Featured Selection: Sydney Lea

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By way of introduction to this month’s Featured Selection of new poems by Sydney Lea, we offer an extensive interview with our own Associate Editor for Special Projects, the estimable Nancy Mitchell, followed by the work itself and some more detailed biographical material.

 

NM: Hey Syd! It’s great having this opportunity to chat with you; thank you. As I like to approach the poems in the Featured Selections with as few pre-conceptions as is possible, I avoid reading any biographical material before hand. In your case it was a more of a challenge, as your reputation as an award-winning poet, novelist, short story writer and essayist as well as a well-respected editor is well known, as are your poems to practitioners of poetry like myself.

However, I didn’t know the biographical particulars such as where you were born and raised. After spending the past week in the company of this marvelous selection of poems you’ve so graciously shared with PLUME, I was almost ready to wager that you hailed, as I do, or did, from Dixie. Although your name, Sydney Lea, has a familial ring, it’s the circuitous, conversational rhythm of most of the lines, the inverted syntax particular to southern dialect, and the natural interjections of the colloquial diction I heard all my life such as “It took some doing,” “fussing,” “reckon” had me about to reach into my pocket. Yet, despite the sumptuous Faulknerian music and imagery, there is a reticence, a reluctance, a “Search Me” a final disclaimer to be in possession of a definitive truth.   In that respect, I’m reminded of Aldo Leopold’s “observations” in A Sand County Almanac, and of Frost’s measured “speculations.”   So, I have to ask, were southern writers an influence in your development as a writer? And was that influence tempered by more “Yankee” (wink-wink) writers?

SL: It’s fascinating that this should be your surmise. Such spotty “market research” as has been done on my writing suggests that, apart from upper New Englanders, its greatest appeal seems to be to southern readers. And despite a factual misprision, you are not, really, much off base in your premises anyhow –on which more in a moment.

I was actually raised in eastern Pennsylvania, exurban Philadelphia to be precise, which for my money was about as bland a context as I can imagine for a poet, or anyone. Back in those days, the intense Quaker influence even on the nearby big city, the blue laws that closed everything by midnight on Saturday, made, unlike today as I’ve heard, for a large town that felt as plain vanilla as could be: no good restaurants, no theater district, not even many movie houses. I returned, when I did, having left for college at seventeen, only for periodic family visits; there were other places that offered a lot more, including night life, virtually nonexistent in Philly in the fifties and sixties. (I except a host of African-American “private” clubs that evaded the blue laws; I heard some terrific music in such places, for one thing, which had a strong influence on me, not least of a prosodic sort. But that may be food for other thought. .)

I should, though, take back part of the foregoing screed: my bachelor great uncle’s farm, where I spent every available moment until the combination of driver’s license and female charm distracted me– and even after that, quite a lot of time indeed– wasn’t the least bland by my lights. Summers, I took part in the operations of that farm, but on my uncle’s property, I also first learned a good share of woodcraft. I hunted, fished, and even trapped. To that extent, the place remains far more my spiritual home than my actual home could ever be.

NM: I know what you mean about a spiritual home. How we long, ache for the places where deep connections were forged with our distant, if not ancestral blood.

My mother was an only child, but her mother was one of thirteen children who lived in Eastern North Carolina on a large cotton and tobacco farm worked by descendants of slaves—they even lived in the refurbished slaves shacks. By the time I would go to visit the farm, it had passed down to my great uncle who had stopped growing cotton and had clear cut the woods for a pine plantation—alas, all those old growth trees. My siblings and I would tear around with our cousin and the workers’ kids in a mule driven tobacco flat bed. I can instantly conjure that dark rich smell of the tobacco drying-sheds, rafters hung with ghostly leaves, the scent of gardenias. Crickets chipping away the night. Hot, nights thick with humidity, singing on the porch, ice clinking against whiskey glasses.

There was the canon of family myths passed down the generations, but there were also different versions of those same stories I overheard from the workers in the fields and in the kitchen.

But do my siblings have this same longing as I, or as you write in “Search Me,” “Do others ponder such things? Search Me.”

Your uncle’s farm must have been the beginning of your love affair with the country in the poem “On my Love of Country Life.”

My mind ached likewise for another place,

In which things blurred: a fleecy nap of meadow,
The spring blooms’ brightness muted, peasant wagons
Full of hay gone evening-fragrant, glow
Of a vanishing sun on the picturesque houses’ brick,
And cattle and sheep intent upon their grazing—
Their placid grazing narcotic, every moment

 Much like the one before, their mild jaws rolling.

