Sydney Lea

A Brief Portfolio: Five Poems
June 23, 2020 Lea Sydney

Old Leather Suitcase and Me: A Fable   


I found this suitcase slumped in a dark attic corner
like a drunk awash in self- pity.  I was Me once.
There’s a burn mark beside one latch. I tell myself,
with a bit of wonder, Me used to smoke in those days.
Indeed– and drink. And booze and bright ash equaled char,
perhaps in some airport waiting space. I see
such moments, as when Me stumbled out of that bar,


precisely to catch a plane.  On the way, he kicked
a sack that a woman had stuffed with gift-wrapped somethings.
Her look mixed fury with fear. She wore a toque,
dark green, with a sort of oval metal badge.
So much is blacked out, but the hat is clear for some reason.
Me mumbled Sorry. The grip’s travel tags have frayed:
Hungary, Italy, Switzerland, even Egypt!


Me held fellowships, took exotic vacations
with his wife and three children. A raving child himself,
Me knew even then he didn’t deserve good family.
I bring to mind his foot-stomping rage in Siena
when a toy he’d bought wouldn’t work on his son’s fourth birthday.
Although Me reassured the child that his rage
was not at him, the boy’s face was more than just worried.


And when the shopkeeper claimed the toy had been dropped,
Me re-erupted, screaming until frail knickknacks
quaked on the small store’s shelves: Non sono bugiardo
neanche truffatore! I’m neither liar
nor crook!  Maybe not. But brute? No doubt. Or yes,
a child mid-tantrum. The shopkeeper, quaking herself,
gave Me the refund: in fact, the refund-plus.


The cobbled Sienese square was generous with sun–
and looked to Me as dark as the hell to which
he must be bound. He was poet and scholar,
whose Italian stay had been funded by rich foundations,
and he hadn’t yet turned up his cards and found his hand
to be worse than a simple loser’s. All this came before
Me met a man he hasn’t seen since then.


Me, his hope grown faint, felt mostly puzzled
when the stranger, unbidden, recited this passage in English:
I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
The intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.
Me inwardly cursed the stranger for his presumption,
for playing the saint. Yet the passage dug down inside.
The bag obliquely recalls that old quotation.


Back then a person’s luggage had no wheels.
Back then, full of books, this suitcase felt like an anvil
on walks to airplane counters. In Budapest,
it got lost for a week, and Me was blessed that he knew
no Magyar to speak of. What might he have screamed about this?
Now Me has grown old. He is I. These are not the sole reasons
these days I’m not very apt to raise my fists


as Me once did, nor to storm at innocent people.
Never in those bad years had Me been aware
he knew so little. What he used to consider acumen
had brought him to where he ended. If I’ve found a shred
of wisdom since, it has come of ascertaining
my own unwisdom. I study the scorch on the suitcase.
It has prompted a story, I see. May Me keep hiding.




 A Last Custard Cup


I must check my maudlin instincts. There was no custard;
rather, my father’s coffee, like this I’m having,
and the brew he prepared for my younger siblings and me.
Milk punch is how he described it. To think of that begs–
as anyone who knows me well will imagine–


for one more lengthy, elegiac sigh,
this last brown cup a trope for fragility.
But in fact the damned thing’s sturdy, its old mates gone
less by breakage than simple, careless misplacement.
So let me offer happy testimony


to my dad’s concoction. Not to it alone, of course,
but as well to the gentle hand that poured the milk,
dripped in vanilla, dusted the surface with nutmeg.
Human behavior, that is. I don’t remember
whether the taste was even one I liked,


because the drink delighted for other reasons.
It seemed, for instance, to bring the crows’ loud yammer
at dawn, and that hubbub foretold a world of promise:
come spring dusk, we’d hear peepers down by the pond,
and that lazy twang all day from their cousins in summer.


Ongoing things. Now mostly by dint of will,
I pour all this into the cup, along
with early bluet, hepatica, and autumn
asters, florets hanging on the hop hornbeam
all winter through. Who knew it could go on


so long, such a list? The redwings among the reeds
of June, flashy warblers in shrubs, and, seasons later,
those southbound geese, their honks and chuckles clichés
that never, however, wear out. Nor do I have
years left enough to calculate the number


of other creatures who have made their intriguing way
through our northcountry lives. Today, for instance, a daughter
on a visit home spooked a bobcat. (I might have died
so often.) With smaller capacity still to count
the people, so dear, so varied, I’ll spare the effort.


