Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Wall Street Journal review

Well, last weekend’s Wall Street Journal review of my book is now history. I am grateful that, for the most part, it is favorable, though it is hard for me to imagine why the editors should have assigned a book like A North Country Life to a celebrity chef.

Said chef has a vacation place in southern Vermont, which, increasingly, is a domain of vacation places, but perhaps even so tenuous a geographical link is what earned him his chore. Now I have lived in upper New England for well over forty years, and in parts of that New England quite different from those just north of the Massachusetts line. So I did, I confess, find myself a bit nettled that he should have challenged my sense of old-time New England character and behavior. After all, from the earliest fifties, which was before, I surmise, the reviewer was born, I knew those old people, especially ones from northeastern Maine, in a way he simply could not have.

My friend, the poet Marvin Bell, once said, “We all know how often a critic reads a book./ Less than once.” When I considered, for instance, that this particular critic had me living not in Newbury but in Newton, Vermont (a nonexistent town, I believe), I was ever so slightly bugged. But this was merely a cosmetic carelessness. When he suggested that, as an alternative to  mourning the generation of old folks I encountered as a child– men and women who’d be 120 or so if they yet lived– I chose a barroom, I was plain exasperated. Since the essay in question is founded very specifically on my finding barrooms and alcohol the opposite of valid alternatives for me, I felt I was being twitted for saying something I had not said, just as elsewhere in the review I felt I was being twitted for not saying things I never intended to say.

I sound a bit more miffed here than in fact I feel. The chef in question is patently a superb writer himself, and again, one comes away from his article with a more kindly than unkindly disposition toward A North Country Life. And for a poet to have work of his, whatever the genre, noticed in the nation’s most widely circulated newspaper...well, I should govern my whining, expressing, rather, my thanks for any such sort of attention.

See http://online.wsj.com/search/term.html?KEYWORDS=sydney+lea&mod=DNH_S

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

me n the wall st. journal

There is something of a strange bedfellows feel to this, but my recently published book of memoiristic essays, A NORTH COUNTRY LIFE: TALES OF WOODSMEN, WATERS, AND WILDLIFE, is, I'm told, slated for review in this Sunday's (January 27's) Wall Street Journal.

I hope you'll join me in hoping the notice is a complimentary one!

Friday, January 18, 2013

awful poems

I was at a gathering not long ago –the venue isn’t important– when I heard a soldier recite a poem. He’d been struggling after getting home, and small wonder: twice deployed to Afghanistan, he’d also been twice wounded, one of those times pretty critically. He told us that the poem he gave us had kept him going through several horrific ordeals.

I think the poem was called “Hope.” It was awful.

For all its clichés and bromides, however, that poem had been a literal life-saver for the man, so by what right do I sneer at it?

Driving home after that get-together where I heard the GI, I got to thinking back some twenty years, when my wife and I were sitting one evening in a backcountry restaurant. Apart from us, there were only three patrons: a mother, her adult daughter, and her son-in-law. The daughter had composed a poem for her mom’s birthday, and we couldn’t help overhearing it. That poem too was awful.

But again, how do we claim the superiority of “high art”?  

Such a matter provides much food for thought, no? I mean to avoid strong opinionation, to make clear that my judgments are that, period: my judgments, hence not ones with any special authority. So if I ask you to consider quality vs. awfulness here, I mean primarily to raise an issue, not to offer some pat and prescriptive solution to it myself; I’m far from convinced that one is available.

The soldier and the daughter poet moved their listeners, certainly, more than any of the recent (and to me inscrutable) New Yorker poems I have seen, just for example. 

What do we make of that?

Monday, January 14, 2013

two quotations to ponder

Here are a couple of thoughts, rather unlike one another, but each worth thinking about, perhaps the first more worth it than the second, so many blowhard politicos today busy lecturing the lower classes on the need to "take some responsibility for their lives." Please.


Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed. 
                                                                       –Herman Melville

Poetry is completely divided between the desire for the country that does not exist and the need for common ground: between elsewhere and cliché; its two contradictory genies.

                                                                      –Paul Valéry

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Two new books by my hand

Here are the front covers of two books by my hand. A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters, and Wildlife is a series of lyrical essays, most having to do with a generation of men and women who would be 120 or so if they still lived. These were people who inhabited remote parts of upper New England, primarily Maine, in the days before electricity and power tools. Lacking any outside entertainment, they made ther own: each was therefore a superb raconteur, and their sense of the kinship between language and landscape, and their narrative impulse, have –more than anything or anyone else– affected not only my writing but also the way in which I have sought to conduct my life. Mine will have been the last generation to know such marvelous folks, and I felt driven to catch what I could of them on the page before they lapsed from human memory. The book is now available from amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other retailers; signed copies can be ordered through my web site.
(A short early chapter appears below.)

