The first poem of Neil Shepard’s Vermont Exit Ramps is the prologue to his well-designed fifth book, in which he asks,
Who will claim the kingdom of exit ramps and cloverleafs
on the hillsides of I-89, these realms of birch and pine
rippling in mountain wind on a spring day, domains of quiet
forgetfulness, places ravaged and recovered
these little demesnes of bedstraw and clover
harboring deer and bear?
In the second poem, he speaks to himself like a poetry teacher to a pupil: “Your assignment is / to sew a story together. Delicate / hands, but the thread must be strong.” This exit is to Stowe and Waterbury, taken at 11 a.m. on May 18 (no year) in “full sun.” Further, “Your assignment is history,” and he lists the historic houses in town, the toll road, the hotel that burned down, and the origin of the sport of skis when “a Swedish / family in 1913 (who) swished through town / on long, narrow wooden boards / with upturned ends…” is already absorbing, a combination of road trip, description of roads and verges, those liminal spaces, as well as researched history. There are five poems written the first day, the second heavily sprinked with aphorisms, slang, tour book jargon, and other italicized bits, not to mention bird songs—“So-so-so-sweet, yellow warblers call…” and ferns: “By the wayside, / north-facing ferns still coil like green questions, / south-facing ferns unfurl in full sunlight…”
The third May 18 poem introduces etymology when Montpelier is shown to mean “shorn hill” and glaciology. Just the names are magnificent. And how knowing and knowledgeable Shepard is on the subject of this capital city with its “glistering” gold dome, its economy based on fire and life insurance, its “Senators / (who) serve best who bring home the bacon, the dairy / subsidy, / the maple syrup tariff.”
Shepard’s language is rich in metaphor and simile, and he has the wonderful, storytelling naturalness of Elizabeth Bishop when she writes about Brazil or Nova Scotia, eager to find the telling detail, the all-revealing fragment of dialogue. The Barre exit brings tales of the granite quarrymen, whose descendants patronize the area’s big box stores, noticing or not noticing “blackbirds wheezing / in the cattails.”
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Writing in couplets in the Barre exit poems seems to allow some wisecracking to enter in, but the narrative pace keeps quickening. Through South Barre (“Ravens loop the high air”), through the fortress town of Northfield, Randolph (where the poet has a tryst with a lover), Bethel /South Royalton (“Exit into white lilac and thick apple blossom).”
The town green of South Royalton prompts this Gerard Manley Hopkins-like meditation: “o lord, in whose crossed steeple I do not believe, in whose names I cannot / (stop time) / claim hope or victory. Forty years and my body still yearns / (for the idea of greenness) / for green.””
The Sharon exit poem is all about “the land of exhaustion and surrender,” where Joseph Smith, the prophet of Mormonism, was born. Woodstock brings page three ideas about class structure and includes a snippet of a story about a millionaire who runs over a child’s dachshund and offers fifty dollars to the child to “go buy yourself another.” And so it goes, mile after mile, the poems never flagging, the poetic adrenaline never failing or the wit crumpling.
The poem “Secret Exits” has no date or time and functions as an interlude. When Shepard reaches Windsor, he gives us some personal reminiscences:
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 high way
wandered in snowy fields full of golden milk weeds, a few feathery seeds still stuck in the breach, the whole shaft and pod rattling in a numbing wind. What could I feel?
Then through Springfield, a sting...