How often do I see that a poet (or even a mystic) has written with conviction that he or she accepts, even embraces the grand circle dance of the natural world, which will of course guarantee the poet’s eventual demise, dust to dust and all that? And how often do I respond “bullshot,” or something similar? But when Sydney Lea concludes the final, title poem of this collection with accepting “of course”s – “Of course the glorious earth// will take me back, of course the young-year hare give profligate birth” – I nod and am wholly persuaded. This is in part due to the ways the poem’s previous forty lines address what is past and passing and to come and partly because the whole volume weighs the woe and the weal of life with such meticulous honesty and imagination, right down to the “steaming purple pip” of a sparrow’s heart, but my response is also a function of my on-going admiration of Lea’s poetic stamina, his decades of poems that run without rushing, his extended narratives that haul along a whole landscape and an invisible world of delicious and perilous particulars, not call and response so much as cry and “countercry.”
This volume offers a whole trophy case of excellent poems, some of which appeared in Shenandoah, but I want to call particular attention to “Dubber’s Cur,” in part because it’s dedicated to the late John Engels, a poet deeply mourned but not widely enough remembered, or memorized. Lea’s narrative recounts the sophisticated (“French bread,” “organic,” “foreign car”) speaker’s on-going scraps with a less polished (“common law,” “Scrawny pony,” “junkheap ramble”) neighbor’s dog, the cur of the title, who makes sorties into French bread’s yard, snarling and pissing and annoying the house dogs no end. In what could easily become a class war concluding with shotgunned rocksalt and the narrator’s victory strut, Lea finds a stronger virtue than protecting one’s demesne. He does not blame the renegade, but turns the question of passion and mission on his reader who “may have sensed/ a near-exalting rightness/ in doggedly keeping at it, just as Dubber’s cur/ keeps at his climb, shows up.” The extended empathy and forgiveness, the willingness to project and understand are all important to the poem and in some way a tribute to Engels, one of our most sorrowful losses of recent years, but the real point is the poetry, the pace and shift of language, the restraint and abundance, the interrogated certainty. I can think of people who would read “Dubber’s Cur” and not want to devour the whole collection, but I might not much care for their company.