“Wonder: Red Beans & Ricely” from Ghost Pain won a Pushcart Prize.
Singer of stories, lyric raconteur, Sydney Lea has evolved—through a long, rich career—into one of America’s most harrowing and honest poets. Ghost Pain is his most eloquent and wrenching book. This poetry implodes categories. If we must give it a label, let’s call it talking blues. If we must describe it with a single word, let’s call it heartbreaking.
– T.R. Hummer
To say that Ghost Pain offers us glimpses of an “examined life” would be too tepid. Lea’s poems—with their heavily freighted, measured talk—enact a journey into and finally through self that is both unsparing and urgent. They give honesty back its good name by demonstrating that it must be hard won, achieved. It’s a remarkable book, which takes his work to a new level.
– Stephen Dunn
Much of current poetry seems composed for solo harmonica, but in Ghost Pain, Sydney Lea is writing for the full symphony orchestra. The lush vocabulary of particular things is here, as well as the assimilated prosody of centuries of English verse. Lea is a rightly celebrated poet, writing here at the height of his powers, and Ghost Pain is an important book, in part because of the supple richness and generosity of its language:
No matter how I bushwack on my rambles
so that from aerial view each might resemble
a rabbit’s beat, a maze, an ampersand
(I turn myself, I turn my thoughts around)….
But Lea is up to more than beautiful language. Ghost Pain articulates and explores many of the most painful, important themes of the last century, which extend like feelings from a lost limb into the current century: addiction, violence, and relation of the individual to the community and larger world, the uses and the inadequacies of art. In Lea’s poems, these subjects are examined, not through the trendy lens of disembodied poetic consciousness, but through the lives and language of actual people. Lea renders the voices of rural New England–Tony, the poet’s friend who rebuilds a classic Chevy; singers in the church choir; children playing on the town square lawn. In Lea’s rendering, these people may look like a Rockwell painting–the New England backdrop is little changed–but they are more the descendants of Frost’s people in their inner dark, no longer sure of their purpose or place. They are, in short, our contemporaries. The poems of Ghost Pain are generous in linguistic delight, powerful in feeling without resort to sentimentality, and ambitious in their engagement of large subject. They are adult poems–nourishment for those who go to poetry for more than diversion. They are the reason we need poetry.