Leland Kinsey’s poetry

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(Host) Commentator Tom Slayton has a review of Leland Kinsey’s new book of poetry.

(Slayton) Leland Kinsey’s poems about rural life in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom are as rough and rugged as the hills around Craftsbury where he lives. The poems in his new book, “Sledding on Hospital Hill,” are the rough-handed products of real life, real work, real injuries, hard-won triumphs and genuine sorrows.

From unwilling tractors and (literally) raging bulls to heirloom apple trees and the diaries of a beloved grandmother, Kinsey looks with affection and respect at the busy, interwoven life that makes a farming community work.

This is not a poetry of mellifluous diction and smooth, rhythmic lines. Kinsey’s tone is direct, dry, and skeptical; yet the poet manages to convey his unshaken admiration for the family and neighbors who populate his complex, roughhewn world. Northern farmers know that life is rarely ideal and things often work out unhappily. Life close to the land, far from being uplifting, is often rich with disappointment.

In one poem, “Deacon Booze’s Sexton,” Kinsey details with understated humor the life of an alcoholic sawmill operator who digs graves for the town and probably tosses an empty or two into each fresh grave before closing it. Kinsey describes the man’s work as well as his affliction, noting wryly in conclusion:

“I hope he’s saved a few wide boards
to fit the hole he’s dug
his whole life into.”

The rough beauty of farm life emerges from Kinsey’s poetry, as does the physical hardship and the ever-present danger. The theme of injuries endured and overcome is woven through many of these poems: lacerations, punctures, bull-tossings, falls and broken bones – the accumulated carnage that seems inevitably part of life on a working farm.

“Humor, black and sore,” as the poet puts it, emerges from his poem, “Small Wounds and Minor Ailments,” as does the quiet horror of finding a single thumb joint on a hay bale. Similarly, the long poem, “My Family, Horsed and Unhorsed,” contains images of brutal violence and tragedy, along with the high drama and rough beauty that huge, powerful horses can provide. It is evident that Kinsey himself is an experienced horseman. He writes of working with horses, ridding them of bad habits, training them through time and attention. When a jumpy mare crushes him to the ground, Kinsey admits that he had been careless. But he escapes:

“…’Get up,’
I said, and hoped I could;
gave a yank on the chain
I still held. She rose
And suffered me to rise.”

Much of the appeal of Leland Kinsey’s new book, “Sledding on Hospital Hill,” comes from vigorous, closely-observed anecdotes such as that one. It’s a book that gains in impact, story by story and poem by poem, allowing the reader to gain some understanding and affection for the complex, back-country world – often miserable, often heroic – that the poet inhabits and creates.

Tom Slayton lives in Montpelier and is the Editor of Vermont Life Magazine. He spoke from our studios in Montpelier.

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