VERMONT EXIT RAMPS
by Neil Shepard
Big Table Publishing
reviewed by Tony Whedon
Four decades ago Leo Marx defined the central conceit of the American pastoral as the steam locomotive breaking a nineteenth century forest’s silence. In his classic The Machine in the Garden Marx examined that figure’s significance to American literature as it chugged through Thoreau’s and Hawthorne’s landscapes. The steam engine identified that landscape like Wallace Stevens jar in his “Anecdote of the Jar” defined the mountains of Tennessee. Through the 1970’s, the rural landscape would’ve been looked at the other way round: machines and the machines they spawned grew up around our gardens. But all that’s died out, too.
In Marx’s post-pastoral pastoral, trains, bridges and rivers figured prominently in poems like Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” and Crane’s “The Bridge.” Despite their noisy enthusiasm for the industrial age, both Whitman and Crane’s poems depended on Manhattan’s East River for their lifeblood. Without the river and the ferry and bridge crossing it, there was no reconciliation of the natural and man-made, none of the classic pastoral’s formal balance and stability.
But to the rural present:
In post-industrial America the Interstate replaces the river as a dynamic conceit. Exit ramps are the conduits from boomtown yesterdays to the rusting stasis of today’s rural North America.
Robert Lowell observes the first stages of post-industrial malaise in his classic “The Mouth of the Hudson”:
A single man stands like a bird watcher
And scuffles the pepper and salt snow
From a discarded gray
Westinghouse Electric cable drum.
He cannot discover America by counting
the chains of condemned freight-trains
from thirty states. They jolt and jar
and junk in the siding below him.
His eyes drop,
and he drifts with the wild ice
ticking seaward down the Hudson
like the blank sides of a jig-saw puzzle.
A Negro toasts
wheat-seeds over the coke fumes
of a punctured barrel.
Chemical air sweeps in from New Jersey
and smells of coffee.
across the river,
ledges of suburban factories tan
in the sulfur-yellow sun
of the unforgivable landscape.
Both the river and the railroad junk are threateningly inchoate, a “jig-saw” jumble of “wild ice
ticking seaward” (and time and history do “tick” away here in the kinetics of railroad and ice-filled river) preventing the man from meaningful discovery. When Lowell wrote his poem, the Hudson had been “condemned” (to be restored somewhat during river clean-ups of the ‘seventies and ‘eighties); city centers, rail, and canal/river transport were exchanged for highways and suburban malls. In all the arts an attendant malaise was expressed through a romanticism resembling what followed the industrialism of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. One strain of that response is expressed in a sentimentalizing of nature and a nostalgia for American yeoman life. But “The Mouth of the Hudson” has none of that: Lowell’s poem runs against neo-Romantic currents. There’s no hobo companionship, no synthesizing consciousness or call to awakening, to sweeten the mix. Instead, Lowell sickens at how nothing coheres: what’s left is flotsam-and-jetsam that won’t add up.
So the alarm is sounded. As Marx says, “We are made to feel the (pastoral) myth is threatened by an incursion of history,” and at this turning point, when Lowell’s single man “almost loses his balance” industrialism and nature’s regenerative forces are depleted and history is jumbled and unreadable: the movement of the jagged ice parallels the “jolt and jar” of the “condemned freight trains from thirty states” that all meet on the continent’s edge.
In Neil Shepard’s recent chapbook, Vermont Exit Ramps, he maintains a similar distance between his speaker and his subject. But unlike Lowell, he expresses hope in what becomes for him a forgiving landscape; while we weren’t looking, nature reclaimed itself: balsam fir, cattails, sumac, and yellow birch have crept back in. Not only has the landscape changed (VER is set in Vermont, not Hoboken, New Jersey): the two poets’ sensibilities—one apocalyptic, the other serene—couldn’t be more different. Note in SOUTH BARRE (Exit 6 …) … how Shepard juxtaposes the ravaged “depths of Barre (Vermont) quarries” to the lushness of a reclaimed landscape: ”… Out there,
brown dust, and the famous depths of Barre quarries,
granite drilled, dynamited, dragged away.
Clank, belch, and roar of steam shovel, bucket loader, dump truck.
He who throws dirt is losing ground. Here, a hilltop swamp,
balsam fir and cattail, wetlands with red-wings wheeze,
swamps sparrow’s sewing needle call. Under the overpass,
three massive cement pillars, culverts with white
PVC pipe to divert runoff. Beside it sumac, yellow
birch, yellow sign saying Merge. A flatbed goes by hauling
an old stagecoach. What’s my time zone? In 1810,
the basic work was saw mill, grist mill. Everyone poor,
everything moved with a wooden wagon.