It’s so appropriate that this poem opens the following selection as it introduces and maybe defends the why and where of the speaker’s perspective. The poems, which follow it, are rich with some of the most memorable lines about the natural world I’ve ever read. Just a few examples are in the above and “Outside, the redpolls jostle the feeder/and junco peck their spills on snow” (“Waking Late”) and this from “Cavaliers”

There’s the scent of melting snow,
muddy soil, wet duff. Gray frogs
cluck in the vernal pools,
the freshets jingle downhill,
woodpeckers rattle the air, new growth

lights up the tips of boughs,
the sky is far more vivid
than what we settle for naming sky-blue.

Yet the natural world isn’t a backdrop but is seamlessly integrated into a human life passing through the vagaries of mood. It’s also an active muse in that it inspires meditation on the mysteries of memory while it simultaneously triggers it, as in the past incident involving the speaker’s mother in “The Owl and I”:

….though I don’t have any idea

why I’d think of this, which, near to her death, she spoke of so many years after.

Why now, on watching a barred owl glide to a hemlock gone dark at sunfall,

everything else as well going dark around me here where I stand?

But, now look at me, Syd Lea! I’ve gotten off track. We were speaking of the country of your youth.

SL: What was even farther from bland, though, was the remote northeastern world to which, by way of longstanding connections on my father’s part, I was exposed early. I so loved it right from the start that I eventually moved to upper New England and have lived here for fifty years. And I have spent as much time as humanly possible in an even more remote New England. That’s quite a lot at that these days, given my retirement, probably four months of twelve. Just now, my wife and I are at our cabin in backwoods Washington County, Maine, which I bought for 500 dollars 49 years back.

NM:   What a gift that you knew early on what natural landscape was your home and how deeply it nourished you. And, it’s impressive that you set out so young to build a life there, and, in the process, built a substantive body of work around it.

SL: By virtue of my age (I was first there in the earliest 50s), I knew men and women who had lived in that fastness before the advent of power tools for the men (who were all lumberjacks and/or river drivers) and domestic conveniences for the women, whom it would be ludicrous to label “housewives,” given the extreme effort they exerted –tending fires, dressing game, truck gardening, and much more– merely to survive. These folks would be between 100 and 120 years old today. My oldest son, a very well known maker of custom guitars, is named for the one who was dearest to me, Creston MacArthur.

NM: That’s very moving. These folks made quite an impression on you with their resourcefulness and tenacity.

SL: Lacking entertainment from any outside source, even radio, these old natives entertained themselves. They were, then, even if some were especially gifted, to a man and woman exquisite raconteurs. (Some were poets as well, even if their poems tended to be satires directed, usually but not always in good humor, at their neighbors.)

NM: How did these stories start to shape your own writerly sensibilities?

SL: I heard hundreds of their stories, in general store, lumber camp, kitchen… wherever. When I decided I wanted to write seriously, I also wanted to get those storytellers’ voices onto the page. But I knew I wasn’t a genius, wasn’t Faulkner or Twain or Cather or or or…. That is, I thought that an effort to write in dialect would result in apparent condescension– which is about the last thing I felt and feel about these men and women. They were my real outdoor teachers, but also my mentors in a relish for language; I value what they taught me as much as I do anything I picked up in the course of getting a Yale PhD in comparative literature, in fact more.

NM: Were your first efforts at getting those storytellers’ voices onto the page via fiction, or…

SL: I came up with the notion, sound or not, that by way of poetry I could capture some of the rhythms and cadences of that regional speech without having to imitate it. And for all that I am chiefly a lyric poet, the element of story has remained important to me in all poetic effort. My one novel, A Place in Mind, came later along, but it too is deeply concerned with the old yarn-spinners; so is its successor, of which I’ve had a draft for years, but whose revision and completion I seem somehow to resist. Maybe it feels too much like a summing up, almost like an obituary; though I’m 74, I’m not ready for that yet!

NM: Well, you certainly have captured the rhythms and cadences of that regional speech in your poems. The voice I hear is utterly original, naturally idiosyncratic, yet humanly pensive and cranky by turns. And again, so similar to the speech I grew up hearing in the south. In fact, I was tempted to ask if I could give you a phone call so I could hear your voice to check out my hunch.

