Sunday, December 27, 2015

Vermont Diversion: Everyone's Mortal in WHAT'S THE STORY, Sydney Lea

Vermont sprouts poets even in the winter -- there is no closed season for their interactions with the landscape. But Sydney Lea, with a Pulitzer finalist among his list of collected poetry and essays, turns instead to interaction with neighbors and community, and WHAT'S THE STORY, his release this month via Green Writers Press, elevates the poetic reflection to astounding levels of love and awareness.

It's a risky direction: Sometimes the friends and relatives of writers aren't wild about being brought onto public pages. Lea dodges a bit of that risk by writing mostly here about people who've already died. This choice allows him to reflect and grieve, as he confronts his own aging -- not just a waning physical ability to climb mountains and loosen boulders, but the near-daily loss of friends and neighbors his age and older. Reflecting on the passing of a chair-building craftsman, Irv, dead at 82 while tilling the vegetable garden, Lea writes, "Irv's gone, and the earth keeps healing, not to be healed for now, maybe never. Probably never."

But he presses beyond the wound of loss to say, "How fine, that almost shy way the man would greet anyone he cared for, his smile barely perceptible, his ice-blue eyes cast down, his words hard to discern at first. Not that Irv was cold, only modest. He was what he was, irreplaceable among other things."

In WHAT'S THE STORY, Lea grapples to portray why each friend matters so much; he does it with precise yet rich descriptions of people and even of hunting dogs, as well as shared terrain. And that terrain is not just the ridges of Vermont and neighboring New Hampshire; it's also the passionate country of jazz, so that these "reflections on a life grown long" involve Charlie Mingus, Muddy Waters, and more. When he writes in memory of Jack Myers, a poet friend, by first replaying his own college experience of Mingus's music, he then tastes the state of "Jack's not with us" like this:
His absence may account for the sound, which has nothing, really, to do with the intricate magic of that Mingus sextet I listened to, nor with any line or stanza from Jack's mournful, witty, brilliant poems, nor is it the cry of sea birds. If Wagner didn't drive me almost mad, or maybe because he does, I'd say that the chord was a dark Wagnerian one. It washes over me the way the surf does a rocky shore.
After nearly seventy of these short reflections -- most just two or three pages long, and each one threaded so precisely that it's half memoir, half prose poem, and three-quarters jazz improv in words -- I wanted to shout at the author: Stop worrying! We are all getting older! Enjoying your grandchildren, your remembered childhood, picking a cemetery plot -- what's so terrible about all that?

But that's exactly the point in what Syd Lea's done with these short, bladed, budding items: taken the terror of aging and proved its tender beauty. So I return to the first page, in the reflection titled "Whatever I May Say," and re-read: "Though to touch its flame would surely be as painful as when it burned brighter, the candle's low now. On the table, just prior to guttering after dinner, it vaguely illuminates friends."

Read this one to savor the way friends matter, and love abides. Thanks, Syd, and Green Writers Pres.


Sydney Lea said...

Beth, thanks for the kind --and uncannily accurate-- evaluation of the book. May you and your own efforts thrive!

Beth Kanell said...

My pleasure -- and I always learn so much from reading your work.