Poems by Sydney Lea

Featured poet, January 2016, Issue XII

Introduction to the Poet: Sydney Lea

Poems by Sydney Lea

Sydney Lea

Sydney Lea’s twelfth volume of poems, No Doubt the Nameless, will appear in March. He has recently published his fourth volume of personal essays, What’s the Story? Reflections on a Life Grown Long. A former Pulitzer finalist, recipient of The Poets’ Prize, and founder of New England Review, he lives in the state of Vermont in the USA. He is also the poet laureate of Vermont.



The skins of maple florets have burst

and scaled to ground to sprawl

on the season’s bright new shock of green.

A man out walking thinks  red snow.

Each May this scene’s the same

but scenery’s not what he’s after.

No he’s come out as much for invention as air.

He’s glad for what the eye can impose

even on nature less comely than this is.

The walker pauses

searching for illustration.

Ah watercolors of Venice by Turner.

Coal from old furnaces smogs their skies

so their sunsets weep and shimmer.

The paintings invite a conclusion

Beauty will find its way.

What a mere museum-goer might call

repugnant the artist exploits.

His creations thus show a kind of transcendence.

In the middle distance

a sharpshin hawk skims the ridge of his roof

to stab a perching sparrow.

The man stops walking to watch

frail feathers hover where bird had been.

Then they’re broadcast by chill spring wind.

He’d like to make something of the scarlet stream

that must trickle from peak to eaves-trough.

He compares a moment years back

amid lush islands under clouds that were doubled

in a green sea’s panels

and appeared the more lovely for that.

Some predator fish had made a kill.

Stains drifted rosy by his rented rowboat.

They were lovelier still than the clouds.

Old memories too of a friend’s dying words

but after all what were they?

And why think now of their long-gone speaker?

It’s not really speech he conjures:

chemotherapy had made fine dark tattoos

of vein and bruise.

Beauty will find its way.

He knows full well he should challenge that motto

as he strolls here in perfect health.

He knows his tropes make his scenery.

Metaphor is will.

Still he clings to obliging figures

like that gemlike blizzard under waking maples.

Beyond the maples there’s factory smoke

which the man on his walk can’t see.

At the end of their day

workmen fling steel hats into lockers.

Metal rattles and clangs on metal.

The walker hears nothing of that

but will head for home like the workers.

The splendid sun has guttered.

Real bullets savage body and bone.

Real blood stains real snow.

Somewhere. Somewhere. Somewhere.

Blood there scents the actual air.

He won’t let himself smell or hear,

he won’t entertain that mode of vision

for fear of meeting it here.


You of the Mottoes

Near Mount Etna, it was, where ruin appeared

a thing of the past: each stela shining

in the Latin evening, its motto eroded,

quick swifts breasting the sun in flight.

He ground his teeth,

his young mind arcing

age to age, from Vergil’s Mars

to the astronauts’.  He was always impatient,

always wanted more.  Obscurely.

She watched harpoonists pursue a swordfish

out on the bay and breathed,  How lovely,

and sipped her wine.  Breeze tousled the blazing

gorse, and sculpted fragments waved

in her rounded eyes.  A mumbling monk

swished past, head canted, as if he were hanging

on the Virgin’s words.

Years later today.

Breeze ruffles this blanket of New England clover

and there’s no one with him except his dog.

The ruin, he thinks, is now after all,

is always now, as if he had failed

to mortar one of a building’s walls

for winds to topple.  The bachelor won’t have her

back, nor the swifts, nor the statuary

in those red-brown eyes, nor olive smoke,

nor that street musician ineptly crooning

Caro mio ben’.

                                    He’s more than weary

of the nine that one stitch might have saved,

of repeating ruin, devoid of quaintness.

He squints at a starling and mumbles,  A bird

in the hand is worth…   He sees it’s true:

He’s the bald rolling stone of  that other proverb,

the You of the ancient warnings, You

of the mottoes old, and now, and new.

Small Jeremiad

I killed a catbird once when I was young.

I’ll claim to this day I didn’t really mean to,

Just noticed him and flung a thoughtless stone.

I’ve done much worse, so why would this live on?

My cracked LP is Mulligan Meets Getz.

I killed a catbird once when I was young

but why, awake at dawn, should I have turned

from husky saxes chanting “That Old Feeling”

to some poor bird at whom I flung a stone?

There seems reason enough: a catbird dropped to our lawn

As I chose my old-fashioned record, a rare bird here

in northern New England, and though I’ve cast no stone,

I’m sunk in lamentation. Things I have done.

Ones I have left undone. And that old feeling….

I killed a catbird once when I was young.

My life’s the only life I’ll ever own.

I own it all when memory flies in.

I killed a catbird once when I was young.

I noticed him and flung a thoughtless stone.


Mahayana in Vermont

My objectives this morning were vague.

As always I’d hike these hills

a way to keep going

against the odds age deals,

a way to keep body and soul

together, and not so much thinking

as letting things steal into mind

but I started counting

from the very first step I took.

I wore rank old boots, ill-laced,

and patchwork pants.

Around my neck hung the frayed

lanyard of a whistle I use

to summon our trio of  dogs,

who capered and yelped their pleasure

at one of our walks,

and more miraculous still,

at having me for a master.

It’s true in a sense

that I always count as I wander,

though it’s usually the beats of a tune

(Thelonious Monk’s “Brilliant Corners”

a favorite) that mark my time.

These counts felt odder,

better. We scattered a brood

of grouse at step 91.

The deerflies strafed us.

At 500 a late trillium

glowed by a ledge like a lotus.

Right along the rain kept pounding.

I was mindful of all these things

but I never stopped counting.


Life was good, and more.

It was worthy of better response.

At 1000 I thought,

Enough and counted on.

Nothing was coming to mind.

Nothing is coming again

from my hike half the day ago

with three dogs through rain

but a mystic sense of well-being

in quietly chanted numbers.

Whatever this trance,

I treasured it as a wonder

not to be wrenched into meaning,

as in Every second counts,

as in You should count your blessings,

though of those there seems no doubt.