Here is a gorgeously bittersweet new poem by Sydney Lea whose ninth collection of poems, Young of the Year, has just been published by Four Way Books. Syd is an old friend from my early Vermont College of Fine Arts days (see my introduction to his fine essay “Weathers and Places” published earlier on NC). I also interviewed him when I had my radio show, The Book Show out of WAMC, the Albany, NY, public radio station. Somewhere in the Black Hole of a crawl space accessed through my sons’ bedroom there is a box of tapes I saved from that show. I always mean to dig out the interview and replay it—lovely talk of dogs, birds, hunting and nature. Syd tells me he wrote this poem after watching the movie Away from Her which is based on an Alice Munro short story called “The Bear Came Over the Mountain.” The movie stars Julie Christie and the Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent whom I have always admired, especially his great and underrated movie The Rowdyman. Pinsent plays the bereaved husband of a woman who suffers from dementia, forgets him and, in a mysteriously touching reversal, finds new love in the home where she is kept. In my mind, Sydney Lea and Alice Munro have a great deal in common; they are both achieved artists in whose hands even the most difficult things are elaborated with force, delicacy and apparent ease. Syd’s poem captures beautifully the wistful mystery of lost memory and love, the strange turn (just sailing away, it seems) of the long-loved one into the open sea.
By Sydney Lea
She wonders if it’s cliché to think of the husband
with whom she’s lived for decades,
most of which she’d call, all things considered,
a pleasure — if it’s cliché to imagine her partner
a ship at the lip of a clouded horizon.
In fact he’s sailed the whole way over.
And then she wonders why she should wonder this,
why it would make any difference, trite or fresh?
And what does she know about ships?
Early on, as they sat one morning together,
he felt in his pocket for his car keys,
held them up against the kitchen’s skylight,
whispering “Bullet. Bullet.”
It passed, they embraced, both a little uneasy,
but he left for work as always.
For what seems to her now quite a while they kept it away,
that morning, unmentioned, conspired into absence.
After all, there seemed nothing
that either could do about it then, and nothing
of course to be done today.
What does she know about ships, about sailors?
No, nothing either,
though once as a girl she was carried out on a bay
in a rich friend’s yacht. The cold white spray
flew gunwale to gunwale. And there’s more she remembers:
they all could have slept in the boat’s tidy cabin
in comfort, if that had been part of the outing’s plan.
And the tiller wheel was made of such dark lovely wood,
and everything else on board
showed some sort of glass or some bright brass fitting
and the life-rings that hung on the taffrail
were stenciled Claire C., the name of the boat.
It all made her feel she could never want anything more
when it came to beauty. That gleam. That air.
He had beauty as well.
back when he was the young man she chose
to live and sleep with ever after.
They made children together. They said they were blessed.
The beauty, which changed of course with the decades, was nonetheless
beauty. She still supposes it so,
though it swamps her soul
to watch him sink out of reach, unheeding.
Why can’t she call him up? Why can’t she call him to her?
Her mind shifts back to her girlfriend’s father,
who kept inspecting a tiny crack in the sleek sloop’s hull,
no matter his pretty wife’s counsel
that he relax, that he live for this day
of wheeling seabirds, foam and speed,
sharp-edged, slam-bang clouds,
heady squeaks and snaps from mast and mainsail.
The husband worried, the husband
insisted it might be only a matter of time
before that inconspicuous fissure turned into much more.
He was looking for something to do about it there
and then — as of course he couldn’t.
He said he hated to think of his treasure,
his own Claire C., beyond recall, to imagine the day
when off it might be
— he used the cliché —
to Davy Jones’s locker with her. Forever.