Book Marks: Vermont's woman poets continue to shine
Vermont is a special place for writers to produce beautiful and meaningful poetry. Perhaps it's the natural beauty of the landscape, the star-filled skies free of light pollution, the deep roots that communities experience here, and the freedom from the clamor and chaos of today's cities. Whatever the magic ingredient, poets have thrived here, from Robert Frost, named the first Vermont Poet Laureate in 1961, to the current holder of that honor, Chard DeNiord. Four of the seven poet laureates in Vermont's history have been women---Louise Gluck, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Grace Paley, and Ruth Stone. Each of them has been widely acknowledged as outstanding poets of our time, as demonstrated by their national honors and wide readership.
Laura Foley of Pomfret and April Ossmann of West Windsor who were featured at this summer's Bookstock literary festival in Woodstock appear to be worthy heirs of this group of women.
Foley's "Night Ringing" (2016, Headmistress Press), her fifth book of poetry, features her own photograph of Mt. Ascutney's profile clearly illuminated by lightning over the Connecticut River. Divided into five sections without titles, the poems are roughly chronological beginning with her childhood torn by the divorce of her domineering father and her alcoholic, depressed mother and concluding with her observations about her grown children, her own divorce, her discovery of her love for women, and finally her current relationship.
Foley recounts these events with brief, concise, and direct poems that hint at the life events rather than straightforwardly narrating them. There are two poems about her work as a Zen-trained chaplain in prisons and hospitals, one dedicated to a prisoner serving a life sentence and one about a woman whose life as a runner and builder has changed due to an amputation, but the rest of the poems focus on family and love relationships. Dreams and fantasies occasionally intrude, but it's the real-life details of her splintered childhood family and her own family that draw her concentrated attention.
The gradual awakening of her love for women and the inevitable changes of aging are beautifully rendered. My favorite poems are her brave and funny response to aging, "Ode to my Feet" and her tip of the hat to the late British poet Stevie Smith's "Not Waving But Drowning" entitled "Not Drowning". The latter is just about letter perfect: "All my life I've been swimming, not drowning/despite any appearance to the contrary." Yes, divorce, depression, loss may appear to be drowning, but Foley's passion for life and joy, expressed beautifully in these poems, triumphs.
Ossmann's "Event Boundaries" (2017, Four Way Books) is her second volume of poetry, and it is a beautiful and moving work. As with most poetry, she is moved to translate strong and sometimes overwhelming feelings of loss, grief, awe, and gratitude into words, and she brings those same skills to the natural world as well. The death of parents, the suicide of a brother, infidelity and the breakup of a marriage, the inexorable changes of aging and the approach of dying are her material, and Ossmann brings a deft touch of word choice and poetic structure that moves those human events from the level of the commonplace to the extraordinary.
Flashes of insight ("oh, yes!") greet the reader on almost every page as her alliterative and lyrical language opens our eyes and moves our spirit. She brings the same skill and insight to her poems about nature, especially the snow, rain, spring green, running brooks, and wildlife that are the elements of Vermont's beauty. In all this work, there is a tension that heightens the reader's attention, a contrast of opposites that elevates the stakes. In her poem "This Blue," ostensibly about the beautiful blue sky, one stanza reads "It makes me feel too full/and unbearably empty" and it ends with "It's too wide, too deep, too blue---/It's too much. It's not enough."
This use of contrasting emotions and descriptions is one of Ossmann's most effective techniques. It elevates the emotional and lyrical content. It moves these poems about our world, both inner and outer, to a new level that I plan to return to again and again.
Vermont has had many outstanding women poets over the years. Whatever might account for that rich gift to us, it appears to be an ongoing presence as Foley and Ossmann continue in that tradition. Whether you are a devoted reader of poetry or have found it be a bit daunting in the past, read these books and enjoy the magic that, to quote Coleridge, "the best words in the best order" can create.
Michael F. Epstein is a retired physician who reads and writes in Brownsville and in Cambridge, Mass. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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