Magazine article The Christian Century

No Doubt the Nameless

Magazine article The Christian Century

No Doubt the Nameless

Article excerpt

No Doubt the Nameless

By Sydney Lea

Four Way Books, 107 pp., $15.95 paperback

In one of the poems in this collection, Vermont poet Sydney Lea describes the plight of one he calls a "winter poet":

   Perhaps this is more than anything
   else what unnerves him:
   that memory's his topic, that he can't
   resist it
   and seek out something more lively.

These words gesture toward memoir and their irony is poignant, as it is difficult to imagine finding something livelier than memory, at least the way Lea explores it--or allows it to explore him. This insight is marked by the wisdom of acute observation and studied recollection, traits that have marked Lea's writing over a distinguished career.

One can only celebrate what is Lea's 12th collection. Something moving just above the unconscious mind stirs as the reading proceeds--as if we come to share something of the poet's honesty and even modesty in his way of seeing others alongside himself. He hones his judgments against the uncertain edge of remembering, gesturing throughout toward what he describes as "the only life I've ever owned,"

   though much of it I've held to my
   ammunition
   pack, a keepsake from when I dared
   to presume
   The world was all before me--as in
   fact it was.

Yes, "memory's his topic," not some wistful hope or quick knowing, which is what makes this collection so authentic and intimately real. Reading these poems slowly, page by page, we find ourselves paying more careful attention to the details streaming by in each moment of every life, including our own.

This call to pay attention--Simone Weil's rendering of what constitutes prayer--is particularly clear at the close of a masterful poem titled "Gate, Beggar, and Birds." Inspired by a scene in Acts 3, about a lame man carried daily to "the gate of the temple which is called Beautiful," the poet admits that he "knows little of what might be called divine." But he goes on, after musing about this man with his "impossible legs," to describe the mournful song of a whippoorwill he'd heard, closing with these memorable lines:

   But today I heard a certain sound,
   teemed with sad beauty,
   a doleful keening: whippoorwills,
   so rare these days
   they're downright precious. I reminded
   myself
   that in years long gone
   that song was common
   among these hills. It was everywhere.
   And I scarcely noticed. … 
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