Winter Ready, by Leland Kinsey. Published by Green Writers Press. 85 pages. Paperback. $14.95
Reviewed by Tena Starr
It was yet another cold and snowy March day in this cold and snowy winter of 2014, and Leland Kinsey’s latest book of poetry, Winter Ready, seemed an apt read. But there is little in this volume that chronicles the grueling. Nor is Winter Ready poetry as some may know it.
This lovely collection is as much prose as poetry. It’s a collection of moments, observations, and sometimes a reminiscence of a Northeast Kingdom that’s, sadly in my view, fading into memory.
In fact, the onerous chore of picking stone had completely escaped my own memory until I ran across Mr. Kinsey’s poem called “Stone Picking.”
Does anyone pick stone anymore? We used to on our farm. I recall, as a girl, thinking that rocks must somehow grow and multiply, like potatoes. Picking stone was a task for Sisyphus, who spent eternity rolling a boulder uphill.
Yet, it cannot be so long ago that farmers still picked stone because Mr. Kinsey has dedicated this poem to his cousin Jeff Kinsey, a West Glover farmer who died as a young man not so many years ago. It’s a heartbreaking piece, not least because of its recollection of Jeff, a hard-working man who lived with joy and humor.
But also, it recalls the struggle involved in turning tough land into a working farm and the gift of family that steps up when there’s need. It transforms the backbreaking work of picking a bountiful crop of rocks into an act of grace and even wonder. Is that stone a piece of the moon?
Frankly, I recall no such lofty thoughts while rummaging around in the dirt and heaving rocks. If I have to do it again, I will gratefully remember Mr. Kinsey’s elevating words.
Here is the poem in its entirety. This is a story that must be told as a whole.
Fifteen acres of upturned soil
heavily scattered with stones,
that my cousin plowed
to plant this fall, before
his diagnosis of cancer
kept him from the necessary clearing,
lay before us.
I and other family volunteered
for a farm’s worst work,
to scrabble over that tillage
picking the rocks, from fist-sized
to those too heavy to lift,
so planting and reaping machinery
We would too,
but faced a hot south wind
that dried the clayey soil to dust
and swirled it into devils
that clogged our noses
and coated our tongues and throats.
We could not drink enough
and knew the next day
we would know the all-body ache
that dry hard work makes.
Gloves could partly protect
fingers and palms from sharp edges
and pinches and raps between stones.
Those we couldn’t lift
we slid onto the stone boats,
and lugged plenty almost too big
to make our loads,
dumped at a field-edge embankment
that began to look like an abandoned
made of stone barely stone, like shale
and mudstone; through those forms
laid down, sunk and melted;
to that from the mantle,
long cooled and heavy as the day.
I also knew some one of us likely picked
a rock from the moon,
or Mars, or a leftover bit
from the Solar System’s swirling creation,
some stony meteorite,
or carbonaceous chondrite
that likely bore water and acids
as precursors to life. One might notice
the black surface, pitted nature,
or peculiar weight, and still not recognize
what one had in hand. No ceremony then
or now, work bracketed
by beginnings and endings.
My cousin is well enough
to plant the field for cropping
next spring, but he will not live
to cut it for green chop, and knows it.
If only we could reverse it,
the burning up to falling dust.
Last winter wild turkeys came
out of the woods regularly
to feed in his bunker silo.
He poached several,
said it seemed fair, he and the flock
providing each other easy meals.
“They don’t need to pick grit
for their gizzards to grind silage,
and the meat’s so tender.”
He hopes to invite us to such a meal
this early winter.
As I left, he acknowledged
my father’s past push to extend tillage
on upland hardscrabble
while my uncle’s land laid
that much closer
to the good soil laid down
in the beds of ice age lakes,
“Well, I know you must love me,
I never thought I’d see you pick stone again.”
Little enough burden.
Mr. Kinsey grew up on a farm, and he writes in this book about horseshoeing, butchering turkeys, fishing. Many of these poems are accounts of what once was. They are not nostalgic; they have the feel of a warm autumn day when the light is hazy and golden and, despite what the thermometer says, it’s clear that summer has departed.
“Corn Cutting” starts with Mr. Kinsey’s description of the homely task of cutting the stalks of his own spent garden corn. It morphs into a recollection of the days when farmers cut whole fields with a sickle. “Corn Cutting” is long, perhaps, for a poem, but remarkably brief for all it conveys: a young boy’s disappointment, the dramatic changes that have come to farming, and the confines of life as a Mexican farm worker in Vermont.
As for winter, the poem “Winter Ready” would not have readied us for this particular winter. It is, however, a reminder of the great preparation necessary for surviving those long cold months, written by a man who knows far more than most of us about the natural world.
…Caribou moss punched up
in tight fists among the sedges
though caribou haven’t fed on it for millennia.
But a sudden uprise and wake
from the channel announced a bull moose
who’d been feeding entirely underwater,
his wide rack carried water lily
and spatterdock stems, leaves,
and leathery berries, which also draped
across his long humped back,
he and they a dripping mass
as his feet found purchase
and he lumbered off, mouth full
of arrowhead root the Indians
called duck potatoes,
for which they would open
muskrats’ dens to take the rodent’s caches….
Everything that does not migrate
has fattened up, bedded down,
cocooned up, seeded itself.
Life’s two principles—
reproduce; survive to reproduce again.
By this process the world is brought
back to us as we know at winter’s end.
And by this process, even beyond
the evident hand of man, the world
slowly changes utterly.
Mr. Kinsey is a meticulous observer and an honest writer, and Winter Ready is an insightful, and beautifully written, look at a Vermont that many of us remember and treasure. We don’t all have the ability to capture what we love, have loved, best, in words, certainly not so concisely. Mr. Kinsey does have that ability and has put it to good use in this quite wonderful book.
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