(Laura Budofsky Wisniewski’s Sanctuary, Vermont, Orison Books, 2022)
Laura Budofsky Wisniewski‘s collection of poems Sanctuary, Vermont, (Orison book) takes you for a walk through time. The book is divided into two sections - Then and Now. Poems from the ‘Then’ segment chronicle Vermont as it existed in the early nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Now section profiles contemporary Vermont - its modern face.
There is also a small singular section titled About Main Street. 450,000,000 B.C.E. that delves briefly but poetically into the geological birth of the town.
Our Main Street runs the fault line like a scar, say some. (About Main Street. 450,000,000 B.C.E.)
Sanctuary, Vermont is a poetry collection with a difference because it is a poetic memoir of singular poise and poignancy penned for a place. Wisniewski unearths nuggets of history from Vermont’s striated past with deep sensitivity and compassion. She gets in deep into the history of the town like a miner going in deep to unearth real chunks of gold and coal.
Events that have occurred two hundred years ago, are presented afresh to the readers. History may be old but the perspectives the poems offer are fresh. The reader is allowed to get intimate with how the town evolved, how it came into being and how much of the present sheen and lustre of Vermont rests in the dregs of darkness that once encompassed its evolution.
This unique approach to surmising a place, presenting it for what it’s worth today is what sets the collection apart. In the process of blending time, filtering the present from the bygone era, Wisniewski, carves a space for her pen to flow with a remarkable and enviable creativity and understanding. Her work is graced with aphorisms and the poems are evocative and deeply moving.
A poor man’s coat is thin
no matter the country he is in
(My Murder Isaac Lukhman, Peddler. 1865-1893)
The yellow apples cling
though the leaves have dropped.
The naked branches gnarl
and bow down.
On this tree
I scratch my mark
before I’m gone.
My name is Ellen White.
My mother brushed my hair
and let me stroke the hen
and hold the smooth eggs.
The Overseer says
I am nothing.
But once my mother danced
and I danced with her.
(Mark on a Tree, 1936)
It is heartening to find fragments of hope and positivity in these poems working below the radar of a city made and remade over a period of time. Poems that contain stories of towns and vanished people yet one with its own distinct identity in the present times. A remarkably accomplished book, it resists cliches. When the skin of the past is peeled away, the Vermont that emerges is, distinctly new and fresh.
Wisniewski’s poems are attentive to language, they are grounded in the concrete of facts and research, and take us on a captivating journey. They surprise us by how a word is used. They come from unexpected places. Above all they are searingly honest.
In Sanctuary, Vermont, Wisniewski explores the kaleidoscopic experiences of existing in a place that is the sum total of all its individual experiences- bitter and exploitative, nurturing and calming.
In a sense, Wisniewski’s lyrical and lucid sequence of poems accompanies Vermont from acorn to tree. She has looked at nature very closely. Her collection is shot through with an Eco critical awareness that renders it more meaningful than it might have stood otherwise. Wisniewski’s precise eye and gift for sharp comparisons allows us to enter into the lives being traced in the town of Vermont . They show how its ages echo and rhyme with our own, and how, by implication, we may also be tied to the same cycle of death and renewal.
The power of her poetry lies in an extraordinary act of imaginative voicing, and accomplishing the most important work of poetry - to take the reader out of themselves, and into another world that they, strangely, also inhabit.
Let death come soft and green as moss. Let Hell be just and silent.
Let evil burn evil away at last.
(The Hanging of Daniel Farrow. 1871)
That sad face could make sunshine cry
Well, it’s cold here, too, and small as yesterday, without love.
(On my Marriage Prospects. 1888
and yet another
Sometimes the corn’s silk is gold while there’s rot in the cob.
It’s the same with the world.
And it’s best to know.
This is a refreshing departure from the confessional poems about existential angst that we’re all used to reading. In a sense it’s also brave on the part of the poet to position the book apart from the usual expectations one has grown to expect from a collection of verses. The book is worth reading for its brave posturing, for having the courage to speak in the voice of those who no longer exist and lending distinction to those who still inhabit Vermont.