Sydney Lea gave the best poetry reading I have ever had the pleasure to attend—this was in the Noble Lounge at Vermont College way back in my first teaching residency, yea, these many years ago, mid-1990s. It was a long poem about a chainsaw accident that nearly cost him a leg. But it was also about friendship, the passing of the generations, the loss of the old north woods culture, about death and memory. It was the dead of winter outside, hot in the room, the chairs packed, people standing along the walls, damp condensing and dripping down the windows. Syd gripped the podium as the emotion rose. He began stamping his foot rhythmically, partly for the poem and partly, it seemed, to keep his own rising emotion in check. There were tears in the audience. The mood was electric. And when he was done there was a spontaneous ovation, people ran up, crowded up the aisles to embrace him, clap him on the back, make contact. I remember that, of course, and, of course, Tang Night: every residency the male faculty would adjourn one evening to the House of Tang for the All-You-Can-Eat buffet. Mostly this involved Syd and the other senior faculty, all VC veterans, regaling the newcomer with ribald tales of legendary teachers and students, also the famous Florida residencies when (long ago) we fled Vermont winters en masse. Which is to say, that I remember Sydney Lea and my early days at Vermont College with vast affection and nostalgia.
Besides being a wonderful poet and fiction-writer, Syd is a master of the personal essay, often combining his love of the woods, dogs and hunting with a passion for the laconic wisdom of northeastern oldtimers in a way that puts him among the best nature writers in American today.
Sydney Lea’s ninth collection of poems, Young of the Year, has just been published by Four Way Books, which will issue his tenth, I Was Thinking of Beauty, in 2013. Lea founded and for thirteen years edited New England Review. He has just retired from Dartmouth College, after four decades as a professor there and at several other colleges and universities. The current essay is part of a collection he has all but completed, celebrating the men and woman of pre-power tool times in a logging community in northern Maine. Lea is a trustee and capital campaign manager for the local land trust there, which has conserved 350,000 acres of woods and waters.
Weathers and Places
By Sydney Lea
— in mem. Creston MacArthur (1919-76)
Wherever you may be, if you are capable of memory there, can you fetch that dawn on Freeze-to-Death Island, the sleet slamming at our faces like some archaic dentist’s tool? A flock of geese drops in among the decoys, and without so much as a word between us, we let them paddle around unharmed on the riddled surface. There’s something so elegant about the birds that we just can’t fire on them. At length you rise from behind the rock we use for cover to shout, unaccountably, “Off to Cuba, baby ducks!” You pronounce it Cuber, like JFK. October of ‘62. The geese flush in a tumult of sound.
What elegy can there be?
As a young man, I had a real knack for remembering weather like that, or any. I can still tell you, say, that the winter of ‘81 brought virtually no snow to the northcountry. Several days in April of ‘73 were unseasonable, to put it gently; they got hot as a flatiron. My son, your namesake, was two, and I still see that chocolate Easter bunny liquefying in his tiny hand as we stood together in the dooryard. That seems sad now, which is odd. He wasn’t the least bothered himself. The sweetness remained; he simply licked the dark streaks from fist and forearm.
That power of recalling a day’s or season’s conditions, along with a few other endowments, is about gone. I am apter to summon the elements from a morning fifty years back, like that one on Freeze-to-Death, than from fifty hours. But whatever gifts I own or lack, I’ll never forget how the day shaped up at your funeral: it was very like that hour of the geese, but this time the perverse conditions, rather than seeming apt to a moment of glory, seemed equally fit for an opposite one. The day for me marked the end of a crucial discipleship, friendship, even sonship. I watched the frosty, wet earth close over all that.
The old saw claims that time heals our wounds, but it’s not so much that we’re healed by its passage as that the wounds become parts of us, along with the joys and frustrations and pleasures of any life. They sink deep inside, components now of what people describe as our characters.
What or whom, really, might I have elegized then? What or whom now?
In some sense, the day of that service in ‘76 seems a perennial today, all full of sideways sleet and wind. We mourners dodge strips of shingle and bright can torn by the gale from roofs of the Passamaquoddy shacks. Sand and salt blow off the road and sting our eyes as we file into the reservation’s small Catholic chapel. The congregation is about half tribal, half white.