Much of Shepard’s chapbook is catalogue, and this passage, a compendium of the organic and inorganic, is no exception. One of the more musical of the series, Exit 6 compounds cacophony and harmony, belching, drilling and wheezing sounds that merge with a red-wing’s wheeze, a swamp sparrow’s sewing needle call. While Lowell’s monochromatic landscape is about shrinking possibilities, dwindling resources, Shepard’s is sensually expansive: he lists the ways nature regenerates and, in so doing, recaptures the past. There’s also a sense here of connectedness: things do merge, past with present, flatbed with stagecoach, and by the end of this passage we’re attuned to the creaking wheels of a wooden wagon two-hundred years past. In other poems, Shepard takes a more dismal—and conflicted—view of the commercialization and despoliation of much of Vermont’s landscape, but here his vision isn’t proscriptive like Lowell’s, but elegiac.
From the outset of “The Mouth of the Hudson” Lowell finds all he sees a puzzle; the ice, the punctured barrel, the jolting, jarring freight train noises, are hard-edged, abrasively jagged. He condemns the Jersey landscape even before we reach his killer final line. In contrast, Shepard lets his landscape and its history speak for itself. He makes no attempt to synthesize what he sees into a centralized consciousness. He doesn’t occupy the landscape: on his way to somewhere else, he describes and moves on.
These lines from Vermont Exit Ramps reflect the nervy movement of his eye as he maneuvers his Outback into Hartland, Vermont, or to anyplace you might name:
Quick exit. None of the lushness of I-89.
Mark off the syllables breve. Quick on,
quick off. Quickness
darts the eye toward high, hazy peaks, two macrons of
green, then back to flat grasses. Wrong Way. Stop.
Hartland’s set back a few miles, not lost, just
a hop, skip and jump to Woodstock…
Exit ramps are segues between here and there. One might expect them to be the spaces, the lacunae—the pregnant pauses—between the poet’s words, but in this little book they’re the story, the heart of the matter as are Shepard’s quirky line breaks that enhance his poem’s sense of erratic movement. Leaving an interstate’s well-trimmed verges, exit ramps are both connectors and separators of mountains (The Greens, the Taconics) and rivers (the White and Winooski) and our state’s small town worlds; they map out the contours of these places by linking them through Vermont’s 1-91 and 1-89.
Vermont Exit Ramps pins more than a coda on the Vermont local color tradition. Mapping transitions between highway and town, past and present, these virtuoso poems are unified by highways and achieve resonance by the interplay of geographic and historical detail and personal anecdote. The chapbook might serve as a fine Vermont History tool and as a roadmap of memory. It’s also a primer on how not to miss the interstices between here and there. The poet’s earlier books overflow with poems about exotic places—Inner Mongolia, Bali, the Marquesas, glacial New Zealand—and are unified by the poet setting out to some exotic elsewhere. While much of that early work is vividly inclusive, it’s a warm-up to this slight volume that takes us from Montpelier, the gateway to our North Country, to Vermont’s southernmost interstate exit. A few of these new poems are elegies to defunct paper mills, granite quarries and dying dairy farms and a state that’s been reclaimed through disuse; others describe a “Green” Vermont coexisting, but not comingling, with a redneck present.
Exit Ramps is a tour de force of on-the-fly snapshots: they comprise a spiraling memory narrative. Few still-lives are found here, but there’s lots of scenic and historical cataloguing. As the speaker tools through Vermont into the Connecticut River Valley, he shifts seamlessly from scenic observation, to requiems for a spent youth.
…Let’s stay at the exit ramp,
dependable Mobil soaking up your simoleons, and besides,
Pegasus Gallery (the first of many on your way to art-happy
Woodstock) is open for business. Words like “romantic
and “magical” are often used to describe this quaint village that has been called “the prettiest small town in America.”
I once loved someone there is why I’m bitter—though
I dumped her. On its surface, like so many surfaces there,
it was about money: sugar daddies and sugar mammas
and marriages minted in hell. She had too much
sugar and I didn’t know what to do with it…
In four stanzas, we decrescendo from an I-89 exit ramp to a gallery to a tourist brochure to a botched relationship. The passage’s parentheses and chatty ironies, its smashed syntax and italics, express a dissonance between past and present and a bitter regret imbedded in the “many surfaces” of his narrative. They also mirror the driver’s mindset as he moves on.
These poems aren’t just nostalgic lamentations. While his details are calligraphically succinct, his overall vision is panoramic. (He’s taken Thoreau’s “I’ve traveled far and wide in Concord” and applied it to Vermont.) I read Vermont Exit Ramps like a classical Chinese scroll painting, as an unspooling visual narrative. It reminds me of Gary Snyder’s magnificent Mountains and Rivers Without End inspired by the Korean scroll painting of the same name that focuses on how we take in landscapes as we travel from place to funky place, vignette to ragged vignette.
