Home Arts Book Review: ‘Musical Figures’ from Samn Stockwell, Poet and Barre City Councilor

Book Review: ‘Musical Figures’ from Samn Stockwell, Poet and Barre City Councilor

by George Longenecker

Samn Stockwell shows that it’s possible for poetry and municipal government to be compatible. The Barre Ward 3 City Councilor (and mayoral candidate) is the author of a new book of poetry, “Musical Figures” (Thirty West Publishing). Over lunch recently she spoke of her poetry, municipal government, and more. 

“With poetry I want to create something new, made with durable materials — kind of like the city,” she reflected. Many of these poems are about hardship and difficult memories, which she writes with precision and sensitivity. About poetry and her approach to municipal government, Stockwell said “I think they’re compatible.”

Her family moved three times between Maine and Connecticut. They lived in a housing project in Connecticut and in Brownsville, Maine. In her poem “Pembroke Lane,” she remembers: 

We moved to a cabin skirting a wealthy suburb

We kept milk for the baby 
in a picnic cooler
We dug dandelion greens
from the lawn in the yawning fall
and an uncle brought eggs

My father found work.
My mother drank martinis 
in the early dark of winter.
Dressed in cast-off clothes
of my classmates,
I scratched and slapped as
they teased me,
pinned and angling
from an endless arm. 

There’s poignancy in her verse. She doesn’t have to tell you how she felt; these images tell it all. Perhaps it’s her upbringing as well as previous jobs at the Family Center of Washington County and Head Start, and volunteer work at Habitat for Humanity, that make her sensitive to Barre’s needs. 

She recalled Ward 3 after the July 2023 flood: “People on their lawns, feet in mud. The flood was devastating. This was their home.” She feels that “This end of town was not designed with this climate in mind.” 

Stockwell came to Vermont to attend Goddard College, and after graduation stayed here. After 18 years in Marshfield, she moved to Barre. She is far from retired; besides city council she teaches two courses. including English composition, at Community College of Vermont. 

Teaching and city council keep her in touch: “I’ve met families who are living on the edge — sad and preventable tragedies — not enough food and shelter. That lack of structure makes it hard to survive.” 

In her poem “Dining Out.” She says of her father: “He rejoins his buddies, laughing. / The war drops him behind enemy lines, / his outstretched hand reaching towards us.” Stockwell shows empathy for her constituents as she does in her poetry. 

She considers herself part of the progressive wing of the City Council. “Decisions have to be made with all councilors in mind.” She said of Ward 1 Councilor and former mayor, Thom Lauzon, that she works well with him. “Thom’s reasonable.” Speaking of contentious issues, she said “It’s an art form to move people on. It’s hard work to manage a meeting.” 

Samn Stockwell believes poetry and governance have a lot in common. About poetry she said: It’s a puzzle to be solved — the shaping of something into a poem — an object to be realized.” About city government, she said: “I love learning about infrastructure. We can make a difference for what comes after me.” She thought a moment, and concluded: “With poetry I want to create something made with durable materials — kind of like the city.” 

Her book ends with the poem “Speech”:

I have other stories, who doesn’t
and what to say of then and when,
to massage the stiffness of my old dreams,
I want to do for myself
what was started by others, to prune.

This is all I will say for now
as I close the pages and feel the wine
and afternoon and promises.