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A Hard Day's Century

Book Review: The Immigrant's Contract


Published April 22, 2008 at 8:28 p.m.


It does Barton poet Leland Kinsey no disservice to say that his latest volume of poetry is as gripping a read as a great novel. The 57-year-old’s sixth book, The Immigrant’s Contract, is actually a series of linked poems narrated by the immigrant of the title — a French-Canadian, never named, who was still a boy when his father moved the family to an unidentified northern Vermont town.

In blank verse and a matter-of-fact, humorous tone, this immigrant tells his life story from the perspective of old age. He can remember back to his first job as the town doctor’s horse-cart driver during the 1918 flu epidemic, and every job he held since — in places as farflung as Florida and Alberta. By the book’s end, in the early 1970s, he has lost a leg to diabetes — “the sugar” — but still hauls himself around his cart-repair workshop, mulling over medical advice from “the new Doc.”

A book-length poem about manual work — and rather drily titled — is an unlikely page-turner, but Kinsey pulls it off by amassing arresting details. In one early episode, the narrator has taken a job carting dinosaur remains out of the Canadian Badlands. The labor reminds him of his grandfather’s stories about working in paper production in the previous century, before wood pulp was used. The poem is called “Mummy Paper”:

He [the grandfather] unwrapped mummies

brought over to paper mills on the North


of the St. Lawrence. Tens of thousands,

maybe more,

gathered from the Egyptian desert

where they lay like cordwood, and used

as that for fueling early trains, were shipped

across seas and an ocean for the good linen

they were wrapped in, needed for making


The voice of the narrator is so unassuming that what emerges is not just the story of one person’s life but a sense of history told as it is lived. The immigrant’s “contract” is to “scar” the land for his living — his word — in the various ways that were deemed acceptable as the 20th century progressed: running logs downriver, hauling cement deep into forests, dredging dams, rigging power lines, cutting ski slopes.

Neither the narrator nor the poet sentimentalizes this toil, which is simply performed, regardless of danger. Signing on with a logging crew near Island Pond, the narrator wryly acknowledges the possibility of death from a rogue log: “Getting planted where you didn’t live / was a constant threat in the woods work days.”

Kinsey’s poem titles are equally unassuming on the page. Each is actually part of a sentence, only recognizable as a title by its look, centered and capitalized. (An example: “We were too young / and poor for / THE GIRLIE SHOWS. / We’d sneak to the back of a tent [ . . . ]) The visual effect is antique, mimicking those old playbills written in full sentences with the important words enlarged. The embedded titles also serve to suggest that poetry itself is work, not just a genteel occupation for the mind. Describing the doctor’s labors during the flu epidemic, the narrator sees no ironclad distinction between physical labor and the learned professions: “and he on the fell-line like my mother at her loom, / the day’s work.” So, too, the poet.

In The Immigrant’s Contract, Kinsey takes an unusual approach for a Vermont writer so closely associated with this landscape: He makes no attempt to idealize the natural environment or depict it as pristine. The land is already scarred before this immigrant arrives on the scene. Even as a boy, plunging broom handles into the pond in search of snapping turtles “for ma mère to make terrapin soup,” he hits on not just shells but “pieces / of old rafts, slimy boards and short beams / slapped together for fishing, or hardwood logs of long ago timber cuts / drowned from booms cabled down dammed ponds / or sunk from frozen landings / that broke early before the drive.”

The book is full of detailed lists of detritus. The final poem, “River Salvage from Silt and Slag,” is one long enumeration of the junk the narrator helped pull from a drained reservoir. As the immigrant attributes an origin and context to each piece, the aggregated “jumble” becomes history itself.

The Immigrant’s Contract brings to mind Carol Shields’ novel The Stone Diaries, which tells the quasi-epic story of another Canadian immigrant manual laborer and his daughter. But the comparison also highlights a difference: The immigrant of Kinsey’s poem never becomes an entrepreneur, like Shields’ stone quarry worker. He works whatever jobs he can get. Hearing of the need for wheat farmers in Alberta, he crosses the continent to help drive massive teams of horses dragging tills. On a stint tending cattle in Miami in the 1930s, the immigrant is singled out to accompany a gambler’s prostitute to Havana.

When the narrator does hit on success by his own initiative, as a horse trader, the memory brings regrets: A woman to whom he sells a team is injured during the horses’ delivery and then abandoned by her husband, who takes the animals with him. “I’ve felt poleaxed before,” the narrator says ruefully, “but it made me know my age / that I could do nothing at the beginning, / middle, end, or sides of all that.”

Kinsey’s immigrant never becomes rich. The American dream, in fact, doesn’t even figure in his outlook. That’s because the subject of The Immigrant’s Contract is work for its own sake. Looking back over a lifetime, this anonymous toiler can say with modesty, “Maybe I’ve scarred / enough of the world to be remembered.”