When you review books in Vermont, you receive a lot of volumes with “northern,” “north country,” “life” and “seasons” in their titles. You read a lot of essay collections in which authors in their seventh or eighth decades contemplate the shifting natural world in tandem with human change, aging and loss.
Sometimes, to be honest, you wish you could receive books about anything else. The arid stretches of the Southwest, urban decay, recent college grads scratching and scraping for jobs. Sometimes you grow a touch impatient with these retired writers who have time for contemplation and the luxury of dismissing out of hand the fast-paced, always-connected world where you live and work.
I paint this picture only to indicate the reluctance with which I approached Sydney Lea’s essay collection published in January, A North Country Life. That the book overcame that resistance, and then some, is a small indication of its living power — as elegy, as meditation and as witnessing. Lea is Vermont’s current poet laureate, and his prose is as artful and efficient as his verse. While his book’s elegiac mood is a familiar one (“More and more, everything about me seems out of date,” he writes in the “Prelude”), this poet-woodsman tells stories you haven’t heard before.
For one thing, most of them take place not in Vermont but in a wild part of Maine to which, Lea writes, “I’ve come back and back … for more than sixty years.” (The Newbury resident and avid hunter and fisherman has multiple camps there.) Many of the 20 essays first appeared in publications ranging from the Georgia Review to Gray’s Sporting Journal.
Lea takes as his mission the conveying of lives, customs and stories of the old-timers of his favorite corner of the North Country — friends and mentors to him, now long dead. These are people whose daily physical labor “would kill most modern humans,” Lea writes; people for whom the intermingling of nature and their lives “was simply a given.”
Don’t expect tedious folksiness or strained passages of reproduced dialect. Lea’s mode of bringing the past to life might best be described as invocation. His “Prelude” begins with something akin to a magical incantation: As he repeats a single regional idiom — “hookum-snuffie,” a pot suspended above the cook-fire on a hardwood branch — the term evokes a wealth of dying lore. “I go on working at a magic return of what’s perished,” Lea writes, “that old profusion of a beloved idiom, one that lies hidden and hurts me.”
If this passage calls on language itself to revive the past, other essays call on the dead. In “Weathers and Places,” Lea speaks directly to his long-gone mentor, Creston MacArthur; in another essay, he addresses his father, who died at 56. In “Living With the Stories,” Lea simply transcribes the remembrances of a then-living friend, 88-year-old woodsman Earl Bonness. In “Now Look,” he takes a more risky, semi-fictionalizing approach and produces an indelible, unsentimental story about a 79-year-old woman watching her once-stalwart husband fall prey to the bottle.
Is it wrong to take such artistic liberties with the truth? That’s a concern Lea returns to repeatedly. “I guess I do have some nerve, but I can’t help it,” he writes at the end of “Now Look” — his protagonist’s blunt idiom bleeding into his own. “You tell yourself things, and you hope they make sense. What else can you do?”
The notion that Lea needs these stories for sustenance — and hopes that readers might find they need them, too — gives the potentially meandering book a note of urgency. Framed by seasonal passages from Lea’s “Daybook,” the essays return repeatedly to their author and the “cures” he seeks for his recurrent melancholy.
Stories are one cure, nature another. Lea may draw strength from daily observation of nature, but he knows it too well to romanticize it: “I’m addicted to the natural world, but certainly not because it ratifies the cozy oneness of the universe, nature a realm of profligacy and waste in so many regards,” he writes in “Daybook, May.”
Several of the essays detail the poet’s habitual ways of engaging with nature, which have included fly-fishing and hunting grouse, duck and deer. Lea doesn’t soft-peddle these accounts to the nonhunter, or even explain his terminology. Yet it’s hard to read them without feeling a new respect for the challenges and, yes, the ethics of traditional sportsmanship.
A retired college professor, Lea is highly aware of how his colleagues might judge these pursuits, and that self-consciousness occasionally fosters a hectoring tone. In “God Bless Hunting,” for instance, he imagines how educated Vermonters might disdain the ordinary folks he meets while hunting pheasant in Kansas. But those conservative Kansans, he speculates, might be more likely to “do the things that most liberals mostly just talk about: help their needy neighbors, visit the sick ones, care for children in need.”
It’s a rank generalization Lea immediately qualifies, and one the book doesn’t need. The people, the places, even the hunting dogs profiled in A North Country Life call to us in their diamond-sharp specificity, defying special pleading and stereotypes. Whether or not we can experience the North Country as Lea and his mentors did — and most of us can’t, for all kinds of reasons — we will not soon forget them.
April brought us a second book from Lea: I Was Thinking of Beauty, his 11th poetry collection. If you think the title sounds serene or even schmaltzy, think again. As we learned from A North Country Life, Lea never sees beauty — and he sees a great deal — without also seeing the blood staining the snow from a predator’s kill. His gaze doesn’t censor out senselessness or pain.
Two poems bookending the collection confront the question of whether art, with its emphasis on beauty, can be trusted to tell the truth. As Keats famously posited, is truth beauty and vice versa? Or is beauty just a capitalist “opiate” keeping us blind to oppression and exploitation, as a professor contends in the title poem?
