Vermont Exit Ramps (chapbook), by Neil Shepard
BOOK REVIEW: POETRY QUARTERLY, 2013
Reviewed by PQ Contributing Editor Brian Fanelli
Anyone who has ever hopped in the car for a cross-state or cross-country road trip will find familiarity in the images in Neil Shepard’s latest effort, Vermont Exit Ramps. The poems feature rumbling construction vehicles, ATMs, quaint art galleries, and other staples of small town America. However, what moves the poems beyond the familiar is the personal and state history Shepard included. Like a passenger riding shotgun, the reader is invited along for a wonderful ride that is engaging, informative, and entertaining.
Set along the I-89 and I-91 exit ramps in Vermont, Shepard’s poems take several surprising and interesting turns, often veering into the state’s rich history. In the poem “I-89 Stowe/Waterbury (Exit 10:Route 100),” the poet begins with common highway images, including noisy construction machines and sun-drained road workers whose sweat “drips into hot tar.” But a few lines later, the reader is confronted with images of history, including the Summit House, built at the beginning of the Civil War, and the Big Hotel, which burned in 1899. These references serve as a fine reminder of what existed long before construction ever began on the Best Western Café Grill, Blush Hill Country Club, and the Stowe Street Emporium mentioned in the poem’s final lines.
In another poem, “I-89 South Barre (Exit 6: Routes 63 to 14),”Shepard digs deep by referencing the town’s granite industry and history of travel. The historical references are triggered by the image of a flatbed hauling away an old stagecoach, which causes the speaker to recall the year 1810, when everyone was poor and labored in the saw mill, grist mill, when everything moved by wagon, until a full century passed and the railroad allowed granite to be shipped faster from the town, lessening the starvation and poverty. Like much of the book, the poem successfully begins in the present, before shifting to the past to illustrate how the past shaped the community’s present condition.
In another poem, “Turn in Guilford,” the speaker moves to personal history, recalling an incident from his hippie youth in which his VW Bug “lifted a boy off his feet/rolled him over my yellow hood/bumped him against/the glass, and launched him fifty feet in flight.” The poem is at first jolting to the reader, but then takes a sudden turn when the speaker encounters the boy’s mother, who is surprisingly forgiving and invites him over for dinner. He writes:
And I’m there on a day of atonement,
the boy with his mending arm in a sling, the mother
cooking and humming, and all of us gracious
at dinner, counting the blessings, recounting
the tale again, I saying the boy must have felt
a white jolt of pain, the boy saying no, the shock
blocked it, and his mother must have suffered more,
and she saying, no, no, turning to me and saying
it was the driver who must have suffered most.
The mother’s graciousness, kindness, and love resemble Robert Hayden’s much-anthologized poem “Those Winter Sundays,” which depicts a father’s love for his son. Shepard even repeats Hayden’s second to last line in the poem, “what did I know, what did I know,” a point in both poems where the speakers finally understand a parent’s love.
Like the content of the poems, the form changes throughout the collection. At some points, Shepard employs short stanzas, tight lines, and frequent enjambment, while a few pages later he uses long rhythms and lines that echo Ginsberg or Whitman, two poets that were just as comfortable addressing the notion of American progress, or lack of it. Furthermore, Shepard’s frequent references to American consumerism, including ATMs, Best Westerns, and fast food restaurants, reminded me of Ginsberg’s frequent critique of consumerism, especially in his most well-known poem, “Howl.” Shepard does make several references to nature’s striking beauty, however, despite the highways and buildings we’ve constructed through much of the country.
By the end of the book, the reader has a greater sense of Vermont’s rich history. The poet’s research paid off because it makes the collection layered and rich in detail. Like any good road trip, Vermont Exit Ramps leaves the reader feeling fulfilled and enlightened.
Vermont Exit Ramps
Reviewed by Keenan Walsh
Proving wrong any reader who thought these poems would bore by virtue of their subject matter, Shepard opens with a subtle, rhythmic eloquence. His absolute command of language draws readers in, making them suddenly, surprisingly intrigued by the (perhaps familiar) Stowe/Waterbury exit ramp. Scattering this poem and the rest with geographically appropriate historical allusions, anagrams of town names and quotes from signs, Shepard shows his awareness of place and of how one territory can act as a setting for so many different events.
In their historical imagery, linguistic cleverness and poetic grace, these poems rarely disappoint. This panoramic “postpastoral” collection will intrigue the Vermont poetry connoisseur as it begs us to pay attention to even the smallest details of the least-acknowledged patches of land.
AMERICAN BOOK REVIEW
Vermont Exit Ramps
Reviewed by Stephanie Rauschenbusch
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 cross-country skiing when “a Swedish / family in 1913 /swished through town / on long, narrow wooden boards / with upturned ends…” This 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 sprinkled 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.”
The Sharon exit poem is all about “the land of exhaustion and surrender,” where Joseph Smith, the prophet of Mormonism, was born. Woodstock brings 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.
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.
The book is crammed with exciting, exact, and exacting passages like this. It’s a fine modern travelogue by a long-time Vermont resident. Watch him.