Friday, September 30, 2011

Young of the Year Reviewed in Off the Coast

Rebuke and Consolation

Young of the Year by Sydney Lea

With his first book, Searching the Drowned Man, published in 1980, Vermont-based poet Sydney Lea established himself as one of the finest limners of New England. As an intimate of the natural world, Lea knows how to read signs of wildlife, but he is also an empathetic portraitist, especially of individuals who live hard lives. Like Philip Booth, Wesley McNair and Maxine Kumin, he turns local knowledge into bigger picture verse, defying the regionalist label in the process.

Lea's latest book is part memoir, part portrait gallery, and part a wrestling with old age. The book's opening section features past exploits and encounters filtered through the lens of time. "The 1950s" is something of a confession: members of the high school hockey team took advantage of a homely girl nicknamed Rink-Rat. Here, the ugly braggadocio of youth becomes shame. "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" resurrects a Philadelphia nightclub, Pep's Musical Bar, in 1965 where a young white man, there to hear the Adderly sextet, comes to understand underlying racial divides by way of Wilt Chamberlain, who owned the place.

The second section offers portraits of neighbors in the author's neck of the Vermont countryside. The opening poem, "Recession," exemplifies Lea's prosodic mastery: a seamless sonnet with nuanced half-rhymes about a local Quik-Stop. "Dandelion Pickers" is van Gogh and Richard Hugo, an homage to figures seen in a passing field. Empathy runs strong here, be it for an elderly pastor losing his grip or for Stump, hauler of refuse, who sports a hideous hernia and mystifies everyone with his cheerful "hail-fellow-well-met" attitude.

Part III, "Birds, A Farrago," is a remarkable 14-section medley of musings of an older man dealing with post-viral arthropathy, a debilitating condition that all but shuts him off from his family—wife, children, grandchildren—and the feathered creatures that are his familiars: tern, loon, crow, jay, grackle, junco, kite. Each bit of progress toward recovery is accompanied by these birds, "future and memory both, / rebuke and consolation."

Lea wraps it all up in the final section with five poems of differing formats that reflect on family, nature, home, time passing. "Dispute with Thomas Hardy" and the title poem, "Young of the Year," are considerations of the poet's life and world, alternately angry—"the cretin / politicians rattling swords, / as if, by counter-logic, war / transmuted the earth into something saintly"—and loving: making a granddaughter smile with the waggle of a tongue.

Don't let the cover of this book misguide. While the photograph of a white snowshoe hare relates to what lies within, its Hallmark cuteness may lead you to believe you're in for a group of nature poems. No, no, no. Beyond the bunny lies a stunning collection by an old(er) master who continues to bring us resonant visions of the north.

—Carl Little