Judith Neeld’s ‘Collected Poems’

In the pantheon of Vineyard poets, the late Judith Neeld reigns. Her “Collected Poems” illustrates how broad her reach and how deep her vision were, expressed particularly in her celebrations of the Vineyard.

She perhaps best explained what poetry meant to her when she wrote, “If the definition of religion is what reaches us in the deepest profoundly personal way, poetry is my religion.” Former Island poet laureate Arnie Reisman called her “the Emily Dickinson of Martha’s Vineyard.” It is a well-deserved accolade.

Born in Norwood, and growing up in Washington, D.C., she lived for many years in Madison, N.J., before moving to the Vineyard with her husband, Richard Neeld, in 1985. Of the many awards her poetry has won, pre-eminent is the 1982 Emily Dickinson Award of the American Poetry Society. She founded and edited the journal “Stone Country” from 1974 to 1990. As a member of the Cleaveland House Poets, she served as its leader for many years. This group registered its respect and admiration by publishing “Judith Neeld: Collected Poems” and presenting it to her before her death at 90 on April 18. As a member of the Cleaveland House Poets, I was honored to participate in that enterprise.

Neeld’s five poetry collections, as well as her publications in anthologies and periodicals, range across many landscapes and aspects of the natural world. She was a master at unusual combinations of words and metaphors. In “Naming the Island,” she writes, “Spring hauls south to north/ shoots from the quivers of ponds.” Or her phrases can be as simple and distinctive as “Imagine the sea itself, stretched as a cat stretches, full length …” in “Letters from the Islands.”

Birds are one of this poet’s favorite subjects. In “When You Are Old,” she addresses them in general: “The birds that wintered on Cape Cod Bay/ have taken their spring and flown north.” Or she may list them individually — “Whimbrels, doves, red finches/ and the ubiquitous geese/ spreading from Canada” — as in “Ornithology in November.” Her knowledge of birds and their individual traits is impressive. In the prizewinning poem “Her Topography,” she details the wren’s song, “Piper. Piper. Pipe.” (Emily Dickinson Award).

Neeld pays tribute to all of the seasons, and often does it in unexpected ways: “Cold’s a sensuous thing,/ and this year’s fondled by ice” (“Letter from the Artist to His Wife”). Writing about autumn can be challenging for poets, but Neeld instills one with human passion in “The North Grove,” where “leaves’ stricken hands/ cling/ to the stubborn/ love of their trees.” Her delight in the Vineyard shows up in “Centertown,” when she talks about the women “who wait table on the State Road/ and bring home the tips …”

In keeping with a poet who celebrates the visual, Neeld frequently uses epitaphs or titles from artists, including Winslow Homer, John Sloan, Claude Monet, and Alfred Sisley. “Van Gogh’s Death” conveys this painter’s powerful use of color, asking, “What new palette leaps/ into his eyes/ when the gun goes off”? She does not shy from including love and sex in her poems. In “Cyclops,” she asks, “Ah, love,/ riding a magic eagle,/ when will you see/ this dark eye that cries above/ my kisses can/ never close?” Or in “Nests,” she asks of squirrels, “What’s it like/ to make love pinched between jump and hang on”?

“Poetry is hard work,” Neeld once wrote. “To do it right, you need to surprise the reader with language, ideas, and imagery. You can’t fake it.”

“Judith Neeld: Collected Poems,” Summerset Press, 2019, $25. Available at Bunch of Grapes bookstore, Main Street, Vineyard Haven.