Who Knows? That Lifelong question


i. He Risks a Walk


Between two pock-marked beech, on a strand of wire

For cows he recalls from childhood, the cruel barbs shine,

Blossoms of brightness. When darkness stoops, Orion

Will shine likewise, as always, among the stars.

He’ll nock his arrow, as if to kindle mayhem

Below. For now, the old man thinks of the house,

Where his wife must still feel disquiet. The weather scared them

Last night with sideways rain, which in due course froze.

When he all but trips on a winter-kill, he wonders,

Has he read somewhere of a people who buried their dead

As the grouse in his path is buried, neck and head

Alone protruding, or was that just some old torture?

The grouse’s stiffened ruff is lustrous with frost.


The bird had hidden in powder. When it turned to ice,

It sealed the body in. So peculiar a sight

Has stopped the old man cold in this foolish walk.

Today’s no day for wandering under trees

Going off around him everywhere, loud as guns­

The clap and crack of bursting limbs and trunks.

Sunbeams garland the forest in silvery beads,

Every branch and bole, both shattered and whole,

A radiant filament. He can’t see why

Death looks so brilliant. Its dead eyes rimed and white,

The head might be a flower, or maybe a jewel

Carelessly dropped by somebody roaming here

Where the walker feels his way, the trail so sheer.


ii. He Walks and Stops


His trail so sheer, his knees not what they were,

The walker finds himself

Pausing more often than stepping, and in these lulls­

Although he’s tired of memory,

Damnable habit that’s been the stuff of his life­

The past creeps up again.


He muses how it’s the biggest surprise he’s known:

The fact that he’s gotten old,

That, for example, he’s forced to put a hand

On each of those cobbly knees

And push down hard whenever he needs to step up

Onto even slight swells or rock-forms.


It’s what he did, he recalls, on grammar-school stairs,

And then, in adolescence,

Went on to mock the younger boys for doing.

He sees those small ones still,

Their untucked shirts and trousers and untied shoes

Gone muddy out on the playground,


As they pant on the steps, their little mouths agape,

The dread, imperious bell

Reminds them that they’re late again. They’re late.

The old man also sees

In this red oak grove a few stumps here and there

Of long-gone trees he hewed


Forty years back or more, their wood turned dozey,

Such that he all but pictures

Their turning to air itself were he to kick them,

Although of course he won’t,

For fear of losing balance. Imagination,

Vision ­ it’s all he has,


It seems, by which he means the ceaseless function

Of selective memory.

He thinks of war in Syria now, for instance,

And thinks he ought to be thinking

Of that, or of any news his mother described

In his boyhood as “current events,”


Rebuking his idle dreaming. He hears her voice

To this day and can’t gainsay it.

Three cord in eight short hours: that’s what he’d fell

And cut and split and stack.

Why shouldn’t he still be strong? Another surprise.

He walks on fifty feet


And pauses once again. A random gust

Blows in a scent of winter.

He can’t identify it, although it’s familiar:

He’s taken this odor in

For seven decades, but now he wants to ignore it.

He’d rather not be mired,


For even a moment in even the least old question.

Yet how does one look ahead

Or out from here? The prospect appears absurd.

For all of that, he notes

The buds of February tending to purple

The way they’ve always done,


And he can’t help it: he has to conjure spring.

He can’t resist somehow.

Is this mere habit too, or might it be

An authentic sense of revival?

He walks a while again and stops again,

Walks on and doesn’t know.


iii. He’ll Stay With That

He doesn’t know as he walks,

That two coyotes are mating

Within yards of where he passes,

In that late-growth fir clump northward.


He knows only enough to imagine

They’re there. If he passes again

In eight weeks or so, the bitch­

Will howl, if she exists.


She’ll be guarding her whelps from the walker

Unless or until he moves on.

If she feels fear, she’ll hide it.

Ice out on the river


Will have loosened up its suction

To either shore, and he

May not witness this either. Who knows?

Who knows? That lifelong question.


He tries not to prophesy

What constitutes his future,

Quietly urging himself instead

To consider what little he can know,

Or at least can see: for instance,

These tiny, wriggling specks

In the granular stuff under trees:

Snow fleas, harbingers


Of the sugar maker’s season.

Perhaps he’ll stay with that,

Will end with sweet figuration

As home rises into sight.



Storytelling at the Res


Joe hopes he’s a good guy now, but by jollies he wasn’t a good one once. He says he even stole his own wife’s hairlong jewelry to pay off a deal.


I had to smile: hairlong.


If you need a drink or drug, Joe went on, believe me, you’ll take what you got to take. Go ahead and rob your buddies or, like he just said, even your very own folks.


Outside, cold rain was coming steadily, but it felt so warm indoors I was afraid I’d doze, even though I wasn’t exactly sleepy, and Joe’s story wasn’t boring. Not at all.


There was a time he worked a big saw, the whole while plastered. It’s a wonder he never got himself or somebody wasted. There was a lot of days like that, and a lot in the joint too. Once he broke a white cop’s arm with a tire iron. The cop and his pals didn’t like that, you can bet.


Joe wore a raven feather in his hat, which he joked about, telling how it showed he’d gotten better, because it sure wasn’t no war bonnet. He tried to get humble was what he was saying, just that one feather. He prayed all his war days were done for.


Anybody else got something? he asked now. Everyone nodded, but afterwards most just looked shy and kept their mouths shut, except one guy in the room whose tribal name was See-Quickly, but people called him Jesse. He wore braids and had half an arm missing. He spoke up just enough to say he was out from prison. Again. I heard some scattered applause.


They’s a bunch of other people not here, Joe said, some of them clean and sober for years. Then they disappear, and then you hear they’re locked up, or else dead.


