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Carpenter, Stonemason … Writer of Poems


by Andy Leader

“And this is how at last he comes to view his trade:

To realize it can be truly said

That first the harness, then the horse is made.”

Victor Densmore of Hardwick, the author of the above lines, does not typically write in iambic pentameter couplets. Nor, he says, does he intend to convey any larger meaning such as can be inferred from that final couplet. But Densmore, who describes his occasional rhyme and meter as “haphazard,” is a true poet whose musical wordplay and exact imagery evoke the vanishing Vermont of his boyhood.

Victor Densmore
Victor Densmore

By trade, Densmore, 80, is a sought-after carpenter, stone mason, and house builder — he’s built four, including mine. However, this year he published his second substantial volume of poems, “Dust of The Road.” His first book, “Out of The Hermit’s Meadow and Wood,” published in 2003, is a rich compendium of melodious Vermont vignettes, mostly elegiac, tinged with a wistfulness for people and places gone by. A quiet man with an unassuming demeanor, Densmore is also a trained geologist and an accomplished amateur mathematician. He recently completed, and plans to submit, an original four page proof of the “last theorem” of Pierre de Fermat (1601-1665). The theorem, which posits the impossibility of a Pythagorean-type equation for powers greater than 2, bedeviled mathematicians for three and a half centuries until British mathematician Andrew Wiles published a 150-page proof in 1995, for which he was knighted.

Densmore’s poetry, though seemingly less ambitious, draws upon the scientist’s habit of observing small things carefully and making connections to the vast mysteries that flow, as The Beatles have said, within us and without us. A consistent theme in his poems, Densmore says, is “beauty’s connection with time, and the underlying connection we should be looking for.” That “should” is rare for Densmore. Unlike the often didactic — and too often hateful or despairing — “great” 20th century poets I studied in college, Densmore isn’t trying to teach us lessons. Instead, he shows us something beautiful and ephemeral that we might not otherwise notice:

“One night I carried home

The quarter moon in a pail of water…” begins one poem. An adult neighbor scoffs at the “fool boy” and dumps out the pail.

“But the water held the crescent moon

For moments longer

In a small depression on the road.

Then it drew together, water and moon,

Silver shards and droplets at the last

Winking out one by one,

Returning to the earth.”

Just as the water and moon return to earth, so do the people and farming scenes of his earlier years vanish, but not without remembrance. Of a niece who died young, he writes,

“Is that fall bouquet of marsh grass,

Bittersweet and wild rice

In its old variegated vase

The essence of our dear Anna?….

…The faint fragrance of rare incense or spice

Has lingered in her silent room for years,

And brings to mind over and over again

A sepia daguerrotype

Of a solemn and yet lovely face

That we see clearly through our tears.”

And, recalling his early construction labors with a mostly French-Canadian work crew:

“Beaucoup les bon hommes parti

Comme les jours passe

Ils ont aime et travaille

En fait un chanson de la vie…

…And the abrasive clangor and clatter of tools and lunch pails

Thrown in the truck for the ride to work.

The hours flew by as rafters, joists and beams

Were lifted and spiked in place

To the loud litany of our coarse humor and advice.

Many the quiet hill and valley

That soon came to know our cheerful voices.”

Densmore pays tribute to Walt Whitman as a primary muse, though he says he wishes he had learned more about other poets as a young man. Victor Densmore was born and raised in a farming family in Vershire, Vermont. He studied chemistry and geology at UVM, spent three years in the U.S. Air Force, worked for several years as a geologist for the Vermont State Highway Department, and has lived in the family home on a back road in Hardwick since 1941. He came to poetry late in life, and like the English poet and novelist Thomas Hardy, uses his experiences as a workingman and his thorough knowledge of his rural home territory as grist for his creative mill, though he also writes of times he’s spent in Boston and on the seacoasts of Massachusetts and the Canadian Maritimes. He says he began writing poetry in the 1970s while helping his wife with her required English courses at Johnson State College as she was studying to become a nurse. His first book is dedicated to his late wife, “Cheryl, who could not stay to see all my poetry complete.” In the 1990s, his son, Sabin, now a computer specialist, was taking English courses at Johnson, and Densmore says he wrote poems to have “something to share” with him. Densmore has one other child, a daughter, Naomi, who is currently working on a masters degree in museum studies at Harvard University. Several generations back, says Densmore, a brother of one of his direct ancestors was poet laureate of New Hampshire and taught at Dartmouth College.

Rather than having an ideological message, Densmore says he tries in his poems to offer “a gentle suggestion that the fading flower has a beauty of its own,” and that “there is a connecting harmony between all levels of beauty.”

In “Thoughts Around An Old Cellar Hole,” Densmore writes,

“…I wandered aimless in a fragrant grove of birch,

Carpeted with blue myrtle not yet in bloom…” and

“…Who had breathed this air

Of leaf and moss before and years ago

And had marked the comings and goings

Of shy birds, the gradual turn of seasons?

Had there been the beginnings here

Of a family now well known,

Or was a lineage in its ebb and wane

That stopped here briefly neighborless, alone?”