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.
“Peaceable Kingdom,” from I Was Thinking of Beauty:
Doesn’t everyone dream of heaven?
After quarrel, he wishes his own could land at his feet.
He’s on foot. As he passes the round Shaker barn on Route 7,
On an April afternoon of what’s called unseasonable heat,
His eyes alight on two ravens, crisp contours obscured
By the asphalt’s shimmer. They gorge on flattened hare,
Winter pallor vanished but for some streaks in the clotted fur.
In heaven, he reasons, there is no loss,
No accident, everything knows its way.
The carnivores lie down with the herbivores.
It’s a famous claim. By extension, no snowshoe hare ever strays
Into traffic—or if it does, it rises—and raptors
Feed on seeds, and a wife and husband never
Battle, and Pharaoh’s armies all have drowned long since, each soldier
Rolling up and back in the ocean’s rote,
His eyes rimmed innocent white with salt.
“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.” —Carl Dennis
“It’s interesting that Lea in at least half of these poems uses second- and third-person singular and first-person plural, sometimes to distance risky sentiment. He is a masterful storyteller, whether he is using third person to describe a ‘chubby boy’ deliberately bounced from and run over by a tractor driven by a schoolmate or what it is like living in a big house with a grandmother, mother, aunts, and cousins when the father, a soldier, was away in the Second World War.” Read the full review by Peter Makuck in The Hudson Review.