SL: I could, then, simply by changing the word “southern” to “upcountry Yankee” say that, yes, my work is marked by “the circuitous, conversational rhythm of most of the lines, the inverted syntax particular to southern dialect, and the natural interjections of colloquial diction.”

I know you asked about writers, but again, these elders had, I’m sure, a profounder influence on my sensibility than even the writers I most admired as I set about becoming a poet. These would emphatically include southerners like Flannery O’Connor, who said, as if she were speaking of me too, that she was a person “constitutionally innocent of theory but with certain preoccupations.” I adore Eudora Welty as well. Who wouldn’t? Walker Percy. Reynolds Price. Louis Nordan, who deserves more recognition than he’s gotten: a genius, comic and otherwise. The late Larry Brown. I could go on at great length.

NM: Oh, yes, yes to all of the above! Were/are there contemporary southern writers you admired or follow?

SL: Early on, largely as a tyro editor I was drawn, as his sometime publisher at New England Review, to my (now) friend Dave Smith’s work, not least because he too seemed interested in a narrative element. T.R. Hummer, originally from Mississippi, is a contemporary whose work I follow with admiration, though it’s a great deal different from mine. In terms of truly significant southern poets for me, with regard to their effect on me as poet too, I’d have to point above all to Robert Penn Warren. I was lucky enough to know him and to have his support early in my poetic career, and that too may partly account for what you intriguingly if inaccurately construed as my southern-ness.

NM: Ah, we’re getting warmer, more southerly!

SL: Interestingly enough, Red, as he was known to friends, had a vacation house for years in Vermont. (His wonderful poet daughter Rosanna uses it now.)

NM: Interesting…many writers who were raised “southern” find a connection in Vermont, don’t they? Right offhand, I’m thinking of Ellen Bryant Voigt.

SL: Yes indeed: Vermont is lucky to have claimed Ellen for decades. And there’s her fellow Virginian, the excellent Chard deNiord, my successor as the state’s poet laureate and co-editor, with me, of a forthcoming anthology of our state’s scores of poets. My gifted pal Cleopatra Mathis, from Louisiana. David Huddle is another, impressive Virginian transplant poet and fiction writer. If I sat and thought for a while, I’m sure I’d summon some more.

But back to Red Warren: I’d often visit him at the place in West Wardsboro owned by him and his brilliant wife Eleanor Clarke. In light of your way-too-generous responses to my efforts, I suddenly and vividly recall how Red and I found a real commonalty among my upcountry Yankee narrators and the old folks he listened to as a child, many of them recounting tales of the Civil War. He told me that the old-timers in Vermont provided him with a dose of southern narrative flair, but, as he joked, “minus the godawful heat.”

And yet maybe the “reticence” you observe in a poem like “Search Me” is after all –I can’t say for sure, I lack the credentials– a “Yankee” element. Old folks hereabouts are very tentative about many issues, especially urgent ones: a common response when you try to pin a local down on some such matter is, “I don’t know too much about it.” That’s not to say he or she knows nothing. It’s that neither knows too much. That has always struck me as an appealing hedge against arrogance, a stroke of humility. And for my money, a little humility never hurt anyone.

NM: I wonder if this reticence or humility doesn’t come from a hardscrabble life in northern climates, a need to keep some kind of peace with a neighbor one might need. Was/is life a little less precarious in a southern climate with longer hunting, fishing, growing seasons, a little less to lose if one “riles” a neighbor up? Or maybe it is the “godawful” stupefying heat, or maybe “the drink” that inspires that splash of audacity? But yes, a little humility never hurt anyone.

SL: Well, I will say that the old New Englanders, once they have decided you’re okay, neighbor excellently. (That verb “to neighbor” is one you’ll hear in these parts.) But Lord knows, not least because of the heat we just spoke of, it seems to me the South has had plenty of its hardscrabble challenges too. There’s the big fact that, at tragic length, the Union prevailed over the CSA. I think cultures that have known monumental loss – consider the Irish, the Scots, or for that matter the African-American slaves and their descendants… well, I think they often take sustenance from memory, and memory leads to story.

NM: Of course, you’re absolutely right; I’ve oversimplified, generalized.

