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Sydney Lea is 2021 recipient of his home state Vermont’s most prestigious artist’s distinction: the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts. A former Pulitzer finalist and winner of the 1998 Poets’ Prize, he served as founding editor of New England Review and was Vermont’s Poet Laureate from 2011 to 2015. He is the author of twenty-three books, the latest, Seen from All Sides: Lyric and Everyday Life, a compendium of regionally syndicated newspaper columns composed during his tenure as state poet. His most recent poetry collection is Here (Four Way Books, 2019). His work across the genres has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The Nation, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, all the major literary journals, and more than sixty anthologies.
From WTP Vol. X #2
Was that a boy or a grownup in the car next to mine? I couldn’t guess his age.
When I got out, he reached through the passenger window and grappled my hand. “Hey!” he shouted “My name… my name… my name…” He squirmed, he stammered, he all but choked, his eyes suggesting agony. Clearly, his mind was off.
The man-child kept at his labored chant until the woman who drove him—mother? sister? keeper?—came around to where I stood and finished the sentence. “He says his name is Marcus.” She gently parted our hands, having spoken more gently than I’d have predicted. Her behavior pleased me, as any instance of human compassion, big or small, can in these fraught days.
A Shih-Tzu sat calm as the Buddha in Marcus’s lap.
“I’m glad to meet you,” I said. “Is that your dog?”
His eyes rolled back.
“He’s a good little guy,” I went on, a bit over-urgently; but I did mean it. From what I’ve seen, that breed can be pretty yappy.
“Are you the poet?” his cheerful companion asked me.
Taken aback, I aimed at self-dismissal: “Well, one of the many.”
There’s no particular creed in my private beliefs, but I do give weight to grace, or chesed, as Judaism calls it, the notion that gratuitous favor can be visited on anyone.
I have three dogs of my own that I cherish, for minimal instance. More importantly, I could pray for no better wife, and five beloved children are sound and sane, as are their sons and daughters. What have I really done to deserve their cherished affection? Call all this whatever you want; I call it a godsend.
I looked up at the newspaper rack on the store’s front porch: even from fifteen feet off, the headlines showed boldly. The latest mass shooting, depleted state and federal budgets, one more war somewhere.
What will ever save us? Some, it’s claimed, cast off their crutches at Lourdes. I’ve seen signs and wonders, but none so spectacular.
“I love you!” Marcus bawled as his driver backed onto the road.
Brighter for Absence
I passed the site of the old Colby Block last week. I never gave that stretch of real estate too much thought until I watched it burn. The block sprawled along the west shore of the Connecticut River. Its northmost building was a market. To the south stood a little house where a video store did a healthy business. In those days, such places existed. I remember renting The Sword and the Stone there, and our son watching it dozens of times in his fifth year. Children, counter to adult mythology, prefer iteration to novelty. At my age, I do too.
The video store survived the fire. Its owner was a great big blond guy, whom people who knew him called Truck. I called him by his given name, Calvin, just to stay safe. Others, even ones who didn’t really know him at all, claimed he peddled drugs as well as movies. I had no grounds for judgment either way.
Our family moved upriver over thirty years back. By then, Truck had sold out to a fireworks business. Or maybe he’d already sold out and the next owner passed the building on to the fireworks place. I’m hazy on the details, but they don’t much matter.
I heard Truck died shortly after we left that neighborhood. Sad. He was still more or less young.
The eponymous Mr. Colby ran a shop in the complex, as his father had before him. It dealt in obsolete clothing, not that that was Colby’s intention—no retro-hip for his establishment. It was empty when fire took it. He had shut the place down and retired well before the disaster. He died perhaps a decade ago, but as an old man, unlike Truck.
Happily, we soon heard that no one got hurt in the conflagration. As for the buildings, the fire department had little choice but to stand by, guarding the rest of the neighborhood from the inferno that reduced so much to cinders in a few hours. I found myself among the rubberneckers across the road. I’d been passing through town and noticed the tank trucks and the crowd.
One remembers strange details. At one point, I looked away from the devastation and down route 5. I watched a cat—old fighter, I judged, tatterdemalion, missing an ear—as he crept toward a bush. To him, it must have been just another evening.
