These two poems are personal. Sort of. They were not written to or about me and the poets presumably are totally unaware of my existence on the planet. But each provided an ah-ha moment of personal recognition for me as a person of advancing age in increasing decrepitude.Sydney Lea.
Sydney Lea is a poet, novelist, essayist, editor, and professor, and was the Poet Laureate of Vermont from 2011 to ‘15. His most recent book is The Exquisite Triumph of Wormboy, a graphic mock-epic poem in collaboration with former Vermont Cartoonist Laureate James Kochalka—how utterly Vermont to have a Cartoonist Laureate. His thirteenth collection of poetry, Here was published 2019. He founded New England Review in 1977 and edited it till 1989. His work has appeared in literary journals and magazines including The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, and Virginia Quarterly Review. Lea has taught for the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program at Dartmouth College, and at Yale University, Wesleyan University, Vermont College, Middlebury College, Franklin University Switzerland, and the National Hungarian University.A cabin and the Montana night sky.
Reckoning struck me first because it opens in the state of my birth under the vast starry sky of the West that was such a part of my childhood and then because it shifts to the lights of a big city—Gotham for him, the Windy City for me. I have no son, but daughters, I hear their voices—the bored indifference to those same Montana mountains and eagerness to find a mall—any mall—in the small towns among the pine smells. The children of those two eldest daughters are grown now and one has a laughing toddler of his own. My third and youngest lives with us now with her baby daughter. I wonder if Matilda will walk by the hand with me to find the elf door in a rotting tree in a remnant wood or a flop-eared rabbit in a cage. I, too, feel some sort of transgenerational connection.
Let us not take it for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small.
—Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader
Once, on the steps of a cabin in wild Montana,
just before dawn I stood stunned
by that delirium of stars.
I’ve looked from a friend’s apartment in New York
at nine o’clock in the evening,
likewise astounded by countless windows.
Light everywhere. Light everywhere. And dark.
Coleridge opined that the sublime
can make us feel like nothing.
I’m sure I’d have known as much without him.
The older I become the less I aim
at epic self-expression.
It’s best, I think, as I didn’t always,
to keep my counsel in face of sights and themes
that lie beyond my ken, right where they’ve lain
lifelong, though once ambition
obscured all that. But I check myself:
I’m no more nothing, in fact, than anybody.
My memory feels boundless,
and if it fetches no sublime,
still moments may be fashioned into stories.
As randomly as I might choose a star
or a single light from some high-rise,
I summon a time—or it summons me—
when I and my son, then just three years old,
walked through a patch of woods
to spy on a hidden beaver pond.
I longed for this adventure to unfold
exactly as it did. The wind came right,
and just enough of day
remained for both of us to see
three beavers swimming, a mere five feet from where
we crouched in pond-side reeds.
Clear as judgment in my mind,
the rasp of roost-bound crows, thick August air,
that tannic orange of the cruising rodents’ teeth.
My son appeared transported
as we left the place by early starlight.
“How was it?” asked his mother back at home.
“Oh, Mom! You should have seen!
There were some bugs in the water! They all were swimming!
All of them were swimming around and around!”
In my twenties then, I didn’t know
how not to feel let down.
I know some things today, that is,
that compensate for slackened aspiration.
That child is forty-seven,
his children much older than he was then.
I study my boy. I’m lost in speculation:
I resembled him, I hope, in intending kindness.
In my case, though, vague zeal
distracted my heart and mind and soul.
He’s taking his daughter to ski this afternoon.
They’ll command an epic view,
yet it may be only the shape of a mogul
or cloud that, come the evening, she’ll retain.
And my son? He has perhaps already traveled
like me to where all types of light are local.
— Sydney LeaCamisha L. Jones.
The next poem was shared just yesterday on Facebook by my best friend from high school, Jonathan Ben Gordon, now a retired Cantor.
Camisha L. Jones is the author of the chapbook Flare published by Finishing Line Press in 2017. She received of a 2017 Spoken Word Immersion Fellowship from the Loft Literary Center. She currently serves as the managing director at Split This Rock, a national nonprofit that cultivates, teaches, and celebrates poetry that bears witness to injustice and provokes social change. According to the Deaf Poets Society blog Jones “lives with fibromyalgia, Ménière's Disease, and an adamant commitment to keep her writing life from scorching on the back burner.” She lives in Herndon, Virginia."Sorry, I can't hear you."
At first glance it would seem that I would not have much in common with a young deaf Black poet. Certainly I am not deaf but I am hard of hearing due to prolonged exposure to industrial noise and ear-bleeding rock and roll as a young man. Before I finally got hearing aids I had plenty of those I’m-sorry-I-can’t-hear-you moments, especially when clerking overnight at a gas station/convenience store to exasperated customers whose lottery and cigarette requests I could not quite make out. Equally annoyed was my wife who got tired of repeating herself over and over. Things are mostly better now if I “have my ears in.” But why the hell do they whisper on all of my favorite TV dramas? And last week I must have said “huh?” a dozen times to my fellow activists at a Cancel the ICE Contract in McHenry County action. And don’t get me started on garbled phone calls.
I’m sorry, could you repeat that. I’m hard of hearing.
To the cashier
To the receptionist
To the insistent man asking directions on the street
I’m sorry, I’m hard of hearing. Could you repeat that?
At the business meeting
In the writing workshop
On the phone to make a doctor’s appointment
Hello, my name is Sorry
To full rooms of strangers
I’m hard to hear
I vomit apologies everywhere
They fly on bat wings
towards whatever sound beckons
I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I am so, so sorry
and not hearing
I regret to inform you
—Camisha L. Jones