SL: The generations of old-time Yankees amongst whom I have lived most of my life have faced a different sort of big loss, but loss nonetheless. From one angle of vision, the state has been in decline since Lincoln’s time. Vermont in 1900, for example, was 15% forest, 85% cleared. It is exactly the opposite in 2017. The advent of refrigeration did it out of sheep, say, which now could come from as far away as Down Under; the rich prairie soils of the Midwest left many, maybe most of its hill farms abandoned long ago. And nowadays, of course, the industrial cow factories of Florida and California make it more and more difficult for our dairy farmers to make a go. As recently as the mid-20th century, the state had more cattle than people; in the last quarter-century, about 30% of the working farms in my own little township alone have perished. So I do think, whatever the causes, there is that commonalty of loss among “common” folk of each region.

So yes, let’s stay humble; that’s what I hear from the (vanishing) old stock north of Boston. Of course, a poet like Milton, if he’d heeded such counsel, would never have tried “to justify the ways of God to Man,” and we would have been bereft, as I would not gladly be, of Paradise Lost. It’s mainly that for my own practice, I find greater comfort and direction from those with (apparently) less ambitious aspirations, like that north-even-of-us author, Elizabeth Bishop. And of course so many poems by Frost, Vermont’s most renowned poet, say, “I don’t know too much about it.” He is the master both of clarity and of profoundest ambiguity. I aspire to those qualities as well.

NM: Goodness, I think you have more than achieved both of these qualities in this wonderful selection. In fact, the writing flows so naturally it seems effortless—the true mark of a pro. Do your poems undergo much revision to capture the rhythms and cadences of regional speech, or has it become over the years second nature?

SL: Well, thanks again for what I see– from under my Humble Hat– as too generous praise. As to your question, revision for me is the most invigorating part of writing; it’s the phase in which after letting my thoughts and words go wherever they wanted in earliest drafts, I begin to dope out what was really on my mind, without my having known it, from the outset.

And so, because such revelation may take a while, I tend to put poems through many, many revisions. That tendency can become obsessive, however, masking my fear, if that’s the word, of moving on to a new poem. I rely on three absolutely trusted readers –my wife, who is acutely literate without being literary, my beloved pal from grad school Steve Arkin, longtime professor at San Francisco State, and the stunningly bright Fleda Brown, former poet laureate of Delaware– to tell me when I’m just spinning my wheels, which is to say engaging in mere fussiness.

Every so often, as if to reward that sort of revisionary patience, I get a freebie, something that seems as finished as it will ever be within a single draft, give or take. Oddly, my very longest poems, “The Feud,” “The Blainville Testament,” “To the Bone,” “Spite,” some others– these all fall into such a category.

NM: How interesting; I’ll look these poems up right away. Syd, I can’t thank you enough for this conversation and the pleasure of your company

SL:   I have enjoyed the chance to run on about myself with your intelligent goading, Nancy. Thank you!

NM: As you write in “Annie Fitch’s Duck Sauce”, I could have listened a year.

Readers, I’m going to “turn you loose” so you can enjoy Sydney Lea’s beautifully, seamlessly crafted poems. Now, if ya’ll hear a southern accent, you will let me know, won’t you?

 

On My Love of Country Life

The question may be raised why we
chose precisely the past of a city to
compare with the past of a mind.
–Civilization and Its Discontents

He ruminated, cigar in crippled jaw.
Cocaine pulsed like the strobe on that cop’s cruiser.
There’s oceanic distance from where Freud sat
To where I stand just now as I visit Manhattan,
Which back in the doctor’s day was no Big Apple.
The Sheep Meadow still held sheep. But in time they’d vanish,

This park be thronged, and we’d raise his question–
Or I would, comparing his moment to our own,
When even that rim of posies by the reservoir’s
South end at 87th seems a threat.
Imagination, mine at least, would crave
A village, clean, essential, if maybe not

The one I’ve lived in so long. Are you like me?
Can you conjure some antique European hamlet,
Complete with organ grinder, antic monkey,
Coins chink-chinking in a proffered cup,
Air as soft as bedclothes? Here in the city,
That bus’s diesel chokes me. Jackhammers rattle,

Even past dark. Pigeons move at will,
Cosmopolites, while the park affects a show
Of green among the cans and candy wrappers,
Rinds and condoms, jugs of Sneaky Pete
In shards. The traffic seems deployed for battle.
Its headlamps will sweep across the stoops come night,
Across the benches, where mad folk rage against
The day gone by, or politicians, sports teams.
Just so, at night, some of us heard our elders,
Late in our anxious puberty. They shrieked
Their calumnies downstairs. They slammed odd doors.
Are you like me? Did you long for simple precision,

Some scrap of explanation? Why do I keep
Including you? You may not be like me,
Who craved it so for all those years and years,
A way that I could make sense of the inward city,
Though I didn’t think in those terms, and even then,
My mind ached likewise for another place,

In which things blurred: a fleecy nap of meadow,
The spring blooms’ brightness muted, peasant wagons
Full of hay gone evening-fragrant, glow
Of a vanishing sun on the picturesque houses’ brick,
And cattle and sheep intent upon their grazing–
Their placid grazing narcotic, every moment

Much like the one before, their mild jaws rolling.