I Was Thinking of Beauty is my eleventh collection of poems. It is now available. The book can be ordered at amazon, Barnes & Noble, direct from the publisher (Four Way Books, NYC), or, signed, from me. Consult my web site for all these possibilities.


Hookum-snuffie. Almost no one knows what it means anymore, and few would care.
Why should they?
More and more, everything about me seems out of date, perhaps to an even greater degree than with most people of a certain age. Not much after dawn today, for instance, I took my ash paddle, fashioned by the late Hazen Bagley, and set out on the water in a sixteen-foot wood and canvas canoe, fabricated by the Old Town Company in 1950.
I inherited the boat from my long gone father’s late brother. The men took their sons far north to this part of Maine in that canoe and its partner, my dad’s eighteen-footer, which blew off a beach some years after in a storm, never to be recovered. A mystery, a vanishing, among many. I was nine years old on that first trip.
Those guide model canoes were more than merely beautiful. The hull planks were feathered, not butted, for example, to keep sand and grit out of their seams. The fabled Grand Lake Stream canoe-maker, Lawrence “Pop” Moore, told me he considered them among the best such craft ever produced.
An hour and some back, my canoe glided me, its progress as smooth as the lake itself, to the foot of the Machias River at Third Lake Dam.
To one like me, of course, there is far more complex and inscrutable technology at work nowadays than ever went into a canoe, no matter how exquisitely made. What can it mean, even out here, to be such a paddler in an era of jet skis? Perhaps more daunting, at least to me, what is a writer in an age of Internet service even at the summit of Mt. Everest?
Twitter. Google. Facebook. Skype.A North Country Life • x

What does solitude signify anymore? What on earth is a poet, not to mention a poet-woodsman, poet-angler, poet-hunter? Will he have any readers at all? If so, this is for them, though it’s even more for each of the men and women I’ll be conjuring, masters of language themselves, one and all, one and all gone on.
You cut a small branch of hardwood and then you fashion a hook by nipping it at a fork. With the hook, you can lift a seething pot by its bail when your spuds and onions get to boiling over, or whenever they’re ready to taste. That’s the hokum. If you know what you’re doing, you can lift the lid and judge the readiness by smell. That’s the snuffie .
Hookum-snuffie. It’s believed to derive from Passamaquoddy pidgin, and no, it can’t mean anything now. Still I say it. There’s something deep in the combination of words, and in many ancient others, that I always loved, and which I still want. That’s why I now and then make a hookum-snuffie just to do it. And I never shape one without naming it aloud in the woods or on the shore. It helps me to see some of the last of the genuine woodsmen again, along with their strong wives, and in rare cases even one or both of their parents, all of whom had their special skills. Nineteenth-century figures, really—like me, though of course I’m speaking only of temperament. I’m not one of them, could never have been.
I’ve come back and back to this corner of Maine for more than sixty years. Its hold on me grows even more powerful in the absence of those great characters I met in young life, more powerful too as, inevitably, the part of me weakens that busts through the puckerbrush for wild game, wades heavy water for trout, or portages more than a few hundred yards at a go.
Every elation here—each bird pointed and flushed, each noble whitetail buck, each loon and moose and northwest wind, with its wild tattered apron of waves and its rushing clouds—is at least equally freighted with its opposite. I ask, in my vanity: how can I surrender all this to others, so few of whom can possibly know the region’s history, as I do, by way of its old-time characters?
I ache to see the foxfire glint again in Earl Bonness’s eyes, say, as he tends his flame and his smutted cookware. He speaks of driving great ever­green logs out of Mopang Stream. I heard him tell about all that. I yearn to hear George MacArthur, who could throw a broad-blade sleeper axe and bury it, time after time, in some not-so-near tree’s trunk. He told me how and when he learned that trick.

