Book Review: “Sanctuary, Vermont”, Laura Budofsky Wisniewski | Books | Seven days
Bob Brown travels 13 miles from Starksboro just to woo Bea, a feisty resident of Sanctuary, Vt. “After seeing her beat the rugs in the spring / I’d throw my hat down first / before I walk into her kitchen,” he says.
Good luck finding Sanctuary on a map: it only exists in the poetic geography of Laura Budofsky Wisniewski. Winner of the 2019 International Poetry Prize and the 2020 Janet B. McCabe Poetry Prize, Wisniewski lives in Hinesburg, where she founded Beecher Hill Yoga. Sanctuary, Vermont, shortlisted by author Katie Ford for the 2020 Orison Poetry Prize, is her first comprehensive book; Red Bird Chapbooks released their chapbook How to prepare the bear in 2019.
The premise of Sanctuary, Vermont reminiscent of the late David Budbill Judevine. Like this locally revered rural poet, Wisniewski creates a fictional small town in Vermont and populates it with a changing cast of characters who tell us their stories in the first person.
The book is divided into two sections, “Then” and “Now”. The poetic story of Sanctuary begins in 450,000,000 BCE, when the Green Mountains were still forming. “Our main street crosses the fault line like a scar,” the poet tells us.
After this intriguing prologue, the book zooms into the early 19th century, skipping over the region’s native history and bloody colonial period and landing squarely in what we might call mythical Vermont. That is, the Vermont of tough farmers who live and let live in God’s pristine wilderness.
Readers eager to see literature deconstruct this whitewashed myth need not worry. Wisniewski does just that, presenting a collection of stories designed specifically to air out all the dirty laundry in the Green Mountain State.
Instead of affirming the neighboring and abolitionist vision of Vermont history taught in schools, Wisniewski populates his poems with voices speaking of economic subjugation, the forced sterilization of the Abenaki, murdered Jewish street vendors and the years when “the Klan sprouted like mushrooms after the rain”. The effect is just as delightful as watching someone pop the balloons at a smug birthday party you didn’t want to attend in the first place.
In “The War of the Rebellion. 1864”, for example, instead of highlighting the bravery and sacrifice of the men of Vermont who fought to end slavery, the poet gives us the point of view of a desperately poor farmer’s wife. “I begged my Frank to refuse,” she tells us. Her husband did not enlist voluntarily and was not conscripted; a wealthy citizen paid for Frank to fight for him. Frank comes back with one leg and “not well in his head”, and every market day, the woman tells us, the rich man who bought his way out of the war “smiles at me / and raises his hat”.
The poems in “Then” unfold chronologically, jumping through history like a time machine. The inhabitants evoke the advent of electric fences on farms in a poem which also evokes the barbed wire of the Dachau concentration camp. We see Cold War duck and blanket lessons in school; the arrival of hippies and communes in the 1960s; veterans returning from Vietnam with PTSD; the fall of the twin towers; Tropical Storm Irene.
The “Now” section shows us parts of life in Vermont that aren’t usually celebrated in poetry. The Tears & Fears Café is a Hopperesque restaurant that provides both a setting and a recurring motif throughout the book. We also find ourselves at an assisted living facility, carpentry store, deer hunt, and dairy farm where undocumented workers evade US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Wisniewski makes effective use of personality poems – written from someone else’s point of view, in the form of a dramatic monologue – to tackle difficult topics and get his points across without rushing to a podium. Sometimes, however, this strategy can backfire. At several points in the book, the author, who is white, writes from the perspective of black, indigenous, Quebecois, and Latino characters in a way that is well-meaning but doesn’t quite work.
In “On my Marriage Prospects. 1888”, for example, the poet speaks with the voice of a young black woman: “I told my daddy, No, I won’t marry / a bag of bones. I I don’t care / if it’s blacker than obsidian.” While poems like these enrich the range of voices in the collection, there is something that causes nausea in white poets who speak on behalf of people of color and speculate on their struggle.
Sometimes, too, we do not know who is expressing a poem. A few poems later, the speaker describes an attack by the Ku Klux Klan: “Their faces light up with torches. / Among them, my own buddy, Augustus Bannister. This poem seems to depict the terror of a black family, but the notes on the back of the book indicate that the speaker of the poem is actually of French-Canadian and Catholic descent. This makes historical sense, since Catholics were one of the KKK’s main targets in Vermont, but there is nothing in the poem to indicate this beyond a French spelling of Mom.
These poems have a treasure hunt aspect to them, requiring clarifying notes to establish their basic context, and there is something to be said for readers to do this work. If you didn’t know that Vermonters with certain backgrounds were forcibly sterilized well into the 1960s, for example, you would frantically Google page 13 of Sanctuary, Vermont.
Wisniewski seems to be aware of the discomfort and tension inherent in expressing the experiences of others. Near the end of the book, “Her Story” features the voice of a woman with a black child, who warns the poet, “don’t do / the black and white photography / of the fear of blood I feel / for my child’s black body / in this little white town. / Don’t take my story / for your poetry.”
However, those awkward moments are rare and do not overshadow a book that is otherwise thrilling to read. The author is more successful in confronting racism when she assumes the voice of a participant. “After Watching That Show on DNA and Race,” for example, depicts a white married couple. The husband remarks:If it was you / had that blood, I never would have / married you.” The woman, who narrates the poem, is both horrified by her husband’s overt racism and too paralyzed with fear to do anything about it, even when he deflects his “Chevrolet waistline” to scare a mother girl and her baby in a parking lot.
We cannot attribute the wife’s passivity to sheer fear of her husband’s reaction: she too simply does not care. Or rather, she cares just enough to feel “turned inside me, / like feathers in a clothes dryer.” What makes the poem so effective is the way Wisniewski hints that this character might be about to change his life. Those feathers in the dryer “floated down, / but not in the same old shoes / who-I-know”.
There are two ways to deal with an uncomfortable story. We can sweep everything under the rug, or we can take the rugs outside in the sun and beat them. Sanctuary, Vermont is a one-pound carpet beater.
‘The Great Flood. 1927’
Here at the bend,
Pond Brook has invaded its banks.
A man in a fine black tie and high black boots
hut-to-hut chores warning us to seek heights.
And you with your beautiful wife, your pure sons, your house
from a quiet top from which one can look down
from Buckthorn Hill, you see us, the swamp
of our city, the roads traced like tears
to farmland, some now deep under water,
the cattle are bawling, drowning in the rain,
rain that kills the air, leaving only himself,
more and more of herself.
I can feel your skin on the right duvet, feel
your baby swims hard inside me
as if there was a river
which led to the sea.
Copyright 2022 by Laura Budofsky Wisniewski. Reprinted from Sanctuary, Vermont courtesy of Orison Books, Inc. All rights reserved.