May 29, 2008


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The Immigrant’s Contract, by Leland Kinsey (2008, David R. Godine Publisher, 86 pages)
By Dan Szczesny

Leland Kinsey is an ambitious poet. He’s set out to do two things in his latest work, The Immigrant’s Contract.

First, through a series of interconnected poems, he tells the story of one immigrant’s arrival and lifetime of cultural transformation in the United States. By setting the stories in turn-of-the-century Northeast Kingdom Vermont, Kinsey is both writing about a geography he knows personally and dropping his narrator in place and time that forced men to become something we all recognize as the immigrant — lean, hard-working, suffering hardship.

Second, Kinsey choose a narrative verse style to tell his immigrant’s story. Kinsey’s reasoning here is clear: the out-of-favor form of poetic story-telling he uses echoes the immigrant arch-types of his stories. The style makes the stories seem older, the narrator wiser.

In general, Kinsey pulls off these two conceits well enough to make The Immigrant’s Contract a solid and often powerful collection. The form allows Kinsey to slow down, to detail the narrator as he arrives, as he hops from place to place looking for work through the Canadian wilderness, as he hunts turtle or makes a trip to Cuba. Kinsey rejects modernist trends and allows for detail, expression and back story uncommon in most current collections. For example, in the section titled “The Barking Tank,” the narrator describes a fellow worker who falls into the tank and what he looks like when he’s pulled out: “We tried to take / his clothes off, soaked with chemicals, / but skin already began to come with it, / the skin of his hands and chest / now on the ground like parfleche.”

There is a downside to Kinsey’s form in that it is not easily read. Sometimes the poetry reads like Cliff’s Notes for a much larger novel. Also, those arch-types that Kinsey mostly uses well occasionally read like stereotypes instead.

But the flaws are minor. Kinsey understands the European immigrant mindset well enough to make this collection instantly recognizable. The story-telling works on several levels — immigrant, New Englander, coming-of-age tales — without becoming morose or trite as many immigrant yarns tend to lean. The Immigrant’s Contract is a strong addition to Kinsey’s volume of work. B —Dan J. Szczesny

Author event
Who: Leland Kinsey
What: reading and signing of The Immigrant’s Contract
When and Where: 7 p.m. Thursday, June 5, at Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord; 3 p.m. Saturday, June 7, at Barnes & Noble in Manchester.