Note in the following passage from Windsor (Exit 8: Routes 5, 12, 131)
Re-cross to Windsor, where farmers are plowing the river rich land.
Punitive characters here. Walk your horse or pay the two dollar fine.
A hundred years, and ploughshares broken to prison bars, farmers broken
to wardens of the state, the corrections facility (corrects nothing, hardens
every softness left in men.) Remember what I was when I was
there: substitute teacher. Grocery bagger, winter drinker
sipping blackberry brandy from a brown-bagged bottle
on the main street. I was a newly minted grad, playing time against
boredom. Spent winter days trudging uphill toward the highway,
wandered in snow fields full of golden milkweed, a few feathery
seeds stuck in the breech, the whole shaft and pod rattling
in a rumbling wind. What could I feel? Numbness on my nose,
warm premonitions in my heart that I’d be delivered by spring.
I turned down the gun, the creased suit of the prison guard, turned
down the second shift at the sawmill, turned down, eventually
the bagboy work at IGA, packing cans and boxes, toting them
to a car, tipping an imaginary cap as a pregnant housewife tipped
a quarter or a dollar, with which I went tippling toward the frozen woods.
The poem’s abrupt movement from regulated beats to conversational rhythms, from a scenic passage to memory narrative, develops a strategy of others in Exit Ramps: as the senses take in the landscape, they trigger memory and reflections on local history. While ”Windsor” is evenly divided between the town’s history and the speaker’s past, its two distinct sections, after an opening send-off, mesh syntactically and tonally. Half the sentences are fragments, suggesting that what he sees is incomplete, doesn’t cohere, neither his ill-spent winter or the town’s “punitive” past.
I’m struck by the thumping first volleys of ”Windsor.” Beginning with explosive triplets mimicking the “rupture in a granite wall” of the Windsor exit, they surprise me, “spill(ing) out” in long-lined sprawling triads that move from regulated iambs to hard-hitting spondees. That musicality returns in the final triplet with a play on the word “tip” and “tippling.”
In between, the past drearily happens—the town’s descent from farming to a prison-based economy, the construction of the Windsor-Claremont Bridge, and the speaker’s wasted youth. The poem’s overall tone is dark, “punitive:” the speaker himself does time, a winter’s worth of it waiting for spring.
Shepard says he wrote these warm-up “exercises,” these etudes, between other projects. I see them as impromptus whose swift segues suggest offhand scribbling. As in the impromptu, a form Chopin used to showcase changing keys and shifting rhythms, many poems here change tonally and rhythmically stanza to stanza, invoking the switchbacks of memory. In the pastoral tradition, memory leads back circuitously to a nature-enwrapped youthful self.
Regret and loss of a pre-lapsarian landscape are this volume’s themes. Few Shepard poems lament that loss more than ”Town Green: South Royalston,” whose tension builds through a play of text and counter-text that echo its speaker’s futile attempt to revisit his past.
Here’s the entire poem:
How long has it been since I lazed on a town green?
A couple of square acres set with maple and crab apple.
(Sprayed, mulched, blooming impossibly early)
Two gazebos for bandstand romance.
(Amo, amas. Gazebo, gazebae?)
Starched white church with a black clock-face.
(The time is what ungodly [N1] hour?)
Across the green, a train station where business begins.
(end of the line)
Before me, a cottage row; behind a row of eateries.
(Who cooks in a chichi town?)
On its grass surface, not a weed or divot.
(No sliding tackles, scraped knees?)
From the highway, South Royalton seems tucked into timelessness
(a steeple crucifix, a gambrel barn’s weathervane)
like a storybook town one sees from a passing car, wishing
(fairytales were true)
fairytales were true, wondering how one gets there
from here. Forty years ago, I’d have lain
(“loafed and invited my soul!”)
here on a summer’s day, a college kid astride the season
(riding it, riding it)
tethered to greenness and leisure. Forty years ago
O lord, in whose crossed steeple I do not believe, in whose name I cannot
claim hope or victory. Forty years, and my body still yearns
(for the idea of greenness)
”Town Green” isn’t a mere exercise in the echolalia of nostalgia. It deconstructs the past as it reconstructs it in a call-and-response antiphony of those “forty years ago past” and the present. Toward closure, the echoes increase, the parentheticals truncate in an orgasmic build-up and release of tension. Beneath the poem’s wimpled surface are a number of abrupt tonal shifts occurring line to line, couplet to couplet, that subvert the speaker’s lyrical intentions. At first read, this is a trip down memory lane; but read again, doubt shadows the veracity of the speaker’s memory. Like many others in Vermont Exit Ramps, ”Town Green” moves from a wide lens view of a town to a conjuring of the speaker’s youth. Echolalia abounds. The word green is repeated six times, calling up a “fairy tale” “tucked in timelessness,” that clashes with the cautionary reminder: “Wistfulness beware.” All of which happens as we pass quickly by South Royalton (No exit ramp here) providing time for details. Interestingly, there are no details in Shepard’s parody of a Vermont Life cover photo … only erasures. On its grass surface, not a word or divot. (No sliding tackles, scraped knees?)