This unnamed professor, like most of the academics Lea mentions in A North Country Life, is a bit of a straw man. (A notable exception is the late poet and St. Michael’s College professor John Engels, whom Lea memorializes in the essay “Ownership.”) In this poem, he goes on to cite Maori tattoos and Jamaicans who craft drums from discarded oil barrels as counter-proofs that beauty can and will pop up anywhere, stubborn as grass, without political allegiance.
Of course, such a view of beauty entails expanding the definition of art well beyond the purview of “high” culture. In the poem “Art,” Lea suggests that grading a road into smoothness and safety deserves to be called just that — and that, as he grows older, such humble, functional art moves him more and more.
I Was Thinking of Beauty overlaps with A North Country Life, though each has its distinct focus. Lea’s poem “Ars Vitae” is a distillation of the passage titled “Daybook, July,” and some of these poems are autobiographical vignettes returning to the themes of aging, melancholy and loss. In both books, Lea dwells on the sadness of the empty nester: He raised five children from two marriages, all now grown and some with children of their own. Considering the ambivalence with which many artists view the tethers of family life, Lea’s unguardedly expressed affection for his wife, kids and grandkids is refreshing — even when he acknowledges, as he does in “Father’s Blues,” that growing children are yet another marker of mortality.
Some of these poems hold rhymes or the ghosts of rhymes, reminding the reader that poetic artifice can create illusions of harmony. And sometimes, Lea acknowledges, artistic illusion does lie. In “Blind, Dumb,” the poet recalls watching a blind doe crash through the woods, doomed by the “coming cold.” He could tell the animal’s story, perhaps even recast it as part of some overarching narrative of natural order, but doing so wouldn’t change her grim fate. So, instead, he confronts his own insufficiency: “I’d always imagined words’ restorative power,” Lea writes, “but I’d witnessed beings who couldn’t pass on // what had happened or how. // Words wouldn’t help them. To see that so starkly stung.”
In another poem, “Too Early for Grackles,” Lea once again fights with his artist’s tendency to find meaning and motive in a natural phenomenon — grackles flocking together in August, like a dark omen above the “summer earth.”
Then he gives in to that meaning-making urge and, as in A North Country Life, affirms the stories, rituals and “vigils,” that, however false or fragile, give people the strength to endure:
Men and women and birds get born
and live and die. Still they strategize:
in whatever souls they may have they have
some dim faith they’ll always survive,
as strange and untrue a thing to believe
as any in nature. But that’s no matter.
We humans stay alert, we believe,
holding our vigils, as if it’s no matter
that the larger world keeps right on spinning
and after us all will go on spinning.
The poet’s or the storyteller’s version of beauty may not be a straight shot of truth. But it faithfully translates a drive to make sense of the world that is far older than, say, capitalism or the mass media — one that is, Lea suggests, a survival drive. Reading these essays and poems, it’s impossible not to keep returning to Lea’s words in “Now Look,” “You tell yourself things, and you hope they make sense. What else can you do?”
We all have our own sense-making stories and strategies, of course. But to expand our repertoire of tales to include Lea’s — and those of his beloved old-timers — is to enrich ourselves immeasurably. Back in the days of backbreaking team labor, the woodsman Earl Bonness remembers, “Folks was sweet-natured and had to be.” His words about change are well worth quoting, too: “You don’t get anything much without losing something too, and lots of times when you guess you lost something you come up with something you didn’t have before.”
Father’s Blues (from I Was Thinking of Beauty)
Sunk in my chair, I tried to doze while members
of the Branford Marsalis Quartet were aching their way
through changes: “The Blossom of Parting.” So tenderly
did they suffer, however, that I’m full awake. Blue flowers
of sadness, petal-lavish, took root in the part
of my soul where dreams might have budded. They’ve disappeared,
though only yesterday they all were here:
three daughters, two sons, repletion of my heart.
It took my braver wife to photograph
what I know I won’t be able to scrutinize
if she hangs the picture — or at least I won’t do it dry-eyed.
Sidelit by sun going down, all five of them laugh
as they improvise a moment’s pose together.
One night the youngest child’s best friend advised her,
It’s selfish, having children. If so, our will
to raise them is hardly a sign of egolessness
but instead of our natural lust to extend ourselves.
That makes my blossom of pain narcissus, I guess.
The friend’s little more than a child herself, yet truth
— however partial — hid underneath her assertion.
As our children grow away they chronicle youth’s
relinquishment to time. We watch them burgeon,
bloom, and when at last they bolt and scatter,
we’re reminded — the way I am by this blue tune —
that our selves are no more durable than flowers.
The years will wilt them. Every change is a wound.
Like the Psalmist’s tender grasses, they flourish and fade.
in a day. They all were here just yesterday.
"A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters, and Wildlife" by Sydney Lea, Skyhorse Publishing, 207 pages. $24.95.
"I Was Thinking of Beauty" by Sydney Lea, Four Way Books, 76 pages. $15.95.
Sydney Lea will read on Thursday, May 30, 7 p.m., at Flood Brook Union School in Londonderry; Sunday, June 2, 3 p.m., at Groton Public Library; and Sunday, June 23, 3 p.m., at Brownington Village Congregational Church (with Reeve Lindbergh). For more dates, see sydneylea.net.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Tales of the Dead and the Living"