From 2011 until November 2015 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, as is my fourth collection of personal essays, WHAT'S THE STORY? REFLECTIONS ON A LIFE GROWN LONG. www.sydneylea.net
Cooking by Waters: A Non-Elegy
Washington County, Maine, 2012
The birch’s skin curls up like an ancient letter.
The sweet smoke makes my breathing harder.
On a streamside fir three goldfinches teeter.
Late sun makes a tumult along their feathers.
In an hour the hermit thrush will have begun.
I accept the bittersweet gift of the weather in fall.
The air’s so clear the only haze is inward.
How did I learn these names and calls?
I can’t be sure. They simply gathered.
Brook trout curled in the pan as the hot oil sputtered.
Back fifty years. Another sun.
Another scent. Another river.
The trout’s spots slowly blurred.
If life is important then why is it light as a bird?
There’s a version of loss I’ve long deferred.
It’s a version that banishes elegy’s turns.
I’m tired. I’m tired.
Let me climb like smoke into air.
I won’t close my eyes looking down.
Down to where Donald Chambers fries the trout.
Done fishing herself a loon calls up the wind.
Without it there’s nothing to lift her.
Darkness drops on the Middleground.
In smoke and absence my eyesight clouds.
Don is dead and gone.
So is Creston MacArthur.
Creston and I have dipped thirty smelt together.
Smelt from the Tomah River.
We rip driftwood from the brittle ice for tinder.
Our fire runs through its spectrum.
Steam rises beside it from our snowshoe leathers.
Seeking scraps a red squirrel fights a raven.
We laugh at that until we weep for no reason.
The water bears a sweet bouquet of tannin.
The chirr of the squirrel and the growl of the raven.
Rough as a bag of hammers says Creston.
We fashion such metaphors of construction.
Then they blow away.
Nothing’s brought back or reproduced.
Or at least that's no longer my function.
By other later water I’m blinded at moments.
The lowering sun breaks through.
Are my tears caused by light after shade?
Or by knowing that words have such small use?
I will make myself stare at truth.
A heron takes its slow escalade.
Under faint early stars dark nighthawks dangle.
Bitterns boom somewhere.
Do these creatures ponder or care?
My cook-fire sends up its plume through the trees.
I hear the thrush’s canticle.
It is raucous with ritual need.
Need a bit like mine.
Impalpable the smoke and mist.
What does the bird want to find?
Only her frail empty nest.
How To Sort Them
That woman’s husband works the graveyard shift in a warehouse someplace.
He’s a big man, and sleeps all day. I bet
he drinks. But what do I know? Dark clouds are stealing in.
Well, no they aren’t. That’s poetry, and bad at that.
She’s a headstone color: gray hair, gray face.
Her hooded sweatshirt’s dull, like a sheet of old tin.
It’s as though she doesn’t look forward to much but passing away.
Her eyes are gray too, though it’s too easy
to call them empty. Their tears might so easily– flow. Oh no.
I’m fussing around for eloquence here and coming up empty.
The woman and I just nod at each other
as we wait by the post office window. Though I’m a rather old man now,
I go on looking toward some sort of future.
I’m a big man too, which may be why
that woman shrinks. Or I think she does.
We all like the postmistress, who’s old herself but spry,
and despite her losses still cheerful and bright.
Her hairdo’s new. I recall her husband, who was
a person people here always called Big Mike.
Some old folks claim the man could lift a barrel
brimful of hard cider right over his head. I’d like to imagine
some tribute to Mike. I’d write it, if that were feasible.
A character, Mike. He drove a truck
that he’d brush-painted pink. He lived with his wife and children
and a bunch of critters and mixed-breed hunting dogs far back
in the woods. In time the kids grew up
and moved from here, but the family, we remember,
seemed always so decent and gentle with one another.
The postmistress wears that shirt she loves.
It’s a pretty shirt. Now what shall I name it? Purple?
Fuschia? Puce? And how might I sort them, good and evil?
How portray them? Let the clouds above,
the God-damned clouds, steal in. No, let them hurtle.
Both poems from No Doubt the Nameless (Four Way Books, NYC, 2016).
©2016 Sydney Lea