Brattleboro writer and editor Michael Fleming is the winner of the Sundog Poetry Book Award 2021. Final judge Vievee Francis selected her collection Bags and Tools, published in April by Green Writers Press.
Now in its second year, the award offers $500 and a publication to a Vermont poet who has not previously published more than one book. Bags and Tools is Fleming’s first collection. As a freelance editor for WW Norton since 2003, however, he has helped create countless volumes, including numerous textbooks and anthologies that English majors read across the country. Fleming lists carpenter and musician among the many jobs he has had over the years – and Swaziland (renamed Eswatini in 2018) and Thailand among the places he has lived.
This exceptionally rich variety of lived experiences makes Bags and Tools a pleasure to read. Divided into four sections, the author confronts the fear of the pandemic, recounts the personal adventures of his Roaring Twenties, and reflects on global and local topics. Composed almost entirely in rhyme and meter, the book is also an impressive feat of formalism – especially since the magnificent musicality of Fleming’s poems never gets in the way of what the author communicates.
“What’s in the bag of the speaker who presents himself as a budding wanderer, a wayward traveller?” Francis asks in his preface to the book, referring to the title poem, which serves as a prologue. Playful, allegorical, and composed in impeccable rhyming tetrameter, these first four quatrains could be mistaken for lyrics by Leonard Cohen, or perhaps a working-class ballad written during the Industrial Revolution. The speaker sweeps up sacks full of lead, then trades them for gold to a mysterious beggar on the road, only to realize that they can’t find a use for it either. Finally, at a hardware store, the speaker uses the gold to buy tools. “And now I can finally start,” they say – before digging a hole and throwing them in with the bag.
After this intriguing prologue, the reader encounters an ominous illustration of a plague doctor. Burlington artist and Sundog general manager Frances Cannon provided ink drawings that punctuate the book between its four sections, hinting at what’s to come.
The first section opens with “Casino”. Here the alternating rhyme scheme remains, but the flippant meter and heightened diction of the prologue disappear; Fleming’s voice sounds much closer to everyday speech. “I hit the jackpot the night I met you. / Shit, what did I know about jackpots? The game, / the hard, hungry art of losing – I knew it / so much .” It is a love poem, complicated, written in rhymes so fluid and unforced that they are not immediately apparent. Ultimately, the speaker imagines himself as “a scrawny/stealthy escapee, caught in the spotlight/glare of getting everything I wanted”.
Fleming’s formal chops are on full display. The opening section, “Just a Word”, includes several brief terza rima, sonnets, a bluesy invocation in which all other lines end with the word the Bluesand a sonnet crown titled — you guessed it — “Corona.”
A crown of traditional sonnets is a poetic flex. To fully express anything in 14 lines while adhering to rigid rhyme and meter is hard enough. A crown-sonnet multiplies this difficulty, requiring the poet to link a series of seven sonnets with their concluding lines: The last line of each sonnet is also the first of the next. Sound complicated? It is, but the form allows poets to expand and explore their subject matter in ways not possible in the too brief 14 lines of a single sonnet. For Fleming, the shape of the crown and the corona theme is an irresistible pun.
Tacoma, Wash., physician and poet John Okrent may have been the first to write a sonnet crown about the coronavirus. By the end of March 2020, he had published the first of what would be a book-length crown of sonnets, This expensive season, which he had noted between treating COVID-19 patients. But Okrent was by no means the only poet to fill dread-filled days with sonneteering.
Fleming’s take on the pandemic maintains the formal rigor of the sonnet’s crown more than Okrent’s — but lacks the urgency and perspective of a doctor’s notes, of course. At times, “Corona” feels like an all-too-familiar tale of the early days, much of which is made up of the past tense. Phrases such as “Now we don’t play music together” and “Our masks are the price we pay / to breathe, come out”, could have been enriched if more precise or personal descriptions had replaced hints of a nostalgia universal. After all, American memory of the pandemic is hardly universal and remains a major fault line between political poles, urban and rural, healthy and at risk, and “essential” workers and those privileged to work at distance. “We were masked all along”, concludes the fourth sonnet – but what does this refer to?
The second section, titled “Retrospective”, changes its tone in a satisfying way. “Misery is Canada. Loneliness / is a road in northern Ontario,” Fleming wrote in “The Merry Dancers.” He lets his mastery of a lush language take over while composing in rhyming quatrains. “Madness is the black, relentless, meat-focused flies, / Dotting an itchy red white shirt.”
Some poems in this section recount the author’s days as a young man, walking in emulation of his heroes. In “On the Bus”, he alludes to Ken Kesey’s psychedelic bus named further awaynovel by Jack Kerouac The tramps of dharma and Chris McCandless, wandering the wilds.
But the author is not a wandering cliche. A look at the biographical information on Fleming’s website paints a more complex picture. After graduating magna cum laude from Princeton in 1980, he won a Rhodes Scholarship to do his postgraduate studies at Oxford University. After that, he taught English in refugee camps in Thailand, high school math in Swaziland, and explanatory writing for a decade at Baruch College in New York and the University of San Francisco, experiences that would found in poems.
“Math Teacher”, for example, is an amusingly self-deprecating portrayal of a teaching foreigner in Swaziland that “sounds like baked impala tongue”. His students ask, “Who is this overseas stranger?” / He has no tribe, no sons, no cattle — how / can we respect such a man?
In the middle of the book, Fleming’s work feels less like an abandonment of tools than a gathering of them. Or rather, a collection of non-physical tools, an accumulation of memories and experiences. In the last section, “Lexicon”, the author says that the words themselves are insufficient for the beauty he sees around him. “Metaphors are lacking,” he writes in “Words Fail.” “Spring’s insistence / is not art, not a song or a poem or / a picture – it’s like nothing.”
The prologue of Bags and Tools declares an unloading of self – first from the weight of useless labor, then from useless wealth – and ends in a refusal to bear even useful tools. It may seem like a romantic ideal at first, but in the end, isn’t language, memory and experience all we can take with us? Fleming’s exceptionally well-crafted debut reminds us how rewarding the unseen work of the mind can be.