Walking into Metaphor

Walking into Metaphor
June 23, 2019 Lea Sydney

This month’s essay by Syd Lea arrived in my inbox with remarkable speed. I asked Syd in early May during a dinner near his hometown of Newbury, Vermont if he’d be interested in writing an essay for Plume. I received “Walking Into Metaphor” a few days later. After suffering several maladies in quick succession over the past few years, which he lists near the end of his essay, Syd returned to his woods in good health to discover an essential relation between himself and his oldest trees, what he calls “consciousness of observation as figuration-in-waiting.” The legacy of such thinking extends from Gilgamesh to the present, but Syd testifies to this “revelatory quality” with eloquently fresh testimony.

– Chard deNiord


A few weeks back, while snow persisted, no matter it was April, I headed into the woods, in part to give my two new artificial knees their first serious challenge but also, like the bear, to see what I could see. I climbed a steep hill to the south of our house, meaning to make my way back home as briskly as I could along the ridgeline.


As it turned out, my pace was slow, very slow, and not merely because of tricky footing. We had had a wind storm some nights before, one so violent as to sound apocalyptic– which I suspect it was: whatever the science-defying idiocy of our present executive branch, extreme weather events have become more and more common. No, we in northern New England don’t have catastrophic hurricanes and flooding. Not yet. But a nighttime gale of such force was unprecedented in my long recall. The wind had uprooted and blown over stout red oaks and beeches, so that what was always a game trail along that spine had utterly vanished, great trunks lying across it at all angles, like a sort of monstrous lace.


While I’d ascended at a fairly decent pace by late-septuagenarian standards, I needed to be very careful going down, especially at places where, I suspected, treacherous, slippery lichen lay under the scrim of snow. I grappled tree trunks on my way so as to be certain I’d stay upright.


On my dawdling downward path, I noticed something that seemed quite strange to me. Before seeking a handhold on any particular trunk, I made a careful inspection to assure myself it was solid, not rotten. But at length I was struck by the fact that many of the rotten trees, counter-intuitively, had weathered the big blow better than many of the healthy, lofty hardwoods.


I now surmise, though I can scarcely be positive about the matter, that the dead trees, lacking a spread of branches toward their crowns, offered less wind resistance than the solitary poles of the moribund ones. They were less top-heavy, too, for the same reason.


But in truth this deduction did not occur to me as I made my way downhill toward home. That had to wait for later.

What I want to think about here is that, as I made my observations, I somehow knew I had walked into metaphor. Not,mind you, that I had the least idea what the metaphor might refer to on a literal level; I knew I’d have to start writing about what I’d noticed in order to find out what that non-encoded literality was.


Such is my…”process.”


I’m scarcely alone, I know. Like the overwhelming majority of my poet friends, I rarely have any idea what my “subject” will turn out to be as I start to write. Indeed, if I do have some such preconception, the poetic result is apt to be labored and, well, uninteresting, even –or perhaps especially– to me. I surely do not keep writing poetry in search of reputation, much less material reward. No, my object in writing poems is to discover what I did not know was on my mind, and more especially to bring to light connections that, by means of syllogistic thinking, I’d never have dreamed existed.


What felt unique in my experience about the hike I’ve described was my consciousness of observation as figuration-in-waiting. I was as confident as I could be of anything that the devastated landscape I traveled, and more particularly the fallen, robust trees as opposed to the standing, weak ones, would be the stuff of later discovery. To say that they would be “useful” sounds far too reductive to my ear, though, yes, I did mean to put them to use. I don’t like that adjective simply because it would seem to rob poetry, my own or anyone else’s, of a certain numinous, even –though I know I sound pretentious– a certain revelatory quality.


I chose to think I’d wandered through an enchanted wood, and that to have done so would result in some unveiling, after the fact. (This is, of course, not the same as saying that my lyrical rendition would be of high quality; that’s for others to judge.)


Many years ago, as an undergraduate in the early sixties, I read E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End, whose inscription, some may recall, is “Only connect.” Rightly or wrongly, I construed that to mean that there were linkages in anyone’s life by which he or she would be greatly surprised were they to uncloak themselves. And as a poet, I have always proceeded on the assumption that any one observation that stopped me, literally or figuratively, in my tracks could be rightly, if unpredictably, associated with any other observation. How so? Well, merely because I was the one who’d made the observations.


In order to discover the odd connections, however, I must not seek them out too strenuously. Many of my poems, in fact, are initiated by hiking, with the explicit aim of not having anything particular in mind. (My witty friend, the late Bill Matthews, once suggested that much of my oeuvre could be synopsized in a line from “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic”: If you go down to the woods today/ You’re in for a big surprise.) That is, the connections must dawn on me, and the only way I’ve found for that to happen to me as a writer is– to start writing. That is, as a rule, I must begin by recording a response to something like the standing dead trees and the recumbent live ones and wait for something else to link itself, unbidden, to that response.


Behind all I say, none of it terribly original, is the conviction that, at any time, all of us have much on our minds, and of most of it we are probably half-conscious at best. Something must trigger consciousness. In this case, I think, it was the apparent irony of dead trees standing and live ones blown over that summoned the recent death –and my as yet incompletely formed responses to it– of an old friend and college classmate, David Plimpton.


Back when we were in our late teens and early twenties, and before a neck injury ended his career, David was called by more than one connoisseur of the sport “the best wrestler in the east.” Forced into retirement, he took up marathon running, completing some twenty of these taxing races and always finishing toward the head of the pack. But an aggressive prostate cancer ultimately ended his life, no matter he fended the sickness off for many more years than the medical experts imagined he might.


Though this was scarcely the case when we were classmates, since college I have sought to stay in reasonably good physical condition; the desire to do so was in significant measure what drove me, as so often before, up that steep sidehill after the storm.  I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. But genes are what they are, and fate is fate. One of the most remarkable endurance athletes of any era, for example, was the Boston Celtics’ indefatigable John Havlicek– who recently died at about my age of Parkinson’s Disease. I, though neither Havlicek nor Plimpton, not by a very long shot, had been training hard for a twelve-mile paddle race three years ago when I suffered a heart attack.


I recovered pretty quickly, but soon almost succumbed to a terrible case of ehrlichiosis, a tick-borne affliction that, even after its life-threatening effects ebbed, left me dreadfully fatigued for month upon month thereafter. And, as I’ve mentioned, I lately needed both knees replaced, and shortly after had surgery, however minor, for carpal tunnel syndrome in both wrists.


In some respects, then, I am standing deadwood compared to my robust, race-running friend.


So that, I understood, was the metaphor into which I had unsteadily stumbled. But again, I understood as much only by putting words down on paper.

A former Pulitzer finalist and winner of the Poets’ Prize, Sydney Lea served as founding editor of New England Review and was Vermont’s Poet Laureate from 2011 to 2015.  He is the author of 23 books, the latest “Seen from All Sides: Lyric and Everyday Life,” essays; fourteen of these volumes are poetry collections, the most recent of which is Here (Four Way Books, NYC, 2019). In 2021, he was presented with his home state of Vermont’s most prestigious artist’s distinction: the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts.