Leland Kinsey, Galvanized: New and Selected Poems (2016)
Galvanized came to me courtesy of Green Writers Press in Vermont (an exciting new publishing company about which I’ll be telling you more very soon). It arrived at the perfect moment, since my intention is to focus on poetry and drama during this month for my Reading New England Challenge, and I was looking to explore some contemporary voices of the region. I was so glad to meet a new-to-me poet through this marvelously rich and rewarding collection, which gathers selections from seven volumes of poetry published between 1991 and 2014, along with thirteen new poems.
Leland Kinsey’s Vermont roots go deep, as his Scottish ancestors settled there in the 1800s, and he grew up on the family farm. The hard work of rural living forms the bedrock of his poetry, which often deals with seemingly prosaic actions and events: repairing a chimney, making pickles, pulling weeds. But this is no prettified picturing of country life. Violence and injury are not uncommon motifs — one poem is descriptively titled “Small Wounds and Minor Ailments”; another begins “The whitewashed walls were smeared with blood / the day the bull rampaged inside the barn” (from “Surviving Bulls”). Kinsey’s spare, restrained, but strongly rhythmical style embraces and contains these extremes of experience, both the sensational and the mundane, while delivering insights that are visceral, unsentimental, luminous and raw.
Many of the poems are firmly based in the Vermont countryside, but others take us further afield, to Alberta, Havana, Tanzania. However exotic the setting, the basic needs and drives of human life remain constant, and are given dignity and grace through Kinsey’s thoughtful poems. Far better than my attempts to describe them is for you to read an example; thanks to Green Writers Press for permission to reprint the following in its entirety. Like many of the poems in this volume, it addresses the experience of New England families through the generations — what passes away and what remains. I hope that you will enjoy it, and will seek out more of this fine poet’s work.
by Leland Kinsey
I used to read Farmer Boy to my boy
just as my mother read it
to my siblings and me.
But I sit on his bed in bright lamp light.
My mother sat at the top
of the stairs, between bedrooms,
and read by candlelight
and later flashlight,
the wan column of light falling
on each of us when she was done.
The house had been wired
during the war by Rural Electric,
so only the downstairs was done
and poorly. She sometimes sat
in brighter light unseen by us
and played piano for us.
Through the open stairwell door
music flowed, the reverse of cascades,
rose up riser and tread and cold air well
as she played slow jazz, show tunes,
and fast paced hymns.
We slept after our chores
while father and she finished theirs.
I often sang to my son,
work songs from the thirties
or protest songs from my own youth.
The boy in the book knew cold —
driving oxen in deep snow,
cutting ice —
as did we. Water in winter
froze on our dressers,
and the iron stove in the morning
sat like fresh dug Arctic ore.
Woods work for firewood
or logs to sell often chilled
hands and feet beyond feeling,
but, Oh, the ache of its return.
My son’s known cold, but not that,
or the purple swelling of frozen ears,
or the agony of chilblains
after outdoor winter work.
But neither did his kinder childhood
allow him to know
the work he did helped pull
the family through.