From 2011 until last month I was Poet Laureate of Vermont, during which time I visited 116 Vermont community libraries, not so much to read but to talk about what poetry can do that other modes of discourse can't. I loved the Q&A the most, because those within the academy often ask things that show how much they think they know, whereas library patrons are inclined to ask the important things: Who's talking here? To whom? Why? Where? I hope my poems can answer those questions, that no one needs some special knowledge or language to penetrate them. My twelfth collection of poems, NO DOUBT THE NAMELESS, is just out.
Call Him Zero
It struck them both as strange: although each pond and lake
clear to the coast was locked in ice, no open water,
the imperious wind kept pushing waterfowl inland. That night
a winter moon stood high and pierced the thin clouds’ vapors
so the boy could contemplate their emptiness inside.
Relentless, the flocks flew westward. The border collie whimpered,
putting his forepaws now on one sill, now another,
as if some odd creature circled the house.
This lifetime later,
a man, he looks back on that stay at her farm, its details clear,
their meanings still vague. His grandmother called it wrong as well
that the weather should be so frigid even in such a gale.
As a rule this kind of cold needed calm. He sees the fire,
the dazzle of sparks when she loaded a log. What seemed most amiss
was how the old woman’s house no longer felt safe that visit.
He wanted and did not want to know what the dog might know.
He tried to picture the menace outdoors. He longed to shape it
so that he might name it. And after these many miles to now,
away from the ruby glow of the metal parlor stove,
from that blue-eyed collie, from the woman he so admires and loves
recalling that night; after so much time,
he still believes
that to name a thing is to tame it, or at least to feel less bewildered.
Not Death, for instance, but The deaths of Al and Virginia, his parents.
Not the abstract legalism Divorce, but The disappearance
of my wife Sarah, run off with that California lawyer.
Not simply Alone, but I have no children. Was that the wail
of geese coming down the stovepipe? If so, it would be a marvel,
but he knew it wasn’t. The caterwaul from the barn was alarming,
and more than it might have been had Grandma herself not startled–
after which she put on her late large husband’s threaded farming
coveralls outside her housedress, which rode up and made
a lumpy sash. She stepped out under cloud and bird.
He would not follow. Instead he stood indoors to wait
until she came stomping her boots through puddled barnyard holes
like a child herself, kicking ice shards to scuttle along
like beads from a broken bracelet. No matter. The world had gone wrong,
violent and void at once. She said, The mare has foaled.
On tiptoe, she read the mercury through the kitchen window,
then told her shivering grandson, We’ll call the new colt Zero.
Few have been touched in this way O strong broad hand that made
Those Sunday morning breakfasts O Father shaper of biscuits
Whose palm on my shoulder soothed me whenever life dealt me nasty
Hands like big Zach Storm destroying my sandbox “farm”
Everything gone including my pathetic “windmill” whose turning
Stopped when he snapped in two the pinwheel whose parts he threw
Into the field-weeds’ sprawl Later I’ve been told
He snapped and stabbed his wife That somehow fails to surprise
As I think of you father these days it’s as though I squint through a haze
That seems more and more to sprawl over all I want to recall
Self-regarding the things I conjure to others perhaps mere sugar
So be it Your manner of gripping each little finger lifting
The paddle in your canoe like some satiric cartoon
Of a self-regarding snob raising his idiot cup
Hands hauling guys of hemp for that obsolete canvas tent
(Mother liked to call it your slum) to raise it up The fumes
Within of rodent urine and human exhalation
Seem almost palpable To touch is the etymological
Latin root of that word Stop it I think You’re absurd
Am I losing touch? He’s been gone for forty years and some
All will go missing forgotten Is it only that I have so often
Said I remember or do I remember? Can I truly
Claim to catch sight in a biscuit of your hand or swear that I miss it
In the bittersweet smell of wet canvas that I see it along the surface
Of water calm and unruffled or even within some cup of
Bitter campfire tea? Such sight is abandoning me
Yes I do lose touch with time I’d turn the whole sublime
sweet bitter saga over to someone else no matter
I can’t imagine to whom I’d abandon the feelings too
To someone who might hold on I want to but can’t hold on
©2016 Sydney Lea