 

 

 

The Owl and I

 

Once the half-ass cross got burned on our lawn, my mother took off
back north to have me. My father was stationed in Gadsden, Alabama
before the second Great War, commander of so-called Colored Troops,
and he’d invited a few of his men inside the house, you see,
a radical thing indeed just then in the Jim-Crow heart of Dixie.
So my mother escaped giving birth down there, though I don’t have any idea
why I’d think of this, which, near to her death, she spoke of so many years after.

Why now, on watching a barred owl glide to a hemlock gone dark at sunfall,
everything else as well going dark around me here where I stand?
Once, at midnight, she thought she’d heard a whoop of human anguish
and wondered whether some soldier was being lynched outside. My father
went for a look but found nothing. My lifelong relationship with my mother
was vexed, I now suspect, in part because between us two
lay a lot in common. Jews were crammed into cattle cars right then,

but for Dad and those troops, the evil in Europe lay several months ahead.
Still, real or imagined, that cry of mortal misery stuck with Mother,
though no signs of nearby violence turned up next morning. The company
came en masse to mess: Shit on a Shingle, as the GIs said,
dried beef on toast. So life went on, at least for a while– more or less.
It ought to bring comfort that I’m where I am, aging but safe, my clan
constantly swelling as sons and daughters produce their sons and daughters,

and winter, so harsh this year, giving way at last to spring, with snowdrops
glinting, the freshets making their evanescent cascades through the woods.
I recall how Mother loved this season. Why, then, this lonesome mood?
It feels that I’m in some pitch-black tunnel and won’t get out again,
that this, as the saying goes, is it, and all I have at the end
–of course there can’t be anything to it– is the sorrowful eight-note anthem
of that single owl, the sound just now having reached my vexed old head,

though I’d be foolish to think that song was addressed to anyone human.

 

 

Memo for 2026: A Love Poem

 

Dear Self,

If you have lingered through the next ten years, then please look back
And think of me kindly. I’m the one who sought against
All odds to set you straight. It took some doing, yes,
But after that set-to with the tail-gating driver, just for instance,
When I, though I was seventy, challenged him face to face
(No matter he was big and young and wore that headband
Marked, so it seemed, with smears of blood, his own or someone’s)
And he backed down and, squealing his beater’s tires, drove
Away from the corner by the general store where I had stopped,
To the amazement of townspeople looking on, to face him down,
The careless bastard… It took some doing, but I resolved
To learn from that incident, one of countless, that only remorse

Can ever follow from that sort of behavior, “justified”
Or otherwise, and from that resolution to teach you
Forbearance like that young man’s, if that’s what it was, forebearance.
And will I have taught you, say, that fussing at your grandchildren,
As it had been when your very own children were helpless and small,
Was in the end a matter of little kids in a huff
At one another? Will you be able to lift your eyes
From such pettiness and look to the hills and count your blessings,
Even if you can’t climb those hills as even I
Can do, however slowly, now? Let me tell you:
Those hills are full of wonder. How flawed and blind you were,
back then when you were me. I can only hope that the hills
I’m talking about will abide, even if you do not.
I’d like for instance to know that I might pass along to you
The way late winter’s sun makes wondrous shadows on
The snow out there, as well-groomed little songbirds hop
From seed to seed while just above their heads at the feeder
Others peck and fret and glance around and show
The gorgeous, shadowlike striations of their wings,
But most, I hope you may behold the beautiful wife
Who stands some little distance from those birds and smiles,
First at them and their antics and then through the window at me,
And if she does, then I advise– no, I command
That you bring down those eyes from those hills so that they fix
On her, and count that blessing, maybe count it more
Than all the undeniable others you’ve been shown.

 

 

Waking Late

 

My wife of three decades is already
at work. Retired, I have time to consider
the smell of her cheek when she came indoors
from this morning’s chill. Can there be a heaven?
If so, it will hang in the air, that odor.
I’m not alone.

