After these sixty-plus years,
The symmetrical look of the wound
Its stitches tidy hybrid
Of dots and cross-hatched lines
Remains completely at odds
With the rough gash my fathers knife made.
The odor of charring meat
Had been drifting up to my nose,
And how fresh the rest of the world,
Its sights and noises: toads
Grating, peeper-chant swelling.
Life--such a sumptuous spread!
Dad cut between index and thumb
And managed to jimmy his mouth
Over that crude little cavity
To draw the venom out.
One is told not to do that these days,
But the scar, if not quite pretty,
Is so neat it belies its occasion:
March, a warm afternoon,
My father tending his cook-fire
Down at the edge of the pond.
Id been climbing a glacial erratic,
Proud of my strength and valor,
As I vainly considered them then.
I found handholds on that big boulder,
And footholds. At last I laid
Those very left-hand fingers
On a shelf at its top, where a jab
Came from nowhere. A copperhead
Had been shucking its torpor in sun.
It was otherworldly, that hurt.
Something got me! I cried,
Then fell to the sodden earth,
Which must have been less far down
Than my pride had let me surmise.
Next came the dirt-road rush
To a nondescript house in Green Lane
Where our doctor gave me a shot.
In bed by mid-afternoon,
I felt my neck go rigid
And wry until the daylight,
Soft and lavender, sifted
Itself through window curtains.
My father loomed by the bed,
To me the very emblem
Of love. My body relaxed
When he put a hand on my head.
Now the water glass on the nightstand,
Dads dog-eared issue of Time
On a chair, the mirror, the clock
Each occurred to me as a sign
Of a brand-new, glorious beauty.
Under the gauze, my hand throbbed,
But no matter how, I foresaw
That my scar would forever mean
Id known glory. I couldnt have figured
Just why, and of course never dreamed
It would do so right up to this age:
That is, some twenty years older
Than my fathers the winter he died.
Back then, older years felt so distant,
They might have been unknown planets.
The glory I sought surely couldnt
Be found in simply enduring.
Yet whatever I may have imagined,
I find glory now precisely
In how I contain a life:
Whatever its poisons, its riches
Odors and sounds and sights,
The love of a father and as one
Are somehow implied by old stitches.
.........Robert C. Lea
It has taken these seven decades for me to surmise
That there must have been more to my grandfathers life than some tales
About his comical temper. What lay behind
That temper, I suddenly wonder? But all I recall
Are trifles say, my little toy boat, which Id sail
Around the old mans belly. It broke the surface
Of the tub as he lathered himself. Hed sing all the while,
And even I could hear that his voice was glorious.
This morning, I study some tracks now sealed away
On this favorite trail by an overnight scrim of ice.
I think of how for wildlife, hunter or prey,
A day means a fight to endure. But then, of course,
No animal rues its life, which is merely its life.
By some rule of opposites, maybe, such thought reminds me
Of that crotchety grandparent. I hadnt reached five when he died,
So I know what little I do of him from those stories.
It seems his voice was famous all over our region.
And even I could tell its songs were sad
And gentle. He married a beauty, says family legend.
Needless to say, he never could have foretold
That a horrid central nervous disorder would put her
From early on, and for good into a wheelchair.
It must have floored him, but as for me, Grandmother
Was chiefly the white-haired woman who forevermore sat there,
Spellbound, it seemed, by her tall blond radio.
I later would learn that she especially favored
Eddie Cantors evening variety show,
And her husband once wrote Cantor a nasty short letter.
This morning, I see where a turkey clawed for acorns.
And theres where a hungry coyote missed it, if barely:
I make out the big birds scrabble to get itself airborne
And up to a bare winter limb. Below the oak tree,
The predator waited a while. Its so easy to read.
The turkeys not gloating. The brush wolf feels no wrath.
Failure is common when the worlds wild creatures seek
Whatever they seek for survival. Grandfather collapsed
And died one night, chasing a streetcar driver
Whod failed to stop. He meant to attack him with fists,
No doubt. Yet even that death came in for laughter,
And the incident showed, some said, he always had guts.
According to lore, hed written Dear Mr. Cantor,
Balls! Sincerely yours, Robert C. Lea.
The note in hand like a dagger, reported my father,
He bolted out of the house to post it upstreet.
For the short years after, Id now and then hear his wife cry,
Which both confused and filled me with something like horror.
As I said at the start, back then I was younger than five:
How might I decode adult behavior?
Compared, I repeat, wild animals actions seem simple.
Its famously a matter of eat or be eaten:
These iced-in tracks Ive found will do for example.
As for my dead fathers father, its all speculation.
I only recall it took time to maneuver my boat
Around his ample stomach, and while I was sailing,
I wonder if he thought much at all about me,
So intent did he always seem upon his singing.
I remember no words, just the sounds that rose from his throat,
And how they smacked of sorrow, and how they were lovely.
........Here at Summers End
.............................................for Jerry Dennis
That birds have largely quieted may distress us,
and like neglected mail, the gardens lettuce
went yellow weeks back, then simply dissolved. But lets all pause
before we focus on loss
in a season still teeming with vegetation.
No matter the month, our sense of wonder remains
unless we will it to leave.
Even now the mercury flirts with 85,
so its wondrous, say, how flickers decide
to convene for migration. Lets watch their flocks in the roadbeds.
Its a marvel as well, whatever the force is
that already starts to blanch the legs of the snowshoe hares.
Our longing is always for now to endure,
though since the dawn of our thinking, contemplators
have found death an engine of beauty.
Truth is, however, our world will never go dead:
those heads of lettuce have fused with humus below,
and after these flickers wing off, the juncos and titmice will show,
and the ghostly hares of winter
wont be ghosts at all but creatures
with dark flesh packed onto bone under ivory hides;
coyotes will hunt them to keep alive
through the ineluctable I almost said awful chill;
and even then, the ice-beads on softwood boughs may look,
if we want, like permitted fruit. As a season nears,
or lingers, or ends, an amplitude can tell us
we still are subject to spells.
Were here after all. Lets chant it throughout the year
like so much birdsong: were here were here were here
Im headed off on a hunting trip with the guys.
We bump along in my beat-up pickup, laughing.
Our humors adolescent, the day bone-chilling.
Meanwhile her dear friend Portia and Robin, my wife,
Are learning from Joan, north on a visit, to fashion
Ukrainian eggs. The teacher and students are certain
Theyll really be something to see the eggs, I mean.
After our umpteenth idiot joke, obscene,
I feel some sadness rise up in me like one
A cello might summon. That trio of women back home
Theyll be chuckling too, I suspect, though their jokes remain
No doubt a lot less puerile than ones were telling.
And the three will be serious too, each one intending
To paint objects of grace and beauty, as Im sure they will.
But why on earth would my weeping impulse arise?
Vain male, I turn my head side-to. To call
Those women cute is absurd. Theres no way at all
To claim it wouldnt sound so if spoken aloud.
Theyre hardly a group youd incline to patronize.
Its perhaps that Im thinking and not for the very first time
How much in my life I would if I could atone for,
Like the way my grade school posse of punks and jokers
Scoffed when the girls turned to projects of their own.
Some wore pants under dresses against the cold.
Theyd play secretary, nurse or, laughably, doctors,
Even cops, firefighters, pilots, cowboys, robbers.
And we, all solemn and witless, mocked them and clowned
In an age before we helped to raise our daughters.
Vermont Poet Laureate 2011-2015
P. O. Box 9
Newbury, Vermont 05051