What about you? Joe asked, looking at me, one of the few white guys. What you got?


I tried to say something, but it seemed too hard to come up with anything.


No, no, don’t nobody feel on the spot, Joe continued, shaking his head, which made his jowls shake too. He was just a guy himself with some habits. Like check out this gut­ too many doughnuts.


But doughnuts don’t make you lose it. I wanted to say that, because we were all in this place for being crazy once.


You got something more, Jesse? Joe said. Let’s hear about it. Once you put stuff right out in the open, see, that helps you get it out of your system. You start in with that, then maybe you can get some healing.


Jesse said, I don’t even own no hat, never mind some bonnet. I ain’t got shit.


Joe called that God’s will.


So when I chopped off my arm at the mill, that was God working his ways on the res? Jesse asked Joe, but he wasn’t pissed off; or anyhow he smiled.


Joe knew Jesse didn’t mean anything bad. What happens, whatever it is, is what happens, he said. You might as well think there’s a reason for it. I mean, check around here. Joe nodded his head at everyone in his seat. I looked down at the floor when he came to me. We’re supposed to be where we’re at. I just call that a God deal, even when our asses get throwed in stir, maybe even if we’re killed. What do I know? I don’t know what God is, except He ain’t me.


I wondered if what he said next might not just be right, and it could include me: he said we all went to different schools together.


My trouble was, I wanted a story, and not just any story, but a knockout like Jesse’s. The fact that I kept looking for that sort of thing meant maybe I wasn’t so much better after all. I had to be a lunatic or just a fool to have wishes like that, to believe I hadn’t been beaten up enough to be interesting.


The blue tattoo on Jesse’s stub showed only the top halves of letters; I couldn’t make out the word they spelled.



Through a frost-flowered pane I watch his truck disappear,

Sole moving thing in a wide tableau

So still with cold it might be an abstract painting­

White on white­

And under that pall, hunkered in fear,

Small harmless creatures seek cover from ravening foes.


The huge man gulped his coffee, then he scampered

From our wood-warmed kitchen. He’s here for a week

While he takes a course not far from his childhood raising.

He dare not be late.

He’ll soon be a wilderness first responder,

An apt description: our son has always been quick


To ease whatever pain he can in others.

As for me, when the same week’s end arrives,

I’ll take the first step from seventy toward my eighties.

Should I celebrate?

Until then, that son will train in weather

Stalled for some time at zero degrees, or just shy.


I can’t hide, of course, from predator age forever.

Nobody does. I remind myself

The mere fact that I’ve survived so long is maybe

No more than fate.

My father fell, and one of my brothers,

Too young. I picture our child knee-deep in drifts.


For hours today, he’ll study lifesaving means

Against near-drownings, cuts to the bone,

Hypothermia, ski crashes, shivered limbs.

How the hours have raced

Since he, blond child in grass-stained jeans,

Tore breathless up from our field that afternoon


And into the kitchen with a handful of bluets so tender

That before he could bring them inside they’d shriveled .

Mom and Dad, he blurted through an urgent grin,

His words a spate:

Look what I did! I picked you flowers!

If I permit myself so much as a sniffle


Just now, the tears behind it will follow for hours.


The Couple at the Free Pile

Autumn’s church bazaar is over, all the stalwart, weathered tents of the vendors struck except the one over the White Elephant table. Early this Sunday morning, such tatty wares as went unsold still sprawl on the plastic tablecloth or on the ground, but the sign up front reads FREE.


No car approaching or following, I brake to a crawl so I can observe a man and woman making their deliberate ways through the jumble. I naturally notice that their goods are gathered in the rusted bed of the wheelbarrow my wife and I donated to the event, which nods on its fat, limp tire like a weary draft animal.


For me to stop completely might be to embarrass this couple, who covet what we congregants had considered encumbrances. And yet, however it shames me, my curiosity­like desperate thirst, or lust­ also impels me. I’ll drive on, circle the village common, and pass back this way again from the other direction. After all, the two scavengers seem devoted to their scrutinies; I doubt they’ll notice my second inspection.


I turn by a picket fence enclosing a big house’s tidy lawn at the south end of the common. The owners held a well-attended garden tour there last June. Then I swing right again, north, going by the famous corner elm, which residents agreed at town meeting to save, approving a line item that funded the tree surgeons’ services.


During the festival, I visited the White Elephant booth myself. As the saying goes, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and you never know. As I predicted, however, nothing appealed. Among other bits of uselessness, say, I found a basketball so worn it had lost all traces of its original, pebbled orange; three recumbent, saucer-eyed ceramic deer; a few chipped plates, inscribed Disneyland, 1974 and showing portraits of Mickey, Goofy, Donald; raveled rugs; tarnished lampshades and sconces. So on.


Passing the elementary school, I make a right again, and, before the turn that will take me to another view, I stop at the intersection, just opposite the village store. My wife and I will be having lunch there in an hour or so. Its deli is the best-stocked one for miles, the staff all cheerful.


As I drive, even more slowly than before, past the White Elephant display, I see a car seat in a Bondo’d pickup’s cab. It holds a child, and he or she ­it’s hard to tell through the windows’ grime­ must have been sleeping a few minutes ago, but now I can just make out a mouth, gaped in a yowl I can’t hear, even if I can imagine it. Surely one of the parents, or both, will step out of the tent to tend the toddler. For now, though, they stand motionless, one on either side of the wheelbarrow, eyes on me. Their stares are furious.


Sydney Lea

Vermont Poet Laureate

P. O. Box 9

Newbury, Vermont 05051

(802) 866-5458


| Home | The Books | Sampler | Awards | Contact |