I have dear friends of a certain age
who scan the notices of death
like me, first thing, in the local paper,
comparing the age of the vanished with theirs.
We reckon the years we likely have left.
A good, full life–
that’s the cliché for those gone at 80.
I’m 70-plus. I guess I’d expect
babblings in heaven from our youngest of five
grandchildren, the constantly smiling Ruthie,
seven months old, and the wise-guy remarks
of her big sister Ivy,

the insouciant ones of her twin brother Creston.
Who’s afraid of Big Bad Death?
Not me. It’s what I’ll leave that hurts me,
including just now the best two dogs
we’ve owned, however we loved the rest.
It’s 20 below,

male pointer and female retriever nestled
by the reddened woodstove, tight together.
Outside, the redpolls jostle the feeder
and juncos peck their spills on snow.
We can see, in such clear and brilliant weather,
all the way to the mountains,

the rugged Whites beyond the river.
My wife and I love walking along
that totem flow, looking into New Hampshire.
Yesterday, after thaw and freeze,
the streambed’s ice chunks slapped back the sun
like gigantic gems.

Lately I’ve thought I ought to revise
my poems from an earlier time. Who failed
to be a little naïve when young?
There’s so much I couldn’t imagine back then.
I had scarcely dreamed the oldest grandchild,
Cora, raspy-
voiced, sharp of humor, nor her four-year-old brother
Arthur, who loves to tie me to chairs.
I tell myself now: Look up, out the window.
It’s a Monday, blunt cold, in February,
8 a.m. in the Year of Our Lord
2015,

when hard-pressed deer are compelled to keep moving
for fear of freezing if they pause too long.
Her ten-month-old twin offspring behind her,
a sleek doe tiptoes down our drive.
Three silhouettes against whited lawn.
It’s been a hard winter,

with more to come, yet they look so alive.

 

Annie Fitch’s Duck Sauce

 

I must be prepared to sit
for hours, at her home;
we will speak heart-to-heart, or just chat.
The main ingredient’s time.

Because Annie’s 89
when she tells me how I should mix
molasses, spices, soda,
duck drippings and orange zest,

some of her part of the talk
concerns elders, needless to say,
whom she often recalls with humor
but more often with elegy.

She too has gone away
as I summon the recipe,
and yet she appears as the minutes
crawl and the fixings seethe,

redolent, dark as tea.
Her uncle George MacArthur
made railroad ties with an ax.
Her father Franklin skippered

the venerable steamboat Robert
H: once ice had broken,
she towed great booms to the river,
then men drove the logs to the ocean.

The pan, cast iron, old-fashioned.
is one Annie handed to me
no more than a few months after
her brother passed away.

That brother and I crouched to wait
for the ducks of a favorite slough.
We never told anyone which.
We haunted that place, we two….

But I was speaking before
of Annie, who, as I listened,
seemed almost a force of nature,
optimistic, insistent

on the good in any person,
in the meanest one in existence,
or the saddest situation.
At last the sauce has thickened.

These days dear Annie’s a figment.
She’s gone, gone, she’s not here
to test the spice in the mixture,
which causes my eyes to water.

I could have listened a year.

 

News Comes Third

 

Oh, these guilty pleasures, if that’s what I really ought to call them.
I buy the local paper and my usual cup of store coffee,
Then drive back home and sit, ignoring whatever may be
Going on outside the window: squall of a spring tom turkey
Calling his hens, the contrails of planes on their way to Europe,
Tokyo, Rio, Paris. Who cares? I sip from the cup,
And turn first thing to letters and op-eds, if only to see

What can annoy me today. If it’s someone fussing over
An issue like water rates in a small town near or far,
Whose fortune or misfortune I have no personal stake in,
I go right ahead to the sports. I check how my teams are doing.
That is, if I haven’t spent the preceding evening’s hours
Watching games on TV. What the hell? I’m retired, so leave me

Alone, my wife was probably watching stuff of her own
Like some period thing from Great Britain, which would put me to sleep in an instant.
No, give me two on and two out in the bottom of the ninth,
An impossible, game-clinching shot in overtime, a field goal
From fifty yards out. I don’t care if some lady whines in her letter
How the clerk in a local shop, when she asked him for help, said Forget it,
I’m busy. That woman claims that people were kinder once,

But I bet that complaint was heard when people lived in caves.
Don’t tell me my wife and I should hone our “communication.”
We know each other like twins. We’ve been lovers for almost four decades.
Be honest: are you doing better? A train shakes the valley each morning
While I’m feeding my sports addiction. I don’t mind that sound far away.
News comes third, and it seems these days it’s always a mess.

