Our “Poet’s Poet” Leland Kinsey, a Tribute
BY HOWARD FRANK MOSHER
Earlier this month I lost a dear personal friend and Vermont lost its best poet since Robert Frost. Leland Kinsey of Barton, a seventh-generation Vermonter and gifted writer, teacher, naturalist, woodsman and storyteller, passed away after a long, courageous battle with cancer. Here is my tribute to Lee, who was also my fishing partner of 50 years.
For Leland Kinsey
May 2, 1950 – September 14, 2016
Leland Kinsey and I loved to fish for brook trout in the Northeast Kingdom. Not just trout. And not just anywhere. Brook trout in the Kingdom.
I suppose that there are good, trouty brooks in Orleans, Essex, and Caledonia counties that Lee and I never discovered. Not many, though. At least once a week during fishing season, for nearly half a century, Lee and I would strike out early in the morning and follow a brook miles up through cedar bogs, upland meadows, hardwoods and softwoods, to its source at an icy spring high on some Kingdom mountain.
Lee was a poet’s poet. By that I mean that he did not care one bit about renown. He cared about results, about writing powerful and beautiful poems, often about the Kingdom, where he was born and raised and lived all his adult life. Vermont State Poet Sydney Lea said it best. Leland’s poetry “chronicles the profoundest Vermont anyone might possibly know.”
It’s hard to tell for sure, but my guess is that several dozen of Lee’s poems, or major sections of them, were inspired by those fishing treks we made to the wildest and most remote corners of the Kingdom. In his sixth collection – perhaps my favorite – The Immigrant’s Contract, he recounts the life and times of a French Canadian who, as a small boy, comes to the Kingdom with his folks in a horse-drawn wagon containing all their worldly possessions. Over the next seventy-some years he worked as a horse trader, logger, timber cruiser, whiskey runner, log driver on the Vermont tributaries of the upper Connecticut River, dairy farmer, dam builder – the list goes on. On our fishing excursions we explored many of the places Lee brought to life in The Immigrant’s Contract. The Upper Jay Branch, where Lee’s Quebecois jack-of-all-trades helped build the first road over Jay Peak. The Upper Black Branch of the Nulhegan in the wilderness northeast of Island Pond.
Not to mention the wildlife we encountered, the goshawks and pileated woodpeckers, the twenty varieties of warblers and scores of woods flowers – Lee knew them all by name – the great glacial boulders brought down from the Far North 10,000 years ago, every species of tree that grows in northern Vermont. Along with family history and local work – farming, blacksmithing, lumbering, sugaring, cedar-oil distilling, welding – the natural world that we immersed ourselves in on our quests for brook trout was a constantly recurring theme of Lee’s poems.
Early on in our fishing partnership, Lee and I made a deal. If either of us ever caught a 20-inch brook trout, the other would have it mounted for him. We both figured this was a safe arrangement. One June afternoon on a swampy brook in the Victory Bog, miles from the nearest road, Lee caught a 16-inch two pounder. That was the closest either of us had come until last fall.
It was late October, after most of the leaves were down, and raining lightly. The only color along the stream we were fishing – never mind what stream or exactly where – was the rusty yellow of the tamarack trees. At the time, Lee was in between grueling treatments at Dartmouth-Hitchcock, but still very strong. Still as good in the woods as any man in the Kingdom. I couldn’t see him but somehow I always knew about where he was on a trout brook we were fishing. He knew where I was, too. From upstream, around a bend, maybe a hundred yards away, I heard him say, not loudly, “Good one.” That’s all he said but if you knew Lee, that was enough. Net in hand, I thrashed my way through the bankside alders and hurried around the bend.
There he was in the misting afternoon, standing in the water with the fly rod he’d built himself bent almost double. The hooked trout was about midway between us when it exploded from the dark water, leaping up and up and twisting like a salmon. Its fiery red belly and green back and pink side-speckles with violet halos, its big square tail, its crimson fins edged with white stood out against the low, gray sky even brighter than on a sunny day. It hit the water like a beaver smashing the surface with its tail.
I never knew a man better at playing a fish than Leland Kinsey. It was a battle royal but ten, maybe fifteen minutes later, I slipped my landing net under the big brookie and held it up, shimmering, gorgeous, for Lee to see. “You win,” I said. Who do you want to mount it for you?”
“No one,” Lee said. “Put it back in the brook where it belongs.”
I cannot say that I was greatly surprised. I removed the hook and turned the net inside out, releasing the trout. For a moment the fish hung in the tea-colored water. Then it shot off into the depths of the stream where it belonged, and Lee and I fished on into the wild heart of the Kingdom to which he belonged and of which he was, and will be for all time to come, the truest poet laureate.
Some photos of Lee for our memories . . . but his poems live on and we are honored to have been his publisher! If you want, you can listen to an interview Dede and Howard did on VPR here.