In one, they pose, grinning straight at the Kodak,
The backyard elm, long blighted to death, at their backs.
It’s years since either parent was alive.
How did it happen? Last week, I turned 75.
We live our lives, Psalm 90 says, as a tale
That is told. From where I stand, that’s all too real.
What startles me now is the fact that the tale’s so short,
A trice, that’s all, from now back to its start.
You’d think, with all I’ve known, there’d be chapter on chapter:
Five children, all those grandsons, those granddaughters.
And in fact I could go on about each one.
But on and on is no longer what it’s been.
My friends, of course, are more or less my age.
We all think this way. It’s natural. It’s cliché.
I have another photograph on my desk,
My father alone in that one. He stands by the creek
That sluggishly slides by our cabin in Sumneytown.
I don’t know how to explain why I can’t be found
In the shot. After all, the bucket at his feet
Is full of sunfish I’ve caught in that same creek.
Or is it? Like anybody, I tell myself stories.
Maybe my claim’s no more than imaginary,
Which makes it, for me at least, not the least less true.
The fish are orange and green. Their lips are blue.
I still feel the sun as it caroms off streamside boulders,
Still whiff that swamp where pad and algae molder.
The grass in the uphill meadow’s gone brown as ever.
Not one bright pumpkinseed in the pail still gasps or quivers.
Who dwells in our old house these days? Search me.
What room was mine? Who recalls the dead shade tree?
Who visits the cabin, and who draws fish from the water?
There he stands, beside my treasures. My father.
I shouldn’t be, and yet somehow I’m stunned:
Even the fish, though dead in that picture, are young.
It’s late September. By our pond, the sumacs
Have started to redden, first leaves to turn.
Afternoon hours are quickly retreating.
Old winter will soon blow in again,
The pond’s veneer going hard for months.
All of this lyrical signification!
It must be elegy time once more.
Yet those too were sumacs beside the gas station
And truck stop I drove by a moment ago.
They also blushed a bit with the season
As they shivered above the roadside refuse–
Cans, fast-food styro, papers, condoms.
As I passed, I conjured the truckers’ café,
Its menu with haywire translations to something
Like French, since we’re close to the Québecois border,
And stretched on the walls, a crude set of paintings,
Each one suggesting a time of year
By metonymy or metaphor:
Tapped sugar trees, as you’d guess, for spring,
Summer all cows and neat rows of corn,
Fall’s leaves frantic fireworks of course.
The last of the series, north-country winter,
Shows children on old-fashioned wooden toboggans,
Perhaps because he was a father,
The man who wrought these hackneyed scenes.
His art was hobby, not like mine vocation:
He painted evenings and Sundays off
From his work as the place’s head custodian.
Last week, a woman pulled away from the pumps,
Just as he lifted the manhole cover
To climb from an underground tank he’d been tending.
She unknowingly ran the painter over.
I keep driving. I’ll choose from Nature’s great menu.
Water. Cloud. Maybe tree or raven.
Something will offer itself as a cue.
Something will lend itself to bereavement.
Sydney Lea, a former Pulitzer finalist, founded and for thirteen years edited New England Review. His thirteenth collection of poems, Here, is due from Four Way Books in 2019. In fall of 2018, Vermont’s Green Writers Press will publish The Music of What Happens: Lyric and Everyday Life, his collected newspaper columns from his years (2011-15) as Vermont Poet Laureate. In summer of ‘18, GWP will also re-issue his collaborative book of essays with former Delaware laureate Fleda Brown, Growing Old in Poetry: Two Poets, Two Lives.