(There I go sounding myself like that woman I just made fun of.)
Another IED. Another exotic disease.
A register man shot dead by someone less nice than the lady
Upset about a rude clerk. I go back and skim through recaps–
Never mind if I’ve seen the game– above all one that we’ve won,
Though for me to say we is absurd, and don’t think I don’t know it.
I’m sure there’s not one player who’d give me the time of day.

I’ve never met her, but I don’t like to think of that letter writer
Because I’ll start making a picture: her husband dead in the Gulf,
Her kids all disappointments or worse– on drugs or in jail
Or both. She stares through tears out her shit-box apartment window
While I read such letters and fume or check the stats and the box scores.
I keep my eyes off the photos that go with the news, which comes third.

 

 

Search Me

                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Big Sur, 2015

We’re home from the other coast
where only five days back,
I instinctively conjured Arnold’s
unplumb’d, salt, estranging sea,
of all the lines. I grasped
his meaning at last, but I wasn’t inclined
to say so, not at least
with my wife and youngest daughter beside me,
for fear of –what would it be?–
estranging them. And yet I wondered:

what comes first: the chicken
of the natural world or the egg of bookish
sensibility?
Do others ponder such things? Search me.
At one point, a seal pricked the surface,
which I longed to think was a shark like Melville’s
pale ravener of horrible meat,
though I longed to be more than literary,
and a savage rush from below me
seemed less appalling in any case

than that vast horizontal skyline.
Why should we not enjoy an original
relationship with the universe?
asked the Sage of Concord. Why not indeed?
On our drive to Big Sur, the airwaves
pulsed with lyric cliché until
some deejay announced the death that morning
of B.B. King, whose voice
I’ve long since cherished, now quieted forever.
In one song, B.B. cried,

I win some battles, but I always lose the war.
I keep right on stumblin’ in this
no-man’s land out here. And once
by the Pacific, Robert Frost
studied the vista I’d been scanning.
He imagined the ocean was scheming
to do something to land never done before.
At length some fractious gulls
banked down upon a skitter of baitfish,
which the seal I saw may have spooked.
Such liveliness suddenly quickened the sea.
Or was that just something I’d read? Search me.

 

Cavaliers

 

From up here, the valley looks dazed
with spring, and whatever I see
seems a gift. Meanwhile, so help me, I wonder
why I’ve never known a thing
about cribbage. Not that it mattered,
but back in the ward, my wraith of a roommate,
92 years old,
had set up a game to play
with his daughter, who told him they both could keep at it
until baseball came on TV.

I gave a huff of relief,
not too loud, I hope, well pleased
to know a change was coming
from all those fatuous game shows,
the volume turned to headache pitch,
the old man’s droop-lobed ears
even weaker, I guess, than mine.

I lay there fettered: oxygen hose,
monitor, saline IV.
I’d had some chest pains that morning.
Three drawings of blood, all hours apart,
were apparently needed to prove
I’d suffered no event.
And so, worse luck, I was going to be stuck
for a night with this poor old guy.
The daughter kept saying, “Be patient.”
though he’d been in that room for over a month.

So the two of us watched the Red Sox,
who kept getting by on breaks,
passed balls, bloops, and walks, and squeaked
a victory out in the ninth.
We whooped until he coughed
so hard I rang my buzzer. A nurse
came in and frowned and pinned him.

He choked down a potion that killed
the hack, then fell asleep. But all night
he’d jerk awake and shout,
“Is anybody out there?”
How long, I mused, can a person be patient?
I couldn’t say. I’d be gone
early the following morning,
my diagnosis, at least for now–
mere heartburn. So now I’ve scrabbled
up a hands-and-knees ridge to rejoice

in a seemingly healthy heart. The world
as I say looks suffused with grace.
There’s the scent of melting snow,
muddy soil, wet duff. Gray frogs
cluck in the vernal pools,
the freshets jingle downhill,
woodpeckers rattle the air, new growth

lights up the tips of boughs,
the sky is far more vivid
than what we settle for naming sky-blue.
So why should I think about cribbage?
No matter. Before I set out,
I had to look it up, researching,
old-style, in a reference book.
As I read, I heard the clanks
of gurneys, alarm bells that spoke
of souls who were trying to rise from beds

that they’d been meant to stay in.
I can hear the clamor now,
even these miles and hours away.
Cribbage, it seems, was invented
by John Suckling, near-forgotten
seventeenth-century writer and peer,
said to be “carefree and witty,”

features of poets called the Cavaliers.

