I am Poet Laureate of Vermont. My 12th collection of poetry, No Doubt The Nameless, will appear later this year. I founded and for thirteen years edited New England Review.
Blues for the Tenor Man
–Washington, D.C., 2015
You guard that treasure with a fierceness as great as your playing
Is masterful. So I imagine. I see it’s a Selmer,
Top of the top of the line, the kind of sax
You could pawn for at least a grand –no, more than that:
Even ten wouldn’t cut it. I see your pants belonged
To somebody else at one time, their shredded cuffs risen
To display a strange blue latticework of lesions
On ashen shins. The paper placard’s scrawl
Is HELP IM A HOMELESS VET. I’d never have thought
You smoked, and a pipe of all things. Its wet rough stem
Pokes out of your Navy pea coat’s rough side pocket.
You’re so good you make some better part of me float
To a long-closed club, with someone like Sonny Stitt
Sweetly trotting his horn through “The Sunny Side
Of the Street,” which happens to be the song your Selmer
–Above this tuneless traffic– sweetly offers,
Quietly but so intensely I’d bet the flesh
Under your woolen hat must actually flinch.
Raveling watchcap, it creeps on your head, it shivers.
I might of course recall the other Sonny,
Or the great Coltrane, or the under-prized Lucky Thompson.
Jack and I played them all in that student apartment
Where, kids that we were, we imagined ways to resolve
The world’s most unaccommodating problems,
Of which, at least to us, Racial Relations,
As people said back then, were among the first.
We were children, but worshipped the art that Roland Kirk
Had dubbed Black Classical Music. And here you are
To push me back to reverie and reverence.
You slide straight into a blues in a minor key,
Blues new to me. Eyes clenched, you rock and sway,
The tenor igniting the stars. Blue pigeons drop
From government marble, as if their tiny brains
Understood the mix of resolution and pain
The music spreads around their strut. Their plumage
Seems to glow more warmly now, yet the damage
That anyone’s life can attract appears more clearly,
Brightness cutting the dark: that’s the way of the blues.
But what do I know? I’m headed off for a meal.
To hand you a coin would somehow be to feel
A lesser person. I wonder where Jack lives now.
The Lucky, the Coltrane, the Sonny, and hundreds more:
They were gems we’d gathered from hockshop and secondhand store–
And were stolen one night. If only we’d kept up our guard.
It wouldn’t have happened if only we’d known how to hold
Onto what we treasured. How suddenly things can be taken,
Though a record collection is only a record collection.
You’ll huddle beneath whatever wrappings you gather
Against the cold of night, the noble Selmer,
The pearl of great price, locked on your chest with both hands
As you sleep. Or so I imagine. As evening steals in,
Your horn moans an aching cadenza that ends the tune.
Commuters pour downward into the Metro, unhearing.
The pigeons flap roostward. Soon there will be nothing
For you to to lie down with again but what you love,
Under a bridge, in a shelter, wherever you live.
Bourgeois with Bag
I ease my laptop down its leather throat.
How many times have we boarded planes by now?
The bag’s been with me so long I never figured
On buying it how perfectly it would fit
A computer. I’d never even used a computer,
Just noisily tapped away at my Smith-Corona,
Machine once dear to my heart. Where is it now?
I churned out poems that summer, a rich foundation
Paying our Tuscan rent. I’ve kept the bag
Through sharper changes than techno-revolution:
The children grown and gone, the grandchildren born,
The myriad wonders. It makes no sense at all
That the bag’s soft runneled hide, the straps more slender
Than a woman’s bra’s, the buckles bent by age–
It makes no sense that they comfort me whenever
I feel them. Still, they do. The bag was hanging
In the alcove window of a Sienese sporting shop
Deep back in an alley, safe from a humbling sun.
I wasn’t looking at all for something to soothe me.
Through the gloom of shade, I saw its leather shine,
Like an icon of any youthful man’s desire.
It’s ridden with me for nearly thirty years.
The proprietor said it was meant for ammunition,
Though what hunter would use it for bullets I can’t imagine.
It’s seen a hundred classrooms, five hundred lecterns.
Last night I pulled a few new poems from the bag–
Some late attempts at whatever I’m trying to say–
And read them aloud to a gracious Texan crowd,
Which included a writer my age I much admire,
Who during the Q and A announced out loud
My work reminded him how deeply in love
We all should be with earthly things that die.
But the bag never judges whether I’m what you’d call
A success or not, just sits beside me, patient,
In buses, planes and cars, quiet bearer of all
Those efforts at meaning. This thing must know me, I think,
However absurdly. Inanimate, I whisper,
Yet something in me supposes it otherwise.
Nothing has been so full of my private existence.
It’s scarcely spectacular, that hidden life,
But I feared for it, and the public one as well,
When I walked outside to the street, my reading ended.
Some twenty rounds of small-arms fire broke up
The air around the corner from where I stood.
I held the bag to my chest like a shield. I’m better
At a bourgeois sort of existence than any other.
The past, says the old cliché, swims by one’s eyes,
And so it did, the finer part: the marriage,
The children, the children’s children. I all but cried–
And now I can smirk at what some call poets’ “courage.”
This is the only life I’ve ever owned.
Through much of it I’ve held to my ammunition
Pack, a keepsake from when I dared to presume
The world was all before me –as in fact it was
In another way from when I thought the years
Would be stuffed with nothing but fervor. As in fact they’ve been,
Just differently, as I say. So here we are,
Leaving the Dallas airport, still mostly sound,
My bag and I. Not long till we take to air.
We’re on our way now. Soon we’ll clear the ground.
She Recalls a Book of Sayings
For some reason she’s moved by his chilly withdrawal
To search for a fitting proverb.
Why this one? Stay from among wild fowl
If you fear the wagging of feathers.
He jostled the china from her old wedding shower
As he made his bumptious way
To the crepitant hearth. She whispers Fire
Won’t be hidden in flax. Her bouquet
When she flung it was caught by an old-maid aunt,
Who twitted: After a wedding,
Beware a corpse. A joke, a taunt,
But she still feels her own foreboding.
Their wedding trip lulled her at first to imagine
Proverbial wedded bliss.
She had never known birds or sand so dazzling,
Nor yet known this restiveness.
As they strayed on that luminous beach arm in arm,
The passersby must have witnessed
What looked like young love. But come full dark—
The palms in their sudden stillness
Like milliner’s plumes—unnerving sensations
Fluttered into her heart.
She could never quite find the right words to name them,
Nor quite complain that they hurt.
At trip’s end—it shocked her—their talk turned to anger,
Which at home soon became automatic.
They were scarcely civil to one another,
Though they rarely grew histrionic.
After this late quarrel, hunched, vulturine,
He strains to exude self-control.
Through a living room window, she sighs as she sees
Their small twin girls, who roll
And flail in new snow, making side-by-side angels,
Then, watching a raven drop
From a leafless blue beech at a murderous angle,
She gives the window a rap.
She longs somehow to set the world back
To what had once seemed right.
Now pale dawn, for instance, portends something black,
And the calmest of skies unquiet.
Truth shows best naked, she thinks. A mirror
Grows dark on the chiffonier,
In its glass a vague image, which rapidly alters.
First feathered. Then shrouded. Then bare.
©2015 Sydney Lea