It’s February, but Big Lake is pocked with open water. A strange winter thaw: whitecaps show in the gaps, sloshing up and over the ice. Skinny dogs hunker against the leeward wall of a maintenance shed, from which a poster flaps. I can’t read it in the blow, but I know what it says: KEEP MAINE’S FORESTS GREEN. It doesn’t seem possible they’ll ever be that again.
The power has failed clear to the coast.
Though I don’t know her, an old Native woman limps to my side and tells me she can’t remember anything like this in late winter. She grimaces, sneaking a tea bag under her lip against the pain in a dark tooth, which she keeps touching, as if she had a tic. It’s just that she’s nervous, as we all must be, at least in some measure.
The high water and wind and loss of electricity — all this turmoil seems to settle on our group; we mill and dodge, uncertain where to go in the dark sanctuary, with its incongruous whiff of cold incense. It settles on Peter Dana Point itself, that thumb poking into the grumbling belly of the lake. I’d like to ask the woman how she knew you, but I don’t.
Fox, vole and deer tracks meander among the fieldweeds beside the church. In the brush that borders the parking lot, I see the rusted head of an axe. Two barred owls start yammering at one another, midday dark as dusk. Once you likened that racket of owls to a good pack of hounds. Perfect. I remembered, and remember now, the yaps of my last beagle down in a black swamp. Every sensible detail starts a recollection.
No, I can’t imagine suitable elegy for you, for your father Franklin, for my own father and brother, for anyone gone from my brief life. Elegy feels like posture, pretense, artifice.
It would be good to hold something lovelier in mind. Your camp on the point in Third Lake, for example. A quiet July night. This far north, at nine in the evening there’s still enough light to look crosslake. We’ve strolled around the little peninsula just to see what we can see, but in the stillness we hear before we behold that cow moose and her twin calves wading, all a-clatter, from the Middleground out to Prune Island.
Twilit, even the younger animals seem monumental, figures in a procession that could have begun a thousand years ago. It’s as if the moose mean to represent something, though I couldn’t say just what; more likely, they’re only looking for a place where the mosquitos are thinner than on the mainland. There’s the barely audible luff of a blue heron’s wings overhead as it coasts back into the marsh just north of us. Then, during a long ensuing worldessness, a stillness supreme.
You were eight years younger than my father, and you were both, tragically, the same age when you died. Late fifties: far, far too young. I had just turned 23 when the infarction killed him, 33 when one killed you. In between, you had taken over in many ways, giving me the equivalent of graduate education in the things he’d started in me: woodcraft, hunting, canoeing — all the pursuits that have, ever since, made up the rhythms of my life, even when, as now, I’m merely sitting at a desk.
Inside the chilly church, I pick out certain crucial visages: dear Earl, who, for some reason that he flatly refuses to share with me, has always called you Gus; Lola, the brilliant Pasamaquoddy basket-maker, fifteen years your senior; your sweet younger sister Annie. I don’t know that Earl will live to ninety, and Annie as well, that Lola will make a hundred. I don’t know that a firstborn son, your five-year-old namesake, will have children too, much less that his younger sister will have twins, her baby boy likewise taking the name Creston. I don’t know that I and the wife who walks beside me to the pew will walk our separate ways in five short years.
I don’t know much of anything.
It’s late afternoon now, and I lean on my elbows. There’s a good bed of coals in the woodstove beside my desk. Out in the shed, I have a couple of ruffed grouse brining, which I mean to smoke for Thanksgiving. Through the study window, I watch a pair of hooded mergansers dip and surface on our pond, dip again and surface. Time may be a perpetuity, I dream, things repeating and repeating themelves. There may be a brighter side after all to that perennial today I imagined a moment ago. The water is cuffed by wind, the minor version of that high-handed blow on Big Lake so long ago.
I could write your name into any of those sentences I’ve just composed, your human nature so enmeshed with nature proper that I still find it hard to segregate the two realms when I think of you. I glance briefly at a photograph, which I keep ever near me, the one that shows you holding up an imaginary shotgun and aiming on an imaginary flight of ducks.