Most of VER is replete with detailed particulars, but here the poet is stingy. Wordsworth’s charm comes as much from what he excludes as what’s included in his Lyrical Ballads. The same can be said of ”Town Green.” Like many Wordsworth ballads, ”Town Green” is alive with synecdoche in the forms of a “steeple crucifix,” “a barn’s weathervane,” and “a black clock face,” all of which suggest both passing time and erotic loss. The poem’s absence of details and particulars contributes to its dreamy effect; but its last three-and-a-half cadence-jolting, down-shifting couplets undercut the speaker’s reverie, turning a lyric, briefly, into an old-time hymn. As for sex, while there’s none overtly, there’s erotic yearning, and some mental humping (“riding it, riding it),” as the poem rushes to climax.
Lines from Whitman and Lorca, who forty years ago influenced young poets, are consciously (or serendipitously) interpolated in “I loaf and invite my soul, I lean and loaf and invite my soul” from Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” And Lorca’s: “Green, how I desire you, green. Green wind. Green branches! The ship upon the sea . . . Green, how I desire you, green.” Fifty years ago, Whitman’s open road ebullience and Lorca’s lyrical, gypsy eroticism influenced young poets, Shepard I suspect among them, but now his speaker cannot believe in the “crossed steeple” (if he ever did!) though he yearns for “the idea of greenness, for green.“
That greenness stands for both vitality and youthful ignorance as we learn in one of VER’s last poems. ”Turn in Guilford” opens with, “No exit here, just a recurring curve of memory”—a line that in slightly altered circumstances would be a recurring nightmare. We’re cued in to the dramatic circumstances by Shepard’s masterful twenty-one line opener flashing back to the speaker’s youth when at the wheel of his VW Bug he “lifted a boy off his feet / rolled him over my yellow hood! bumped against the glass, and launched him fifty feet in flight.”
”Guilford” is a double shocker. The speaker meets the boy’s mother, is invited to dinner where he is forgiven by both her and her son, and in another unexpected turn after dinner, “. . . we went to bed, she in her early motherhood, and I
a college kid, deep in my mea culpas, eager for the body’s
rhythm of remorse and the come-cry’s
absolution, eager to nudge aside the boy and kneel
for her blessed hand on my head. In the next room
he must have heard us. Oh, the accident, and oh,
and what I did not know, what did I know
of a mother’s love. She held me like a child.
I reread the passage to understand it right. And yes, the mother and the speaker do make love in a “rhythm of remorse”, and yes it is unspeakably shocking: we’re led to believe the moment is emblematic of the speaker’s atonement and a mother’s forgiveness, but the child’s presence “in the next room (who) must have heard” dampens my empathy for the lovers. What does the speaker know—for that matter what does she know—of a mother’s love? A child’s been injured twice, and there’s little doubt that the speaker and mother are clueless about any harm done.
This final section is over-laden with ambiguity. Are we to believe that the speaker sees the ramifications of his bedding down the mother when the child is within earshot, or are things simpler than that? I can’t say if the irony of these final lines enriches or confuses things, but there’s more loss here than contained in the enigmatic “what did I not know, what did I know” of the penultimate line. In the end, ”Guilford” becomes a three-way collision involving the speaker and the mother and her child “in the next room (who) must have heard.”
The tone of ”Turn in Guilford” is dramatically different—the irony harsher and the human dimension deeper, wider—than others in VER. There’s no drive-by breeziness, no imbedded historical/geographical info, but there are, for a first and last time, characters.
While I’d have liked more poems in the collection with the emotional intensity of ”Turn in Guilford,” that might have tipped an aesthetic balance. ”Turn in Guilford” is both the book’s centerpiece and its distinguishing flaw—a necessary flaw—because VER’s charm comes as a collection of virtuoso impromptus rather than highly orchestrated pieces.
From Wordsworth’s Lyrical ballads and Emily Dickinson’s garden poems (inspired by her own gardening) to W.C Williams’ classic “Spring and All,” whimsy, or the appearance of it, is a driving force in pastoral poetry. Nature poetry works best for me when seen out of the corner of one’s eye, when it’s here for a moment, its images brief imprints on the retina, then gone.