 

What’s to Be Expected?

 

One evening before Youth Fellowship I found
Some organ pipes on the floor, and knelt beside them,
singing “Long Tall Sally” into one. Meanwhile,
I signed my name with a finger in the dust
of the nubbled concrete. No one had ever done
these things all at once– and no one ever would.
That was a fusty basement room in St. Paul’s.

Why this recollection on the bank of a brook?
Less strange to remember a poem by Robert Frost,
whose brook runs out of song and speed come June.
The one I stand beside has never sung,
has never run. It barely crawls at ice-out,
and by now, mid-May, its water’s seeped to nothing.
What’s new? Not much. It does this every year.

Snow melts, the freshets goad it, then it dies.
The barn opposed across the way… Enough
of Frost, irrelevant here, where a barn is crumbling
in that field of weeds. It needs refurbishment,
which it won’t get. The sills are rotted, walls
all splayed like a doomed doe’s legs on ice.
Did someone stand on its earthen ramp with a golf club?

Unlikely. So how on earth did that dimpled ball,
egg-like below me, land in its nest of dried algae?
Nothing’s to be expected or ever was.
Consider any two people, supposedly normal,
and prepare yourself to hear of odd behavior.
One may raise chinchillas, one love tango.
We wonder, Who’d expect it? Answer: no one.

I labored to be unique when I was young,
but what of my uncle, who’d listen to the Ring
of the Niebelung while plucking his geese for the larder?
It was just what he did, not striving to be eccentric.
His brother, my father, served a tough stint in the army,
European Theater, World War II.
So why did he love to sing old navy tunes?

Search me. Search him. He much preferred fresh water.
I smell his bay rum now as I recall him,
and contemplate a ball in withered muck,
and note a certain barn, gap-toothed, neglected,
and conjure Robert Frost, great local author,
and remember an uncle, a basement, Little Richard:
now what, I ask you– what’s to be expected?

 

 

Sydney Lea was Poet Laureate of Vermont from 2011-2015. His most recent collection of poems, No Doubt The Nameless (2016), is available from Four Way Books, and in 2013 his collaborative book with Fleda Brown, Growing Old in Poetry: Two Poets, Two Lives, was published. In the same year, Skyhorse Publishing presented A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife, personal essays. Other recent publications include Six Sundays Toward a Seventh: Selected Spiritual Poems (Wipf and Stock, 2013) and A Hundred Himalayas (U of Michigan, 2012), a sampling from his critical work over four decades. His fourth collection of lyrical essays, What’s the Story? Short Takes on a Life Grown Long, was published last year by Vermont’s Green Writers Press.

 

Lea founded New England Review in 1977 and edited it until 1989. Of his eleven previous poetry collections, Pursuit of a Wound was one of three finalists for the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. The preceding volume, To the Bone: New and Selected Poems, won the 1998 Poets’ Prize. In 1989, Lea also published the novel A Place in Mind with Scribner. His 1994 collection of naturalist essays, Hunting the Whole Way Home, was re-issued in paper by the Lyons Press in 2003. Lea has received fellowships from the Rockefeller, Fulbright and Guggenheim Foundations, and has taught at Dartmouth, Yale, Wesleyan, Vermont and Middlebury Colleges, as well as at Franklin College in Switzerland and the Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest. His stories, poems, essays and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and many other periodicals, as well as in more than fifty anthologies. He lives in Newbury, Vermont, and is active both in literacy efforts (see cvabe.org) and in conservation (see downeastlakes.org)

 

Nancy Mitchell is a 2012 Pushcart Prize winner and the author of The Near Surround (Four Way Books, 2002) and Grief Hut (Cervena Barva Press, 2009). Her recent poems appear, or will soon appear, in Poetry Daily, Agni, Washington Square Review, Green Mountains Review, Tar River Poetry, Columbia College Literary Review, and Thrush, among others. She, with Danny Lawless, is the co-editor of and contributor to Plume Interviews I, 2017. Mitchell teaches at Salisbury University in the Environmental Studies Department and serves as the Associate Editor of Special Features for Plume. She can be reached at nancymitchellpoet@gmail.com

 

 

Featured Selection Issue #69 April 2017
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