The afternoon ebbs, and through the glass door of the stove I watch the fire wane too, the glow taking me back to many an outdoor blaze’s end. We sat before the flame, swapping tale after tale, you, at my insistence, providing the greater number. It didn’t matter whether or not I’d heard a story before; each was new and familiar at once, the same as each of those fires.
In that place of lakes and rivers and streams, we’d usually be close to water as we conversed. The rote murmurations of waves, the lisps of currents: these furnished insistent undersong, and just now the stove’s radiant embers and the mild slaps of wavelets on the pond send me back to a certain early spring.
You and I have just dipped these smelt from Grand Lake Brook. We’ve ripped driftwood out of the half-frozen sandbeach and kindled it with birchbark, which browned and curled back on itself like some old letter; people still wrote letters in those days . The heat has galloped across its spectrum. We cook the little fish and eat them out of the pan when it cools, fingers for implements, trousers for napkins. Steam rises from our boot leathers.
After we finish, we turn attention to a red squirrel and raven as they scrabble over bones and heads we’ve chucked into the brush. For no reason, we laugh at this skirmish so hard we nearly weep. Or perhaps it’s just the woodsmoke in our eyes, the breeze having shifted. The smoke is sweet. The river bears an equally fragrant whiff of tannin, so typical of these red wetland waters. You remark that the chirr of the squirrel and the yawp of the raven are rough as a bag of hammers. There’s a predictably honeyed quality to the comment as well.
And here I am. I have no choice years later but to accept, even to affirm such bittersweet gifts of another weather, late fall this time, the air so clear at dusk that the only haze is an inner one. Which prevails for a moment. Then through it I discern more fish, native brook trout, curling too; they’re that fresh. Another panfull. Another flow: Penman Brook. The trout’s gorgeous flankspots slowly fade.
Below us, on Fourth Lake, all done with her own fishing, a loon calls out for wind. Without it she’ll have nothing to lift her. Darkness floats down. It’s time for all of us, loon included, to make ready for night. The brave sun’s race is almost over.
An American poet, in one of his best known and least understood poems, “The Road Not Taken,” speaks of “knowing how way leads on to way.” I know all about that too: once my mind gets started on a retrospective mode, this path seems to branch onto that one, that one onto another, until only sleep (and at times not even that) can stop my rambling. A person’s memory can and will go anywhere, everywhere.
Now sunset conspires with the deep orange shimmer of the stove in transporting me to that summer of 1962, when my younger brother and I followed you to Scraggly Lake. It was something of a production to get there in those days — all the way up West Grand, then through Junior by canoe. Not so long after, the timber companies would cut roads to virtually every beautiful place in the territory, but Scraggly was remote water then.
Once the sun was good and down, at your instruction we took nets and headlights and filled a bucket with frogs from the shores of Jake’s Island. Next morning, we’d hook the little creatures through their lips and toss them out for bass. When a bobber twitched, we’d throw our bales and let the fish go until they stopped: then we’d set our hooks.
The bass would be huge and stout-hearted. That next night, though, I wouldn’t get to sleep for a long time, picturing the pitiable frogs as they raked their mouths with front feet, a gesture horribly human. When I did doze off, I’d have a fitting dream: an immense frog, wearing a porkpie hat and sunglasses, puffing on a fat cigar, sat manlike on the aft seat of a square stern canoe, clutching me. I’d wake up just before he ran the hook through my lips.
Your apparent indifference to the frogs’ gestures and my own revulsion from them, which made me vow right then I’d never use this method again, were an indication after all of some pretty basic differences in our cultures. You were, especially then, far more a part of nature than I, and nature, as another poet insisted, was red in tooth and claw.
All of this now tells me nothing so much as that some deeper bond made our differences unimportant in the end. I wonder if my brother’s turning to vegetarianism shortly after that trip had anything to do with our day of cruel angling. It never occurred to me to ask him when he was alive. I call up yet another line of poetry, terse, poignant, by the late Donald Justice: “So much has fallen.” The poem in which it shows is entitled “Absences.”
Way leading on to way, I contemplate another absence and another late poet, your uncle George, who would be 120 or so if he still lived. No one took more delight in his performances than you did. You had most of his songs and poems by heart, and I see, just as if you were here with me, the light in your eyes as you recite this or that selection.
