Sydney Lea and his granddaughter Ruthie
I watch a dog, a pure-bred white Alsatian,
Approach a small, mange-wasted, coal-dark cur.
This at a park in a fashionable quarter of Boston,
Where I –dog-lover that I am– await
A wagging of tails, rather than what ensues:
White beast’s attack on black at the park’s iron gate.
Can a dog be smug? When the mongrel gives its neck,
The Alsatian seems to gloat, as if he’d taught
The mutt to stay outside the enclosure’s fence.
Is it this inconsequential ruckus that prompts me
To range far and wide in mind, in pure revulsion?
In any case, on a nearby wall I see
An illiterate, spray-painted scrawl: All Mooslims Out!
Old Chaos still provides us with directions,
Though they’re not that at all. He shows no Tao,
No road to Truth and Light, no Golden Mean,
But suppurative disorder. We tend to impute
Our woes to those whose suffering dwarfs our own.
This must be someone’s fault, we think. Where is he?
Milton grasped it all: his Satan’s scheme
Appeared to Chaos commendable, exemplary.
Note, however, that Milton found no shame
In hanging Roman Catholics. The more things change,
We’ve rightly heard, the more they stay the same.
The best lack all conviction while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity,
Wrote another poet. Rightly. Enmities burst,
The old and new. Hitler’s atrocities.
Stalin’s. Mao’s. Pol Pot’s. Late Balkan horrors.
Revenge of Hutus on their neighbor Tutsis.
Wrongly forgotten slaughters by King Leopold.
On and on. These weren’t enough to check us.
One country, armed to the maximum, summons a fool,
Or rather a knave, who calls for even more armaments
To make, he claims, his nation great again.
Knaves thrive on Chaos, as do his wretched minions:
Discord, Night, Confusion. Yet this ignoramus
Is one of many, his global counterparts,
With their nasty lackeys, building a bridge from Hades
To Earth, which malignant spirits travel across
To entice us feeble mortals. That’s Milton again.
His version of Satan whispers by way of such ghosts,
It’s the Other’s fault. He’s not like us. He’s bound
On our destruction. Quickly, let’s erase him.
In 1989 a wall came down
And we rejoiced, and now another wall–
No, many walls are under construction. Chaos
Tells us that the Jews are ruling all.
He rails at the Mexicans who tend our cows
And pick our fruit. Or, more likely in our time,
He curses those bowing eastward at certain hours.
The sun now slips below the architecture
Of the Puritans’ city; a brutal storm blows in
Off the Atlantic; the frigid leaves of winter
Are lifted by a whirlwind in a hissing mass,
Whirlwind that in due course we all may reap.
The leaves at last are crushed against the fence.
I seek some refuge from this gale, so vile and vicious.
In my fraught recollection all the while,
That cruel white dog looms large as Cerberus.
Sydney Lea is the former Poet Laureate of Vermont (2011-2015). He founded New England Review in 1977 and edited it till 1989. His poetry collection Pursuit of a Wound (University of Illinois Press, 2000) was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Another collection, To the Bone: New and Selected Poems, was co-winner of the 1998 Poets’ Prize. In 1989, Lea also published the novel A Place in Mind with Scribner. Lea has received fellowships from the Rockefeller, Fulbright and Guggenheim Foundations, and has taught at Dartmouth, Yale, Wesleyan, Vermont College of Fine Arts and Middlebury College, as well as at Franklin College in Switzerland and the National Hungarian University in Budapest. His stories, poems, essays and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and many other periodicals, as well as in more than forty anthologies. His selection of literary essays, A Hundred Himalayas, was published by the University of Michigan Press in 2012, and Skyhorse Publications released A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife in 2013. His twelfth poetry collection, No Doubt the Nameless, was published this spring by Four Way Books.
A poem for our times, indeed. All the allusions are functional; and I love the rondure, with the end reverting to the beginning, and the cruel Alsatian compared to Cerberus. Best of all are the slant-rhymes of the opening and closing lines of each tercet, embodying the form that reins in, and helps us endure, chaos.
Dear Patrick: Your approval means the world to me. Thank you!
I appreciate that, Sydney. I’ve admired your work for a long time. I suppose readers should reply more often in print, rather than keeping our enjoyment to ourselves. After all, with NC, Doug really has created a community of kindred spirits.
Yes, he has, and we are all the better for it. I have admired YOUR work, and ought to know that to do so privately is ungenerous of me.
There so much that’s right about this poem. For example: “We tend to impute /Our woes to those whose suffering dwarfs our own.” How true. Thanks for the poem, Sydney.
Thanks, Robert. Like Pat’s yours is a good opinion I cherish
A gorgeous poem by Sydney Lea, one of the few real singers, and one with a huge soul.
Aw, I bet you say that to all the poetasters. Thank you, dearest Flea.