'Once in Vermont' by Bob Arnold
M. A. Roberts
Bob Arnold builds stone walls. He also builds poems that will last for generations and as natural as stones working together. Edwin Muir once remarked that modern poetry is not read by "the people," because it no longer tells a story. "The people" should reconsider. In fact, I'm going to ask my local hardware store to make this book a permanent fixture at the front counter.
Once in Vermont is the enduring story of Arnold's life. The book moves from short meditations on family and environment, to longer, more narrative poems about country folk. Arnold then returns to his beginnings with a series of condensed meditations. By the time I finished the book, I felt I had visited with Arnold, his family, and his community.
The shorter poems stun—brisk mornings or radiant dusks, bringing fresh vision to daily events, precisely measured with condensed, turning lines. "Sun Up" opens Once in Vermont:
I get up with
The birds who
Get up with me
Delicate repetition. The poem sticks in the ear. Notice how the third line inverts the first. The difference is grammatical and reveals that "doers" ("I") are also "receivers"("me"). The poem realizes that no one meets the day alone, that the natural world rises just like the human world. The epiphany comforts, especially those who live close to the cycles of nature, as Arnold does.
I've long been a student of line-breakers, asking why poets are compelled to cut one word and not another. At times, I find no method; at others, it's clear. Arnold falls into the latter. I like the way the end-words of each line achieve a fluid rhythm. Go ahead, say them: with, who, me; with who me. The hardest sound appears first; the owl-ish sound second; the softest, quietest third. With who me. Bird-like, isn't it?
An overly deliberate poet might have approached this expression more concretely, naming the birds, or describing bare feet on cool floors. But Arnold abstains from details, leaving us our own potent imaginations. Arnold evokes quiet, morning feet on creaking floors; he achieves the auditory mix of dawning songbirds—not with immediate images, but with intimacy of melody and rhythm.
A good chunk of the book is given over to meeting people: "Local [deer] Killers"; Manny, a hard-line country woman suspected of "beating the kids"; Tom Newall, a 90 year old who "boiled 400 gallons / Of maple syrup last year"; the town "Son of a Bitch" who would "bitch at you, bitch at me, / Give him a topic / weather, taxes, / School budget, road maintenance, local / Politics"; and even Arnold and his "Reputation." These stories describe how people get along and misunderstand each other and, ultimately, how they can't live without each other. But Arnold is not merely introducing us to the town-folks and their uniqueness. He shows us a vanishing community, a small town turning mid-size, houses every "1,000 feet", and woods increasingly subject to clear-cutting. This is community dealing with a rapid change.
Arnold's work is steeped in the speech rhythms that I grew up with in Southern Appalachia. Although Arnold's characters hail from his home state Vermont, the accent of my grandfathers and neighbors is "pert-near" the same. This rhythmic, speech-oriented language sustains many of the poems in Once in Vermont. He doesn't polish the phrases or clauses; they sound as common as John Smith. A poem called "Neighbor" begins: "They said it was a heart / Attack but it weren't no / Heart attack even though / We all seen the Rescue van." The nonstandard speech and neglected punctuation give this poem its appealing flavor. Even the poems that are not monologues carry a similar rhythm.
Arnold works under the Wordsworthian banner, using "the real language of men." His poems prove how effective a book can be when manner matches matter, form connects content. He knows his tools and built a book to live in. Once in Vermont is solid, dividing, strong, affirming, like a stone wall.