Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Another Life, Another Language: Leland Kinsey, THE IMMIGRANT'S CONTRACT

The Endangered Language Initiative lists some 700 languages that are in danger of extinction. That will be 700 fewer ways for Robert Browning to say "I love thee" -- and with the loss are 700 fewer ways to experience the landscape, remember the past, dream of what may yet come to be.

In his new work of poetry, THE IMMIGRANT'S CONTRACT, Vermonter Leland Kinsey explores and paints with a language known to fewer each year: the language of the most rural section of Vermont where French Canadians immigrated in the early 1900s. Seeking wages and education, they also came for ownership of a bit of land, a business, a home.

Kinsey's book may look like a conventional collection of poems -- and publisher David Godine's handsome presentation speaks for its rural and "old time" perspectives -- but the book is actually one long poem, interrupted much as a conversation might be. Imagine sitting down with your best friend's grandfather and asking the story of his life. Well, the stories, then. First he might tell you about how he came to this country. Then he might talk about his first job, or how he met his wife.

The "immigrant" narrating Kinsey's book-length tour of the early 1900s begins in the fearful resettling of a wagonload of family and possessions, descending from Canada at a time when a global war and a global pandemic -- the Spanish influenza -- focused everyone on survival. The young boy's father gets tossed in jail for a night, for abusing the family horse by having it pull "such a load / of family and furniture," and years later tells the grown boy "he wanted / to put a spade in the constable's temple, / but said frogs don't kill the hawk."

There it is: That taste of a tongue that's word-swollen from another time and another experience. "Frogs don't kill the hawk." It's not Aesop's fables; it's rural, French-Canadian seasoned, old-time Vermont. And Kinsey, who grew up hearing it but also storing it, offers it back in his lifetime narrative.

Of course, "Frog" is a common pejorative for "French," but in these pages it's also an animal you can catch for supper, and a relative of the awkward "land toad" that croaks like an adolescent's new voice toward the girls at school. Yet the immigrant youth doesn't have the long luxurious years of schooling we now find. Instead, for the sake of earning a living, he's soon on his way to wherever there's hard work to be done, particularly work that involves horses. To Canada to work in the enormous wheat field of Alberta and then further north to "the Badlands" he goes. On the pages, this is a journey of free verse, lines neatly taking off from the left but otherwise unpredictable as a landscape, interrupted by significant announcements that become the titles of subsequent segments. "Into the Badlands"; "The City of Geese"; "Cape Tormente." Is it Dante we're walking with, Virgil in the shadows and silent -- or Pilgrim, from "Pilgrim's Progress," crossing the Slough of Despond? Dinosaur bones emerge from the once verdant northern lands:

... driver said they needed experienced
hands with horses to haul dinosaur bones
out of the badlands. I didn't know from either,
but knew horses, and planting was ending.

You've caught it, of course: the phrase "I didn't know from either," a localism that brushes the mind's ear with a hint of strange as well as a certainty of meaning. The words and the work lay out the paths here. When the immigrant learns that a thickness of rock comparable to a thick book represents two million years, down to the fossilized bones, he too grasps the magic of such words:

I saw right then that the priest's stories
were just stories. I stood on rocks
older than Eden. I was looking at more years
than the priest knew existed, and giants sur le terre
had walked larger and longer than his mind
could travel. He said my sister was needed
in heaven, and I knew that wasn't so,
and his various versions of heaven
had seemed like torture to a boy.

Kinsey lets the language and the images (geese, more migration) lead the flow of the immigrant's tale back to New England, then south to the booming economy of Miami, where baseball, construction, and fast living created a countersurge to the war years. A young man's hungers could be assuaged at the nod of a slick gambler or a mysterious woman. Yet the ease of some solutions came with a bitter taste for this laborer, and the poet portrays his relief at returning to the cold north woods and taking up with a logging crew that's also stringing the region's first electrical wires.

In the forest work, Kinsey spins terms that have almost vanished from the landscape: cutters, tenders, cant-dog men. And then, like your friend's grandfather, he coughs and spits a pithy comment:

Full bellies kept us warm, but pork and beans left
a smog of smell, and sounds like the town
brass band warming up in a crowded hall.

Trust this storyteller to work in more of the local language through extra voices, like that of the timber cruiser -- the workman who heads out through the forest before the crews, finding and marking the best harvests of trees. He'd "plan landings and squirt dams," ways to move the big treetrunks down from the hills and into the rivers, and the immigrant hangs on those recollections of nearly unbelievable wildlife, as well as massive logs: "Those logs would be whipping / up and down and back and forth / like every shuttle in one of them mills, / but big as work if one hit you."

Woods language, horse language ("off horse," "swath board, "span in hand"), even the language of young men at the Girlie Shows at the summer fair ("I never went once I married, / but they often came to bed with me") -- Kinsey milks all this for the flavor and tang of being fully alive. And if there are no personal revelations, there are still moments of drama and power in this working life: "I held six reins in my hands / and barked commands at four outriders / as I rode the cradle and skids."

Here's what Philip Levine might sound like if he'd been raised among the water and wood mills of the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, instead of finding his way in the factories of Detroit. I like the energy and flow, and the restraint of commentary -- so that when Kinsey's immigrant finally speaks of the miraculous, it's the thrum of electricity in the new power lines he's referring to. The cloistered monks up north are infected by jazz from the local dance halls; the earth moves and shakes from blasting, as the work crews build roads for the new age.

I confess that as I neared the end of the work, I dreaded the possibility that the "immigrant" might take his autobiography into a death scene. But that doesn't happen. After a vigorous exploration of a few more kinds of labor, including clearing for a ski resort, and a heavy taste of grieving for the losses age brings to the capacity to fix and help, there's a great closing scene sorting objects out of a dam's collapse, pieces of life and death that were driven by flood waters and jumbled together at last. It's a finale of language like a Fourth of July fireworks bonanza, fired in a great heaving cluster of memory and delight, a finish that proclaims what we build and make as humans.

This isn't the easiest book to read, because it really demands being taken as a whole, absorbed, and then being explored all over again in bright segments. It's as hard to make the time for that today as it was to plow a new field out of the Alberta prairie or carve a highway along the mountain ridges back then.

But worth it. It's a tale -- and a poem -- I wouldn't want to miss. Or in the words of the immigrant:

... the men I worked with
drank hard and their exploits grew
larger and larger till they might
as well have been digging across Panama.

[UVM image: Leland Kinsey, right, with his brother-in-law Tom Warnock]

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