Retrospective of a long life and already inimitable career in poetry, Sydney Lea’s What Shines asserts and asks in equal measure. In older age, Lea affirms the luster of fruit long labored for: a resilient and happy marriage; the rewards of parenthood and, later, grandchildren; a profound intimacy with northern New England — the environment, the seasons, the people, home, time. But he also transmits the escalating urgency of answering the fundamental question: at this late hour, what light do we have to see by? What light will outlast us? In “1949,” Lea revisits old photographs: one of his parents “both grinning straight at the Kodak, / an elm, not yet blighted to death, at their backs,” another of his mother standing beside a bucket of sunfish. “With what I’ve known, you’d think there’d be chapter on chapter,” he says, everything habitual, familiar. Still he stumbles upon revelation, the visceral novelty of experience, and Lea’s brilliant shock glimmers in the golden hour. “I shouldn’t be,” he disclaims, “and yet somehow I’m stunned: / Even the fish in that yellowed photo are young.” Despite the accelerating onset of autumn, consolations line the path “at the edge / of our late-shorn meadow,” where there lie blackberries that “should have vanished by now.” And so what if a handful will not disarm winter? “Though tiny and poor, it’s sweet, / the fruit, even more so / than when I found more.” If we receive this allotment of days once and only once, Lea’s consummate collection urges us to remember the spirit of the lyric itself: although we couldn’t keep it all forever, when we had it, my God, so much of it was sweet.
Loud wingbeats at the window
snap me out of the torpor
of my minor springtime sorrow.
A blast of desire, not wholly
carnal, not wholly not,
suddenly overcomes me:
I’m almost 80—and lovestruck.
What can that have to do
with a cardinal’s frenzied attack
on his likeness there in the pane?
Bright bird, I see that you’re jealous—
of what? You’re at it again,
enraged. Small wonder you’re scarlet.
Listen: you’re only alone.
Aloneness. Somehow I feel it.
A futile bird-brain ardor
brings on a premonition.
My love’s in the bedroom, dear reader,
and I picture my world’s perdition.
The refrain of aging and death echoes throughout and is tempered by Lea’s gentle optimism and appreciation for every facet of life. These poems provide readers with a potent antidote to hopelessness.
Life isn’t easy, and we’re all scarred, traumatized to some degree. What is to be done? Lea responds in illuminating verse that expresses a reckoning with emotions that linger like ghosts in the bardo, hesitant to move on, having one more thing to say…This radiant collection will leave readers counting their blessings past, to come, and most certainly right here.