble of a hayfield:
the slap in our gloves like the sound
of punching an ornery cow
Mr. Kinsey turns the surprise around in one of his new poems, “Army Worms.” As they eat their way across a crop of rowen, he writes, the worms sound like horses eating hay:
or like the rub of taffeta against my leg
at prom balls in my earlier life.
There is a great deal of loss in the work of Leland Kinsey. He writes, in “Last Crops,” of the family gathering to harvest the fruits and vegetables husbanded by his sister Helen, who has died of cancer.
And in “Picking Stone” the family comes to the aid of a cousin, Jeff Kinsey, who is too weakened by the cancer that is killing him to do the job himself.
Jeff is given the last word:
“Well, I know you must love me,
I never thought I’d see you pick stone again.”
Little enough burden.
The book is bracketed by poems about the poet’s father, Fred Kinsey. There’s bitterness in the final poem, an angry homage to an unstoppable force who lay dying in hospital:
You worked your life in the Northeast Kingdom
and no glory,
And there’s great joy in the new work that opens the book, “The Skinny.” A young Fred and his brother Bob are caught skinny dipping in the Barton River as a train pulls by carrying the King and Queen of England on a royal visit.
… they stood and waved
and thought or pretended the Queen responded,
at a window the sweep of a hand
a pleasant face
moving away at considerable speed.
There is in fact a map of Mr. Kinsey’s world. Shown to him recently by his mother, Louise Kinsey, it shows the road from the family farm to South Albany, past Hartwell Pond where a car is parked. In the pond, the tiny bobbing heads of the Kinseys, reaping their cool reward for a hot day spent in the hayfield. If a child spent too much time out of sight, a parent would call out and wait for the answering “Here I am.”
When he drew the map, at age six, Mr. Kinsey could not have known it would illustrate one of his poems, “Swimming Late.” In it, this master of brilliant closing lines that can cast deep shadows across what seemed a simple narrative, remembers such a night at Hartwell:
Tonight, after a long hot day
I’ve worked through, I say softly
“Here I am.”
to no one’s call,
to no one expecting an answer
After another long hot day, in “Double Digging the Garden,” Mr. Kinsey reflects that he grows more food than he and his wife can eat, more than they can give away:
I could join the farmer’s market
but don’t like meeting new people.
My legacy may consist of refuse.
But then comes my favorite conclusion of all the poems in Galvanized. He’s writing about his garden, but the lines serve as a metaphor for Mr. Kinsey’s real legacy:
Here is life’s habit on grand exhibit
and the hard work hidden.
Editor’s note: Leland Kinsey will read selections from Galvanized at Green Mountain Books in Lyndonville on March 25 at 3 p.m.; at the Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick on April 5 at 7 p.m.; and at an Osher talk and reading at Catamount Arts in St. Johnsbury on May 5 at 1:30 p.m. The book’s official publication date is April 8.
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