The bush was a double-flowering plum, or so I’d been told by a local nurserywoman. I kept meaning to buy one and plant it at our house down that way, but never got around to the job. And then we moved. I have planted one here, but it doesn’t seem to flower as splendidly as the plum I beheld that night, which still blooms bright and pink come May.
This was middle August anyhow. There weren’t any flowers. The tom made a rush, flushed a sparrow, and missed it. Now there, now gone.
Nobody has built on the block since that night long ago. Nowadays I rarely pass where everything stood, but when I do, it’s as though I look through the buildings’ ghosts to the quaint New Hampshire town just across the river. To me, those fancied old structures resemble photograph negatives. That was our town on the other side back then, though we lived deep in the woods beyond it.
Yes, I largely ignored the block until I saw it burn. Now when I do go by, I pay it more attention.
Once we lived even farther away, ten miles south, in yet another village, where Landers, an impoverished bachelor townsman, burned to death in his shack one Fourth of July. He’d kicked a kerosene lamp in his sleep. Now there, now gone.
I’m not sure why Landers occurs to me now, but for the thought of fire—and that he shines brighter now for his absence, just like those charred stores, or Truck, or Mr. Colby the haberdasher.
Sticking to Facts
As I lay in bed, I vowed to record the dream’s details: the mocha river, the wooden dock, the boy, and the older man, who may have stood for me, though I hope not. Those specifics alone seemed so cogent that I kept urging my half-conscious body to get up and write them down, believing they boded revelation. But to leave my bed—its pillow so soft, its blanket so kindly—proved beyond me.
No matter, as it turned out. I retained the physical data and more. I clearly pictured the elderly man as he leaned over a rail, advising the boy that the river’s anger meant a hurricane coming. This sounded exactly backward to me, but something about the speaker’s response to objective things implied that his knowledge, while focused on material laws, pointed at realms beyond it.
The boy, all overalls, freckles, and cowlick, might have played a role in some bogus, sentimental movie about farm life. For all his bumpkin appearance, however, his nature seemed an inquiring one, and he clearly trusted in his senior’s wisdom.
But what the old man suggested next was dismayingly banal. He said that the dock below could be ripped from its posts by storm. “Hence the chain,” he added, meaning one that ran from the dock itself around an oak. “It will hold everything together,” he vowed, and yes, he used that archaic hence, as if such elevated diction could elevate his drab commentary too.
Soon the hurricane roared in. Its wind all but instantly snapped the chain and spun the dock downstream. The old man ginned up new explanations for these developments. He claimed, improbably and incomprehensibly, that in fact all this tumult validated his haphazard inklings.
The minute I came awake, I recognized the old man’s talk for the rubbish it was. As so often in my experience, especially as a writer, what had seemed so promising in sleep turned out to be drivel by the light of day.
Having braced my wits with caffeine, I went down to the village post office, where I ran into our townsman Will. He’s been on my mind since we loitered outside, chatting about this and that. I can’t help marveling at how he confronts the physical aspects of his life. Working on a roof a few years ago, he fell from a ladder. Seven operations have ensued—all useless. He has to wear a monstrous boot. Even standing is painful, never mind walking.
I mean anything but condescension when I say it’s unlikely Will much considers dreams, rubbish or otherwise.
He told me he’d gotten a cashier’s job at a diner, where he could stay seated for most of the day. His boss provided him with a tall stool; he said that boss was a good person and he liked him; he even claimed to enjoy the new position. In short, Will appeared upbeat, but then he always does.
If I made Will into a hero, I know he’d roundly resist. Still, I can’t help admiring his pragmatism and valor. Right after the last procedure went wrong, he told me, Bad things can happen to people, so why not me? I fell off a ladder, that’s all.
Typical unadorned language, unadorned fact—to which Will always sticks. He’s utterly unlike the old man in my dream, handing the boy his mystical bunkum even after the chain let go and the dock went hurtling seaward.
I trust I don’t engage in such hogwash myself. But I’ve been a poet a long, long time, so I can’t be sure.
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