The old ones told me and told me and told me.
George and Earl always claimed they liked to work. Not many nowa­days would truly savor their sort of labor, which would kill most modern humans, as it would have me, even when I was twenty. Paid by the back­breaking job, not the hour, and still, like as not, you were hunting or fish­ing or poaching for food, day or night, in the scant interludes.
The male elders are barrel-chested, deep-voiced figures, who still seem mythic, despite the tempering irony of my older vision. Earl knew what it was to ride the long-logs clear to the ocean, where they’d be gath­ered into schooners and carried south under great sails to busier ports.
George knew what it was to cut ties through the whole of a winter on White’s Island without once seeing the camp in daylight—out by lantern before dawn, back the same way after dark.
George’s niece Annie knew what it was to use a canoe for a bedroom.
And I—I know what they told me.
They’re all dead now. Everyone else in the world, or so it can seem in irrational moments, lies dead too.
The lumber company blew up Third Lake Dam about forty years back, after moving timber by water was outlawed. Reaching its ghostly site, I heard an eagle scream uplake, but I couldn’t find her. I started a fire and waited until the pot-lid danced. I hadn’t brought anything to cook but coffee.
Hookum-snuffie, I breathed, imagination transforming those pillars of mist out on the lake to river drivers riding their wood.
2012. The new century isn’t all that new anymore, though how re­cently it seemed so. Now it recedes into one before and one before that and words and phrases call to me: deer noise on the beach, are gone on the clean jump; a tin cup wants more coffee; there are bad doings on the lake; a rugged man is withy; a big chopped tree is quite a stick.
Earl has a habit of slowly filling and tamping his pipe as he starts to spin a story. George makes a certain wave of his hand when he does. Do you mind the time, George begins, the verb an old form of remember....
It’s as though I mind Earl scampering over the logs in the boom; soon they’ll lift the dam-gates and sluice that mass into the Machias.
George has swamped a spot where he’ll drop the first tall cedar of the morning; he spits on his mitts, grabs the bucksaw.
I’ve long considered myself a wordsmith, and though I do so in my late sixties with a satisfaction that dims as my sense of the literary arts’ future does, I don’t quite know how else to know things. I go on working at a magic return of what’s perished, that old profusion of a beloved idiom, one that lies hidden and hurts me.
Hookum-snuffie. I muttered this morning. Hookum-snuffie.
Then I doused my fire, steam wasting itself into the heavens. I said it again, more slowly. It rose out of me on a column of air. I dreamed my old dream: that some word—fossilized, forgotten—could quell an old longing.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

In mem. Robert Siegel

 --> -->
Pool by the Sheep Gate

He’d been lying there most of his life.
When the angel troubled the water, he couldn’t move
fast enough to be first.  He had no wife
or brother to carry him: no one that love,

a sense of justice, or pity moved to the task.
So when the wonderworker came, he was resigned
again to seeing someone else cured. He didn’t ask,
even when the healer looked him in the eye

and inquired if he wished to be healed–
not a strange question, considering his vocation
of living in hope denied: he was a professional
at it, with status and a certain reputation.

Take up your bed.... He obeyed before he thought,
luckily, of all he’d have to learn to live without.

This poem is based on a passage from the gospel of John, in which Jesus heals a lame man who has never been able to reach the healing pool by the sheep gate, precisely because he is crippled. It offers an interesting perspective: it suggests, yes, the power of Christ as seen by a committed Christian; but it also makes a reader ponder the fact that human beings can get attached to their own misfortunes, that a depressed state of mind can, for some, become a luxury– which the man healed here will have to do without.

The poem seems excellent to me. It was written by my friend of over forty years, Robert Siegel. Cancer claimed Bob’s life last week, and I will miss him, as poetry will. Bob had faced his disease with valor and with faith.

Thinking on his passing led me also to think, scarcely for the first time, about poetic reputation, about which I have never much been concerned. But renown was even less crucial to Bob Siegel, in part because of the faith I just mentioned. Worldly fame had to be relatively inconsequential to him.

Bob had a distinguished career: I knew him first at Dartmouth, from which, as poets, we were both axed, creative work not passing for real publication back in those days. (It’s a very different matter there now, thanks in no small part to the efforts of my friend, the wonderful poet Cleopatra Mathis.) He went on to teach at the University of Wisconsin/Milwaukee, where he established an excellent MFA program. He published nine books of poems, gathered numerous awards and fellowships, and enjoyed real esteem as a teacher.

But Bob was under-recognized as a poet (though the phrase, of course, sounds redundant: after all, an immensely successful book of poems will sell fewer copies than, say, a mediocre pro baseball team will sell tickets to a given game). I suspect that his relatively small reputation had to do with his lifelong, deeply committed Christianity.

The consensual view of Ivy League liberals, whose influence on too much of our public dialogue strikes me as disproportionate, dismisses the religious perspective, often  rancorously, sometimes insultingly. My own Christianity is far more heterodox than Bob’s ever was, yet I have frequently had to bite my lip among northeastern “progressives” (many of whose values I share, in all honesty) while they lampoon my beliefs.

It turns out that for the self-styled enlightened ones, religious folk are the only remaining group in western culture toward whom it seems not merely okay but commendable to practice intolerance. Men and women who wouldn’t dream of slurring an ethnic community or those with an alternate sexual identity– indeed, people who would lambaste anyone who did so as a bigot– feel free to see all people of faith as one and the same... and as fair game for mockery and debasement.

In short, it appears that we needn’t reject blanket judgment on any given group of people; rather, we must be sure that we make that judgment on the right group of people. If we honor that principle, you see, we are not narrow-minded. We can say whatever we want about these undesirables.

We must despise orthodoxies...unless they are our own.

But don’t our own orthodoxies, as much as anyone else’s, close us off, say, from a poem as deft and challenging as “Pool by the Sheep Gate”?