Yes, mostly by will I pack whatever I can
into a terra cotta cup as old as I–
no, older still– and I drink up all I’m able,
not of things vanished nor ones that never were,
but all that life continues to pour on me.


Just now, as if by magic, I could swear,
a sleek fox peeks from behind our apple tree.





Just as some self-styled seer
might claim to interpret a litter of tea leaves,
I presume to read a life
by what this old fellow lifts from his cart.
How dare I? And yet I do.
Dorito chips dyed a strange orange hue;
a six-pack of “Angry Orchard,”
hard cider cans that bear the image
of someone his age, but scowling.
It doesn’t bear any resemblance at all
to the zesty liquid that stood
in wooden barrels in Jersey-filled barns,
back when farms here were small.


Now he’s unloading a little tin
of so-called Vienna sausage,
which were at one time known in our north
as “log-haulers,” somehow favored
by woodland teamsters who deftly drove
their strapping Belgians on skid roads.
I get a sudden odor, unpleasant,
that seeps from the waffled garment
that shows through an inch-long rent below
his flannel shirt’s frayed collar.
Not the whiff of lumber or cattle. The shirt
is so worn it shows nothing a person
could rightly specify as a color.


This is the lane with the sign,
14 Articles Or Fewer.
He seems reduced to fewer.
Canned beets; a box of powdered doughnuts;
grape jelly; instant pudding.
I wonder what earthly blending
of these might make a man’s meal?
I cradle the weight of the grass-fed beef
I’ll soon lay down on the belt.
It’s a heavy weight. Blood stains the paper.
Who hammered the steer to its knees?
Abbatoir workers must work to sustain
their apathy through the slaughter.


A folded cardboard shim will fit
under a leg of the table
so as to keep it more or less steady
on his trailer’s canted floor.
What’s showing up there on the old TV?
I don’t know. Neither does he.
No photographs in view. He builds
a pyramid of cans
by his plate. If ever there were children,
they’re gone, and so is his wife.
The rail-thin girl at the checkout counter,
diplomatic, clears her throat
so that I look up. He’s left.


How did he walk, I wonder?






Her fragile easel anchored in snow, the painter
gazes beyond it now at a snow-swathed mountain.
Beautiful. Daunting. She too is swathed for winter
and imagines skating on a pond here in northern New England.
Why must she always expect to produce some something
beyond the colors and contours of breath-taking land?
A wind starts to keen, as if to break in on her dreaming,


but she disregards it. Indeed her trance expands,
allowing her to dismiss a torrent’s suggestions
as it yammers and dives down the hill she finds so engrossing.
Within, she starts to feel some lively movements.
Perhaps she has pictured skating – she hears herself thinking–
to justify how we glide over life, forgetting,
for survival’s sake, what engenders that brook’s downward motion.


She glides past the death of her mother of cancer, monstrous:
it was at once precipitous and dawdling.
She recalls for the briefest of moments that she’d be a bride
had she accepted an offer. She skims past the rite
and the frills she’d have added to it, being an artist,
for in fact she’s relieved: poor man; he was dull as dirt.


The brook won’t freeze and stay. The dire sea waits.
There’s actual wisdom in her willful unknowing, she muses.
She’ll value surface as much as some putative depth.
She’s aware that our figures may arise from our dread,
in truth comprise it. But if we can cut some slight mark,
joy beckons too. She wields her brush like a blade;
she’ll skate it through colors, as many bright as dark.




    At the Apple Shack

                                                            – 6 November, 2018


Stick season now, the hills having doffed
their crazy garb and gone mellow,
dun and ivory on the oaks and beeches,
which vainly cling for dear life.


Winter’s icy winds lope south.
I’ve stopped at the apple shack
on the other side of our local river.
The place will be closing soon,


in fact next weekend, just before Thanksgiving.
I’m stocking up for that day.
We all, especially the grandchildren, cherish
Honey Crisp, Macoun.


Our oldest son is 47!
This sprawling house on the hill
will be in cozy disarray
and full of treasured quirks:


one toddler, for instance, likes to play
with our long-handled metal shoehorn,
which for cryptic reasons he calls a voter.
For him it seems a weapon:


he’ll charge around the living room,
brandishing the voter.
Aptly, this is election day
In the ballot booth, I said prayers,


however unorthodox, for the nation,
for some decency, for a silence of weapons,
for love to prevail, as it will, thanks be
to love, when we’re all gathered.


As I pay, I tell the orchard’s owner
how much I’ll miss her, how we’ll all miss her apples.
But the time until her shack re-opens
feels shorter every year.

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.