In Vermont, we read a lot of poetry about Vermont. From Robert Frost to David Budbill to current poet laureate Sydney Lea, poets have found rich and rare material in the state’s landscape, culture and contradictions. But Vermonters — even poets — occasionally do go elsewhere. In recent collections, two writers at different stages of life tell us what they found there.
Travel is the thematic thread linking the lyrics and occasional prose poems in Neil Shepard’s (T)ravel/Un(t)ravel — a title that may confuse readers unfamiliar with grad-school-seminar wordplay. The idea is to read the word “ravel” and its opposite inside the word “travel” — and to consider how experience in foreign climes, which is supposed to enrich and build us, can unravel us at the same time.
“You’ve seen them unravel as the other world / spins into view,” Shepard writes of voyagers returned from afar, in the title poem that opens the collection. “Perhaps you’ve felt the vertigo, too — / the pig’s throat slit, spit dripped in a kava bowl, / maggots in a plate of noodles...”
In another poem, “(T)ravel/Un(t)ravel: Monkey Forest Road (Ubud, Bali),” Shepard describes waking under mosquito netting beside his wife and gearing himself up to venture into the alienating chaos of the Bali marketplace, a block and a world away. “How will I arrive there unscathed and prepared?” he asks. “Or will I always arrive scarred and fearful, / my meditations unravelling.”
It’s refreshing to read a well-traveled poet who acknowledges culture shock, rather than posing as blithely cosmopolitan. (Shepard, the senior editor of the Johnson-based Green Mountains Review, currently splits his time between Vermont and New York.) But the unraveling he describes in (T)ravel/Un(t)ravel is not just the wincing of sheltered Americans confronted with public animal slaughter and deformed beggars. In “C’est Dommage,” a poem about living in an affluent suburb of Paris where “the news is nothing but nice news,” Shepard registers a different, moral kind of disgust at the residents’ denial of past and present horrors.
In verses about the Marquesas, he unravels more voluptuously — letting his muse revel in the too-muchness of the tropical landscape, then dreaming himself into the native spirit world “of dissolving souls / that smudge the light.”
Time unravels, too, when Shepard visits the haunts of dead geniuses: Shakespeare’s Avon, Keats’ house on Hampstead Heath, Wordsworth’s Mount Snowdon, Monet’s garden at Giverny. In “Following in the Footsteps of Melville,” he listens dutifully as a modern Marquesan explains what the white man got wrong.
All these intertextual poems feel a bit dutiful, truth be told. The learned allusions are in place, the ironic historical consciousness functional, but we don’t feel the poet “unraveling” (or unraveling the mysteries of art and life) as he examines the traces of those who sang their songs before him. The closest Shepard comes to breaking through his own contemplative calm is perhaps in “Punting on the Cam,” where he watches students row the river once frequented by half the luminaries of English literature. Could it be that the “old poets ... postured / here as wildly” as these callow undergrads? As he envisions the antics of collegiate Byron, Shepard releases his inner curmudgeon: “oh, how much like you, youth, posturing / over the water before you fall in and drown.”
Shepard’s alienation from the hot-blooded, overweening youth of the great poets makes sense. His read like verses of a more settled age — reflecting on his unraveling in tranquility, as Wordsworth might put it. While Shepard’s images can be vivid — as travel poems must be — he tends to subordinate his pictures and his songcraft to carefully parsed ideas. Rare is the poem here that does as much as it says. Yet one feels, closing the book, as if one has traveled the world with a thoughtful companion.
In a poem called “I Say Nada to Nada (Cadiz, Spain),” middle-aged Shepard engages with his younger traveling self, a kid who hadn’t yet reached that thoughtful stage:
I was twenty, ripped jeans, rucksack, cervezas and chasers.
I was dinner at 5 o’clock, no entiendo to every god-damn thing. I was guidebook-challenged...
Burlington poet Edie Rhoads evokes what sound like her own postcollegiate travels in The Day Bat, a handmade, letter-pressed collection published by local Honeybee Press with help from the Vermont Arts Council. But Rhoads doesn’t embrace the “nada” of hedonistic Europass travel, or write with the self-seriousness of many young Americans who find themselves abroad. Instead, she produces verses of tense maturity, whether she’s describing a parched cow in Chaco Canyon, a monsoon in Thailand, a riverboat in Laos or a Chinese lotus pond.
More lyrical and personal than Shepard’s, yet also more oblique, Rhoads’ poems often approach the self through the landscape. “In my life there are few clean lines,” she writes in “Rigidity (Cabarete, St. John).” “Tides swell, sands pile and slough.” In “At the Lotus Pond (Kunming, China),” the poet finds herself “So far from home ... /... / I cannot remember our old ways. / My eyes crowd with bright light / and the white, pink-veined petals / of the lotus.”
In “Fern,” the self literally is part of the landscape, as the fern narrates a description of its strange, light-shy existence:
My light the orange bulb of phosphorescent
fungus, the firefly that pricks the night in flashbulb pops,
the wooden yellow glow of an open eye
before sleep shuts the animal down.
Impersonating a fern requires the poet to pull off the artful naïveté of Blake in Songs of Innocence and Experience, and Rhoads does. Though her imagery can become dense, she alternates it with simple language that pulls the reader into an immediate relationship with, say, the book’s namesake: “[a] displaced bat / with pale fur and wings / I can see the sun through ... / ... / It is day. What is this bat doing out?”
Indeed, what is this bat doing out? Like “The Day Bat,” or the self-protectively furling fern, the experiences sketched in these lyrics seem to resist full exposure. Yet sometimes nature steps in, bringing catharsis like a “Monsoon (Koh Chang, Thailand)”:
In the gulf gathers blue bellied
Garuda, god of courage. His wings
sweep stiff winds across the bay, his beak
blots out the sun.
Whether she’s bird-watching or skipping out on an ashram lecture to hear the Ganges “babbl[e] on, aloof, meditating” (“Rishikesh”), Rhoads’ landscapes are always eerily alive.
While Shepard turns his foreign experiences into carefully wrought exempla — totems of our hopes and fears, raveling and unraveling — Rhoads simply gets under a moment’s skin and puts us in it. And when she gives us moments closer to home, as in “Second Winter in Vermont,” we may feel a tonic shock of recognition. Coming home, it turns out, can unravel us, too.
"(T)ravel/Un(t)ravel" by Neil Shepard, Mid-List Press, 85 pages. $13. midlist.org
"The Day Bat" by Edie Rhoads, Honeybee Press, 77 pages. $10. honeybeepress.org