In George’s time, more even than in yours, the village made its own entertainment. There would be variety shows in a building, gone even before my time, out by the ballfield. I vividly remember when young people from town and young Passamaquoddy played there. I especially recall the Socabesin brothers, Pat and Raphael, the first a ferociously powerful slugger, the other a dipsy-do junkball pitcher, each marvelous in his own way. The field hasn’t been used for almost a generation.
But back to the shows. They usually involved musical acts and skits, and as fellow townsmen worked to change sets, George would stand before the curtain and entertain the audience. His “pieces of poetry,” as he called them, were ordinarily satiric of people, places and things in town, though at times they could be wonderfully tender.
I once asked him to write down one of my favorites, which lampooned each member of the Boston-based crew who took the better jobs when the schoolhouse was built in the’30s, a WPA project. George worked on my assignment at the table in my river camp. He gripped the pencil stub like a dirk knife, his tongue poking out, his eyes squinting. After twenty minutes or so, he said, “To hell with it!” Writing was something that he could do — and never did do. “Sit down,” he said, almost barking at me. “I’ll give it to you.” I took the pencil and we finished the task with fair dispatch.
I recognized more clearly than ever that morning how rooted George was in a living oral tradition. He composed all those poems and songs in his head, and like any made up by his neighbors (and there were many), they followed one of three formats: four-stress lines rhyming abcb, four-stress lines of abab, or four-stress couplets. I’m sure that my own inclinations to formal poetry must owe something to George, that my sense of regular meter and frequent rhyme as means to lodging verse in a hearer’s memory owes a lot to him. I take no part in the debate, unending and stale, between proponents of free and formal verse; it’s only that I do seem to be all about memory, and always have been, even back when, relatively speaking, my store of it was pretty scanty.
You and I sit on the beach at your father Franklin’s Wabassus Lake camp, where he and George lived in trapping season as young men, and where your dad lived all but year-round to a ripe old age.
You tell me how the paper company once demanded a lease payment from George and Frank, despite their having already used their camp for years and years. Somehow they found a way not only to dodge the payment but also to procure an actual deed to the land. You can’t say anymore how they managed that, the details a blur, but you know cold the poem one or another or both put together in response to the company’s demand. You recite it for me, over and over, until I also get it by heart. Part of it goes like this:
We’ve hunted on the ridges,
We’ve trapped along the shores,
And we pray we may continue
Till St. Regis locks the door.
St. Regis thinks it owns the land
Where we hunt the ducks and geese.
St. Regis must be gettin’ poor:
They want a dollar’s lease.
We’ll see they never get that fee;
We’ve got things well in hand.
And St. Regis may be told one day
The MacArthurs own the land.
There was poetry in the very names of the places the older Macarthurs owned in their fashion, places that in some cases they actually named. Slewgundy Ridge. Jones’s Mistake. Dawn Marie Beach. Bear Trap Landing. Pocomoonshine Lake. Porcupine Mountain. Big Musquash Stream. Flipper Creek. Buck Knoll. Slaughter Point.
We were a pair ourselves now and then, though for far less time, and like those fabulous elders, we beheld these landmarks in each other’s company, and to that extent may have felt we owned the land in a comparable way. I won’t pursue this line of reverie, because my thoughts, as they seek to touch on matters that are after all spiritual, will either grow impossibly vague or just preposterous — or both.
The pond outside my study has stilled.
It must be mere coincidence that when we file out after the service, we all notice that the wind across Big Lake has quit dead too, its absence as deep as was its rage. Those places and days blow through the churchyard instead, each like a consecration. You have your elegy; the old names deliver it rightly. You knew what they meant; you knew them all — boot, paddle and pole.
I realize more strongly than ever how lucky I was to know them too. With you. At least a little. It is not enough, but it is far, far better than nothing, that I must settle just now for repeating the names of your ancestors’ haunts, which we saw in all weathers, as we did the ones I’ve mentioned. Freeze-to-Death Island. Grand Lake and Penman Brooks. Burnt Point. Prune Island. Scraggly Lake. Jake’s Island, It would take a lifetime to include them all; in fact it has.
See also an interview with Sydney Lea on How a Poem is Made.