The catalogues have been pouring in. Here on our ridge in northeastern Vermont (the Northeast Kingdom -- hence Kingdom Books) the air has a fierce clarity, and snow hesitates just beyond the curtains. Dave complains about shop displays, mounds of holiday decor and gifts to navigate past. But I'm thinking of it as the American season of declaring the importance of friends and family. So here's my first pick of the season for poetry:
TOWARD THE DISTANT ISLANDS, by Hayden Carruth.
Edited and introduced by Sam Hamill, this is Copper Canyon's brilliant compact book, small enough to tuck into the pocket of a generous handbag or wedge next to the laptop in the carrying case. I keep it on a shelf in one of the workrooms of the house, to grab and nibble at will.
Carruth is still not as well known as he deserves, despite awards and, in the past few years, a sincere effort by Vermont to promote him as Poet Laureate. When financial need tugged him past Lake Champlain into upstate New York, Vermont only assumed he was on some sort of stretched out tether. He'd nailed the rural conversation and the endless struggle with wood and weather that's unmistakeably the real Vermont, where maple syrup isn't a "branding effort" but rather the mere end result of eight weeks of break-your-back labor, which itself is sweetened not so much by the size of the woodpile (Thoreau) or the quarts of syrup, but by the hours spent in conversation with friends and neighbors. (Even if they're not in the room with you.)
For every reading Carruth does here, the "iconic poem" that's in demand is Johnny Spain's White Heifer. The hunt for the four-legged, four-quartered (that is, four-teated) version of Moby Dick is masterminded by Johnny himself, a beer in one hand, a walkie-talkie in the other: ""Me boys is up in the hills, looking. / I'm di-recting the search."
To hear Carruth read it aloud is to hear generations of half foolish, half wise, three quarters wet and cold fellowship out in the hills. And though there are precious few females in the narratives, the ones that slip in are also slipping into someone's heart, usually Carruth's. As Sam Hamill wrote in the introduction:
He has stripped himself bare as he has constantly resurrected himself -- often with the aid, both finanical and pyschological, of strong women, loyal friends, and a good doctor (of whom he has written). But his "shamelessness" is not in the tradition of "confessional" poetry; rather it is the result of unblinking and sometimes scarily honest encounters with himself.
Hamill in fact compared Carruth more closely to Chinese and Greek classical poets than to, say, Frost, who of course is always present in any gathering around New England poetry. Frost isn't exactly absent from his own poems -- I'm thinking in particular about when he compares himself to the tree at his window, or moans at the ache of his feet after harvesting apples -- but his "I" is often the rather formalized one of, say, "But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep." Carruth's, on the other hand, has hands stained from truck bearing grease, knees patched or damp, overalls hanging loosely over a softened belly. You can smell the outside air or the woodsmoke as he peers around the corner, still talking over his shoulder with someone who just stopped in. "Almost 500 bales we've put up // this afternoon, Marshall and I," he rambles, in a pause after the declaration of:
Coming home with the last load I ride standing
on the wagon tongue, behind the tractor
in hot exhaust, lank with sweat
my arms strung
awkwardly along the hayrack, cruciform.
So I'm recommending TOWARD THE DISTANT ISLANDS for a stocking stuffer or gilt-wrapped packet next to the menorah or to treat yourself to a few hours of separation from the shopping malls. And it will lift you into a place where the politics and pressures seem worth bearing, too -- as the final poem in the "new and selected" collection, "A Few Dilapidated Arias," denies the minimizing title and takes up arms against folly.
"Never say the earth is not extraordinary!"
Likewise for these poems.