GUILFORD—It was 1968.
Verandah Porche and her literary friends had just moved to an abandoned farm in Guilford to create what would become a legendary commune. And she wanted her life to be a poem.
“There was a lot of grandiosity back then,” she said wryly, on the farm still.
We were sitting in her large, wood-hewn living room, where an elegantly glazed wood stove provided the heat. She lives there comfortably with one of her two daughters, surrounded by art made by friends, a multitude of jars and dishes, and the occasional spider’s web.
Porche, 67, has just published a new collection of poems, Sudden Eden, which has turned out, not unexpectedly, to be an autobiography in verse. As she has lived a rich life filled with family, friends, farming, lovers and farewells — good birthing, good food, good conversation, good lovemaking, good pies and good politics — the reading is rich as well.
She will debut Sudden Eden at a reading at Bartleby’s Books in Wilmington on Sunday, Dec. 9, at 3 p.m.
“Books and people coming together are up there with all the other life and death matters,” she said.
Porche has had an eclectic career. For over 40 years, she has made her living by collaborating on other people’s stories, by collecting into anthologies the voices of the elderly, the young, workers in factories or people in crisis centers. She has published two books of her own poems, and been a “muse for hire” as well as a songwriter. She is working in poetry with chemotherapy patients at Springfield Hospital.
“I write poems all the time,” Porche said. “If I’m driving, I can write sideways. I started writing songs at a certain point because it was so dangerous to write and drive. Songs you can sing and repeat and they stay in your mind better. But I have just not pursued a literary career — sending poems to magazines and entering contests. I’ve led a grassroots literary life out among the people, hunting and gathering. So my friends got together and did an intervention.”
About three years ago, one of her friends swept up a pile of loose poems from a lifetime of writing and took them with her on vacation. This led to other friends sorting through Porche’s work and helping to winnow the poems down to the ones in the book.
“I was so close to all of the poems that I didn’t know how to choose,” Porche said.
The title, “Sudden Eden” has many layers of meaning to Porche. One refers to her coming to Vermont to create a kind of peaceable kingdom for herself.
“I’ve always done things quite impulsively and expected that it would be glorious,” Porche said. “And so many times it has been — for a while. And then we’re expelled from the garden. And the dream that we moved into when we came to the farm, of generosity and fertility, has held true for my whole life here. Through all the vicissitudes, the idea that this was a place where I would compost experience and grow things and there would be enough to go around and more. To me, the sudden eden was this place of great shared creativity and really, the innocent expectation that we could thrive in this environment. That we could create beauty and luster and no matter what hard things happened, we had each other and we had the land.”
The years haven’t changed things much.
“Packer Corners is a famously close-knit neighborhood,” Porche said. “We raised our kids together and buried our dead together and many poems about those events are in the book, too. The sense of continuity is really important to me.”
Porche is the daughter of first-generation Jewish Americans, which leads her to another meaning of the title.
“My grandparents were from Russia and Poland — no nostalgia there,” she said. “This was an immigrant family. My idea of sudden eden is that my grandparents had to leave where they came from. They thought that where they landed it would be wonderful. They were pioneers in their own lives.”
Porche’s mother was a homemaker; her father was a manufacturer of children’s clothing.
“He invented a kind of zipper,” Porche said. “Mother raised four children and was a volunteer. They were a really decent and wonderful set of parents.”
This is how she imagines her conception:
Tonight she slips beside his mind.
Ball bearings streamline the flow
Of garments toward the loading dock.
In the pause of goods, he turns
to smooth her blueprint.
They manufacture me.
Porche writes poems about her childhood — her mother sewing, her father reading the Sunday comics to his children, the two of them working crossword puzzles. And later,
Later your hands shook.
Letters jittered out of their boxes
And your own fatherly form shrank until it fit in the final box
And disappeared across and down the past.
Her parents, she said, wanted safety, comfort, and privacy.
“Those weren’t the things I longed for,” Porche said. “My birthright was to be the wife of a brilliant man. What else could it be? I could be a lady volunteer. I could be a teacher. I could be a professor. I could keep my house clean. I could not call attention to myself. Just be good to others and to help enlighten the world. My mother’s ideals aren’t too different from mine, except for be quiet and keep it clean. I wanted to have adventure and do something difficult. I wanted change the world in my time. So coming here to Vermont was a step in that direction.”
And so there are many poems about life in Vermont. Fruit gets canned. Cows get milked. Children get born and raised. Soup gets made. Fish get caught. Deer get shot. Good friends die. Stories get told. Hard wisdom gets acquired. And poems get made out of all of it.
Stick a spigot in granite
Life is sweet.
“For Our Road Commissioner On Retirement” talks about being tucked into a warm bed in the middle of winter and the comfortable feeling of waking up to the sound of the road crew plowing the road.
Roars through our dreams and tucks us in again.
There is a sweet sexuality in some of the poems:
Under the awning of seven greens
She wants to be moist and honest.
What do you do with a woman
Whose warm arms
Imply that this is possible?
I am a grounding rod.
I am the surest path for lightning.
Give it to me or the house will burn.
There is humor, as when the goats eat the 1960s textbooks. There is sharp observation, as when:
The cats yowl for tinned meat
While rodents drunk on compost
Snicker by the chimney.
And there is a sharp stab to the gut in a poem about a hideous visit to an abortionist in the brutal times before Roe vs. Wade.
“Anesthesia’s extra,” the doctor says.
Then there’s just sheer beauty:
One summer I lost my bearings on that side hill
Overgrown with juniper and berries plump as I was,
Pregnant with a second kid. I filled my mouth
With fat fruit so as not to weep and followed
Deer tracks to the stream and home.
You’d shown me how.
As poets do, Porche can get drunk on words. The names of a cow’s many stomachs or the different varieties of mushrooms available — or even the alphabet itself — can get her going. She likes to play with words, too. To take one example:
O soothe, sooth, soot.
Or, this about her mother:
breasts rose, rose on pink...
The photographs of Porche that bookend the book were taken about 30 years apart in the same place on the farm.
“The woman in the younger picture looks as if there’s witch grass in her garden and she’ll never fork it out,” she said. “And the woman that I became thinks, ‘You know, there are worse things than witch grass. And the struggle doesn’t last.’ I have a lot more serenity now that some of those huge life tasks — trying to find a livelihood, have a relationship, raise children and save the world all at once — have been done. The younger woman is committed, but she’s in a quandary. And the older woman knows the quandary is just the human predicament, and if life is precarious, there’s also the hilarious.”