Sydney Lea is Ephemera's August Poet
(4 Poems & More)
We’re happy to introduce Sydney Lea, our selection for August’s Poetry at Ephemera. Thanks to Sydney and everyone who submitted! If you’d like to participate, we will be fielding submissions each month to publish one poem per issue from the same poet for the month. Each poet receives a $200 honorarium. For full rules and more info please see our designated post about Poetry at Ephemera. You can also submit via the button:
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Introducing, Sydney Lea!
Sydney Lea was Poet Laureate of Vermont from 2011-2015. In 2021, He received Vermont’s highest artistic distinction, The Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts. In 2022, he published Seen from all Sides: Lyric and Everyday Life, a collection of newspaper columns on poetry, composed during Lea’s laureate tenure. A third edition of Roads Taken: Contemporary Vermont Poets, an anthology he co-edited with Chard deNiord, his successor as state poet, is now available. His sixteenth collection of poems– What Shines?– is due in September 2023. In early 2024, his collection of personal essays, Such Dancing as I Can, will appear, and later in the year, his second novel, Now Look.
Lea founded New England Review in 1977 and edited it until 1989. Of his twelve previous poetry collections, Pursuit of a Wound was one of three finalists for the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. The preceding volume, To the Bone: New and Selected Poems, won the 1998 Poets’ Prize. In 1989, Lea also published the novel A Place in Mind with Scribner, soon to be re-issued in paper by Red Hen Press. The author’s longtime fascination with upper New England and its vanishing traditions is recorded in A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife, (Skyhorse Publishing, 2012).
Lea has received fellowships from the Rockefeller, Fulbright and Guggenheim Foundations, and has taught at Dartmouth, Yale, Wesleyan, Vermont and Middlebury Colleges, as well as at Franklin College in Switzerland and the Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest. His stories, poems, essays and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and many other periodicals, as well as in more than fifty anthologies. He lives in Newbury, Vermont, and is active both in literacy efforts (Central Vermont Adult Basic Education, Inc.) and in conservation (Downeast Lakes Land Trust).
Visit his website for more information.
For me, lyric’s appeal is how it leads to unexpected connections.
I led poetry workshops for forty years, and I soon recognized the greatest obstacle to aspirant poets: their concern for the “deeper” dimension of their work. The commonest complaint? “I didn’t have any ideas.” I suggested that, while poetry may contain ideas, it’s rarely motivated by them. I urged immersion in their language and in careful observation, often just physical, would lead them to their ideas, which would be organic. To will them onto the page would be lethal.
In my “Words Fail Me,” for instance, the flicker of a candle at a dinner party with friends reminds me of campfires, by which I often sat with an older mentor, a surrogate father. I hadn’t known this association would lead to a meditation on that nemesis of poets: the insufficiency of eloquence entirely to capture a given work’s generative impulses. As Paul Valéry said, “Poems are never finished but abandoned.’
That notion, to my surprise, led me beyond poetry. On the evening I depict I felt tongue-tied– I don’t drink or drug, so that wasn’t why– even among dear friends. I’m over-broody about this, but the clear fact that I will never go beyond a banal “I love you,” say, to wife, children, and grandchildren (the poem doesn’t mention them, but they’re there) – well, sometimes it turns me wistful.
If inspiration exists, for me it’s the unpredictable inter-fusion of disparate things that have lodged in my mind. I can assume they have something to do with one another just because I’m the one to remember them. Now to find out what that something is...
Each issue of Ephemera spanning August will feature one poem from Sydney Lea. After each issue drops, the poem from that issue will then appear here as well. This post will remain on our Substack, free to view, for the year.
Poem 1 of 4
Words Fail Me
Though the candle is just about to gutter,
it still illuminates several dear friends
at our dinner table, but its low flame transports me
to Creston MacArthur, mentor, namesake
of one son and one grandson. Our campfires flickered
as we sat together. Those fires seem countless
in retrospect, since we swapped our stories
on so many lakeshores, words and warmth
coinciding, softly. In spite of good fellowship,
just now a pall of bleakness descends
as I remember deft bats’ patrols
or the time we heard barred owls chant in the woods,
like a good pack of hounds, as Creston said, wistful.
I didn’t know why. The locution felt perfect,
but now I think its tone may have signaled
that the season I’m in would come soon enough,
as it had for him, and then, looking back,
I’d be almost undone by ineloquence,
by how little I told that beloved man
at those fires. And here I seem equally balked,
as someone is asking me a question.
It’s now. I’m here. I need to respond,
but I know whatever I say will sound
like formulation. The candlewick bows.
In the lull, it’s as though it whispers something
just beyond articulation.
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Poem 2 of 4
Driving a wire-thin road
on my way back home from a local trout stream,
I braked, no traffic behind me,
in fact not a car in sight.
Backlit by lamplight, her shadow
showed on her cabin’s window blind.
O Lord, how stooped.
O Lord, how ungainly.
A miracle some twenty years since,
it was as if she’d dropped from a cloud
to her place in these backwoods,
well after few remembered
–if they ever knew, that is–
what a legend she’d been. I remembered.
I instantly summoned her face
from my red-lacquer LP’s jacket.
Through the winds of December
And the magic of May
Through a million tomorrows
I'll remember today.
I played that one song again and again
so often that one winter morning
my mother, hoarse and hung-over,
threw the record down and smashed it.
I’ve long forgiven her
for that and for other random explosions
as I strive to pardon my own.
My rage, to be sure, matched the moment.
And so did hers.
But that silhouette on the blind,
no matter how quickly gone,
sent me back to those scattered red shards.
O Lord, what a trail of ruin.
Poem 3 of 4
Let Him Remember
But if a man live many years and rejoice in them
all; yet let him remember the days of darkness;
for they shall be many.
Out alone in a quarrelsome wind,
he watches two clouds that accept it,
two noisy ravens that struggle against it,
gathering five feet, losing three.
All could blow away in an eyeblink.
The ravens are trading one call
from among their many: gawp, gawp.
To his left, he imagines a dusky form.
He doesn’t look there. He looks at the sky.
One bird dives into a pine
and disappears. The other fights on.
The man has arrived at a point in his life
when some inklings, however vague,
rekindle vivid scenes,
in his case mostly from boyhood.
He has no idea what seizes him here,
what summons his uncle’s farm,
not yet besieged
by tanning parlor, deli, chain store.
It may be a scent on the wind,
though its burden back then was all straw and mire.
Beef steers stood rump-to in a field,
tails blown between hind legs,
steaming nostrils ringed by ice.
He recalls the cattle’s occasional moans.
He felt, untimely, that night was falling,
as he does just now, though it’s noon,
and that the cold could blow right through him.
If the boy didn’t think in metaphors yet,
still he sensed something dark in the world–
darker still than those ravens.
Poem 4 of 4
Coming in our August.4 newsletter!