most of us, implements remain in their places. We live in a world
without tools. Our digital
sensitivity, with everything available at the fingertips, carries
no memory of the workings of the wrist, arm and shoulders, or
the force of a body and an intelligence brought to bear behind
The built environment is a second nature, already accomplished,
as forgotten as the first. We only become aware of it in collapse,
when the roof leaks, the lights fuse, our world falls about our
ears. We were not there at the beginning, when stone was laid
on stone, the gaps filled, a plumb line dropped, and the work
was seen to be good.
Such ignorance is shameful for poets, those makars, custodians
of poiesis. Poetry is that art which concerns itself with
the material aspects of language, the recalcitrance of words,
the fit of syllable to syllable. A poet should be able to lift
a word, to judge it and carry it before slotting it into place.
A hand that has known the weight and balance of a hammer can
test the resistance of flesh, that has grasped a form can open
to reach over and touch one. A builder who reads will sweeten
the curve of a wall. Trust yourself to a poet who whistles at
You are in good hands here.
Thomas A. Clark
a builder's notebook
by Bob Arnold
from Origin Press, 1988
Now at out of print, but available from Longhouse : $35.00
signed by the author
by Bob Arnold
published in Oyster
Boy Review 13 )
O Y S T E R
B O Y R E V I E W 1 3
Once in Vermont
Once in Vermont.
By Bob Arnold.
Gnomon Press, 1999
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
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
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,
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.
* * *