I Was Thinking of Beauty
by Sydney Lea
It's been said about conservationist and Vermont Poet Laureate Sydney Lea that “this extraordinary poet finds an elegance and beauty that can be glimpsed throughout his often harsh landscape.” I Was Thinking of Beauty, his eleventh collection of poems, evidences that skill. Here the natural world coexists with the poet’s boundless intellect. “The skins of maple florets have burst,” Lea begins, and we are immediately pulled into a lush landscape of the “cornsilk’s yellow, roof-metal bleeding orange, / red granite gate posts, glints of mica in fieldstone.” Still, Lea continues to remind us that even the “first green that Frost called gold” couldn’t stay.
In this collection, we follow a speaker who no longer feels he can “distinguish regret from knowledge, / accountability from sorrow,” as he wades through the layers of memory and experience: “I was thinking of beauty then, how it’s faced grief since the day / that somebody named it.” Lea’s keen narrative eye keeps us fully in the present as he reminisces on a past—which Lea unravels, chisels away at in search of a deeper understanding—so vivid it could be our own.
“The poems in Sydney Lea's I Was Thinking of Beauty often grow out of reminiscence, but they are poems without nostalgia, in which the harsh has equal billing with the beautiful, in which memories are approached not as sources of grand revelation but as nodes of vitality that the poet is still in the process of understanding. Meanwhile, as he probes them, he is equally aware that all memory is construction, ‘including,’ as he says in the wonderful ‘Ars Vitae,’ ‘the things that really happened.’ In the tension between going back and reaching forward, between the wish to understand the past and the wish to create a version of life true to one's deepest wishes, a resonant beauty is created.”
To a Young Father
This riverbend must have always been lovely.
Take the one-lane iron bridge shortcut across
the town’s west end and look downstream
to where the water backs up by the falls.
Boys once fished there with butterball bait
because the creamery churned by hydro
and the trout were so rich, says my ancient neighbor,
they tasted like heaven, but better. Try to
stop on the bridge if no one’s coming
to see the back of the furniture mill
in upside-down detail on the river,
assuming the day is clear and still.
I’ve lived here and driven this road forever.
Strange therefore that I’ve never taken
the same advice I’m offering you.
I’ve lived here, but I’ve too often been racing
to get to work or else back home
to my wife and our younger school-age children,
the fifth and last of whom will be headed
away to college starting this autumn.
I hope I paid enough attention
to her and the others, in spite of the lawn,
the plowing, the bills, the urgent concerns
of career and upkeep. Soon she’ll be gone.
Try to stop on the bridge in fall:
that is, when hardwood trees by the river
drop carmine and amber onto the surface;
or in spring, when the foliage has gotten no bigger
than any newborn infant’s ear
such that the light from sky to stream
makes the world, as I’ve said—or at least this corner—
complete, in fact double. I’d never have dreamed
a household entirely empty of children.
It’ll be the first time in some decades,
which may mean depression, and if so indifference
to the river’s reflections, to leaves and shades,
but more likely—like you, if you shrug off my counsel
or even take it—it’ll be through tears
that I witness each of these things, so lovely.
They must have been lovely all these years.
about the author
Sydney Lea is Poet Laureate of Vermont. This is his eleventh collection of poetry. He has also recently published a selection of literary essays, A Hundred Himalayas (University of Michigan Press), and a third naturalist nonfiction volume, A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters, and Wildlife (Skyhorse Publishing). He was recently recognized as a Conservation Hero by Field & Stream magazine.