I’ve known Sydney Lea for many years, from time spent together at the Bear River Writers Conference and through intermittent correspondence about our shared passions for fishing, birds, bird hunting, and books. Syd’s a wonderful poet and essayist, a Pulitzer finalist and a contributor to The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and many other publications, and founded the literary journal New England Review. His books have long held a special place on my shelves. His new book, What’s the Story?: Reflections on a Life Grown Long, is a collection of powerful and heartfelt brief essays that pack a great deal of punch. It was an honor to contribute this cover endorsement: “Sydney Lea just keeps getting better. What’s the Story? is a collection of beautiful, wise, and heartbreaking essays, written in prose so sharp it cuts…This is the work of an author who is deeply and hopelessly in love with the world.”
I caught up with Syd during a busy season of travel and outdoor activities and asked him to contribute to “What’s Lighting Us Up.” He graciously contributed the following:
Someone once said of art historian E.H. Gombrich that it seemed pretentious even to praise him. That phrase, whose origin has disappeared from memory, swam back into my ken as I considered the forty-plus years of work contained in Canadian master poet Don McKay’s collected poems, Angular Unconformity. While I might not hyperbolize to quite that degree, I do confess to feeling daunted in the face of such unusual achievement as this poet’s, and am somewhat embarrassed that we, his neighbors to the south, seem to know so little of it. He is simply a major figure in contemporary poetry.
I have been reviewing McKay’s collected poems, 1970-2014, for the online mag Numéro Cinq, published by my friend, estimable Canadian fiction writer Douglas Glover. I urge all to read it, especially those interested in the natural world, and especially those addicted to the avian world. (My favorite of his volumes is called, precisely, Birding, or Desire.) Here is but one sample from his 2000 book, Another Gravity:
Song for the Song of the White-throated Sparrow
Before it can stop itself, the mind
has leapt up inferences, crag to crag,
the obvious arpeggio. Where there is a doorbell
there must be a door—a door
meant to be opened from inside.
Door means house means—wait a second—
but already it is standing on a threshold previously
known to be thin air, gawking,
stricken with illicit possibility. The Black Spruce
point to it: clarity
becomes us, melting into ordinary morning. True
north. Where the sky is just a name,
a way to pitch a little tent in space and sleep
for five unnumbered seconds.
During last year’s cold winter, McKay had me thinking harder about birds than ever, so what follows by my hand may be motivated by his (superior) example:
Keeping At It at 20 Below
It’s too cold for me to stay out long at my age,
So I trek the half-mile road below our shed,
Its earth deep-hidden beneath the white.
Far east, Black Mountain shows up, razor-edged
On a sky full of crystals. My boots on frigid ground
Are cheeping loudly enough that with these bad ears
I can’t right off discern another sound:
Pine siskins by the score. They yammer from every
Evergreen in sight. I used to plow
On snowshoes through powder, hour on hour.
It shames me to say the notion scares me now.
Still it’s hard to keep with wistfulness when air
Keeps glittering so, and creatures no bigger than thumbs
Keep at their sustenance, dauntless. Each bird tears
At bough-tips, feeding and tweeting. I focus on one
That worries the sparkling tip of a spruce-cone, eats,
Then flits to another.
Beyond the bird,
Beyond the emerald tree in which it sat,
Beyond the outlying mountain—well, what passes
Even beyond bright air? And who’s to sense it?
Not I. It’s birdsong that prompts such opening phrases.
Beyond all this, let time complete my sentence.
Sydney Lea’s fourth collection of personal essays, WHAT’S THE STORY? SHORT TAKES ON A LIFE GROWN LONG, is now available; his twelfth poetry volume, NO DOUBT THE NAMELESS, will appear in early 2016. He is Poet Laureate of Vermont. His web site is www.sydneylea.net and he blogs at sydneylea.blogspot.com.