Sydney Lea

Michigan Writers on the Air: Commentaries on Poetry

Sydney Lea
March 2011

Hello again, Aaron. Here we are, working our way toward spring and summer—I for one am really ready for long walks in the woods. Which makes me think of one of the best walkers I know, the poet Sydney Lea. Syd walks miles every day in the woods and fields around his property in Vermont. He also has a place on a little island in Maine where he fishes and kayaks and sculls. He’s been described as “a man in the woods with his head full of books, and a man in books with his head full of woods.’

I’ll offer you a poem of his to give you a flavor. This is from his newest book,Young of the Year, just out from Sarabande books this March. This one’s called “Six Lies About Nature, Ending with a Soul-Tune Line.’ It’s dedicated to a friend who, according to the poem, died of cancer. If you could see the lines on the page, you’d see that the first short one of each stanza’s in italics. The other lines of the stanza are indented. I’ll try to read so you can hear the italics. One of those first lines is a quote from William Wordworth. You’ll recognize it, I think.

Six Lies about Nature, Ending with a Soul-Tune Line

– remembering Louis Cattani

That it is economical —
One year those scarlet tanagers came blown untimely
North from Carolina on a great storm’s gale all reckless
To be sown on this cold landscape amid old snow gone grimy
And were thus bright ruined flowershapes in their thousands. Thousands.

Or a harmony —
I could see from the outcrop of runneled granite above that clearing
The bitch coyote begin to eat the hare who screamed
Like a woman or child and went on living while it was dying
As ravens who’d coasted to treetops sat out their wait. And preened.

Or “never did betray the heart that loved her’ —
They thought at first that Lou had pulled a muscle in his neck
While he was out on the water paddling and drawing good breath
and loving
Autumn’s harlequin hues along the banks and ducks
That splashed among ripe acorns falling in. And floating.

Or is somehow pure, non-human —
Rapine and profligacy are parts of it too and Lou’s tumor
And despots and grim lust for lucre and any berserker contraption
That keeps on paving incalculable animation under
Or even a couple grown savage together. Their one last attraction.

Or restores —
Since a person may lose a wife or child or father or mother
And Time which is nature as well will be a poor healer no matter
That we sit on a saltwhite beach or under some favorite star
For our wounds still feel ragged as if we were being eaten. We are.

Or can solace entirely —
That it will in the words of the great Wilson Pickett from years gone by
One of these early mornings be wiping my weeping eye.

Syd writes all sorts of things. He’s written a novel that was published by Scribner’s, and he’s working on another. He has two collections of naturalist essays, Hunting the Whole Way Home, and A Little Wildness. Sarabande Books just published his eighth book of poems, Young of the Year. And he has another coming out next year. His collection called Pursuit of a Wound, which was published by the University of Illinois Press in 2000 was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize.

One really important thing you should know about Syd—besides the fact that he has five children, all grown now—is his tireless and passionate work to save large tracts of land from development. Syd and his brother were co-chairs of a committee that put 350,000 acres in Maine into the Downeast Lakes Land Trust, and are working now for the West Grand Lake Community Forest, ranked the number one project in the nation by the federal Forest Legacy Council. I so much admire him for the way his life and his writing are all of a piece.

Okay, I’ve shown you one kind of Sydney Lea poem. He’s particularly good at telling stories in poems. I tell him he’s our generation’s Edwin Arlington Robinson, which he appreciates a great deal, since Robinson is one of his heroes. He writes about the people most ignored, the ones we sometimes want to turn away from. He makes us really see them. Like Robinson, he creates a whole community of characters that you believe actually exist. You believe the speaker knows them and I’ll bet he does.

Some people would disagree, but I personally want to believe in the truth in the poem. If I’m to have a stake in it, if I’m going to invest myself in it and feel it, I want to know that the writer also has a stake in it. Not every fact of a poem has to be true, but I want the poet to have BEEN THERE in some sense.

This poem, called “Evening Walk as the School Year Starts’—for sure the speaker has been there. Its subject is sad and painful—a man who’s had a lobotomy to control his violence, which used to happen a lot before we had better drugs. The speaker begins by wondering when the last one was performed. Too late for Carl, in this poem.


Evening Walk as the School Year Starts

When was the last lobotomy, I wonder?
Too late for Carl at least, whom it’s all but hopeless
to think of as a whipsaw of hateful passion
that would if it could have torn up his mother and father,
mild as they are; but that’s how old villagers say
Carl acted before he was cut. Their smiles are rueful.
They shake their heads, subtle. A raven, unsubtle,
grates from a hemlock as Carl steps into sight.

His wave’s familiar: he jerks and drops one palm.
How old must he be? He’s ageless. His eyes are empty–
the operation. He turns now: ninety degrees,
then ninety again like a sentry, the other way.
He turns the same on each warm evening, retreating
past the house of our mutual neighbor, who will not speak
to Carl’s father, for reasons likely beyond recall.
It seems a shame not to edit grievances.

It’s some awful stink nearby that draws the raven,
but the rest of the world seems fixed on the morbid too:
a squirrel keeps pouring spruce cones down at me;
a gall-blighted butternut groans; the broadleafs wilt;
there’s a pair of toads at my feet that wheels have flattened
side by side, like cartoon icons of failure;
mosquitoes strafe me, a mammoth dragonfly–
one of the season’s last–attacks a moth

so close to me I can hear the fatal click.
The other day a son went off to college.
His mother and I are quietly beside ourselves.
We embrace each other harder now, and vow,
as one vows, to love our children harder too.
Though I hum to distract myself, the raven dives
loud as gunfire through brush to its mess. I jump,
but Carl doesn’t seem to hear. I watch him limp

to his family’s drive–then again that sure right angle.
Like him, our family finds a virtue in order:
we rise at six to eat our breakfasts together,
then make a certain sandwich for one of the girls,
a certain one for the other; we leave at seven;
we gather the girls promptly at end of school.
Carl opens his door and shuts it–click–behind him.
It’s after Labor Day, it’s end-of-summer,

it’s another season upon us. Now he scolds me,
the squirrel on his branch, his store of weapons gone.
Why me, dumb brute? I haven’t done anything wrong,
I’ve got no grievance with him–not with anyone really.
The darkness deepens, Lord with me abide.
The wishing star is not enough to light
the space around me while this bit of hymn from my schooldays
plays, while daytime’s creatures crawl to cover,

and night ones, having no choice, confront the night.

This poem is one example—among many—of how Sydney Lea can take the hard facts of life and make them shine so that we’re willing to admit them into our world. More than admit them. It turns out as we settle into the work that they’re our hard facts, too. The poems teach us how to sing our troubles like the great Blues singers Sydney Lea so admires.