The American Journal of Poetry
"Strong Rx Medicine"®

 

Sydney Lea

Gravitas

 

I complain to my neighbor I’ve got no time for another do-good committee,
but he insists. He insists by saying I’ll bring it “some gravitas.”
I smother the phone with my palm and snicker, recalling the tormented teachers
of My Boyhood, that doomed old republic. How would wine-sick Mr. Haas
react to such talk? For him, I invented an author, whose “little known works”
I wrote a theme on, and he gave me an A. Or Miss Dilson, thin-haired and wattled
English instructor– I let a grass snake wriggle out of my backpack
onto her floor– what might she think?  Or above all poor Mr. Merrill,
 
first Latin instructor, on whom I pulled that slew of idiot tricks. 
I guess he must have taught me gravitas. The word, I mean.
Would he connect its meaning to the punk who glued his desk’s drawers shut, 
who festooned the bumper of his trail-worn Plymouth sedan with a string of cans,
and aped him exactly, if I say so myself, for my cynical sect of classmates?
Biggest cynic myself, I relied on his rage as diversion, impatient
as I was with all his lessons. I wince even now to think of that room:
the mustard-colored globe on a shelf, its intriguing African nations,

whose names, though I didn’t know it, would change; dust puffing from the trough of  the blackboard;
the soporific swish of the janitor’s broom along the hallway;
syncopations from the blighted elm whose limb-tips always strummed
a pane when weather blew up from the east; the disheartening bouquet
from the basement kitchen, where invisible workers thumped around as they fixed
another bad lunch. I still see Mr. Merrill’s eyes as he glowered.
The eyes held something other than simple fury, or so I thought–
not that I cared. He was just an old man, if younger no doubt by years

than I am now. Like my father, he’d been in the European Theater,

so that as I write this I understand he knew things I’d never considered
and wouldn’t need to in later life.  He may even have hoped I wouldn’t.
Whatever the case, he must have seen that I wouldn’t stay forever
what I seemed to be as I fidgeted there, sullen, restless, ruthless,
desperate to break away from that stuffy third-floor box, that cage,
its never-ending, meaningless sum, esse, fui, futurus.
One day I’d understand the look he fixed on me. It was grave.

 

 

Sydney Lea

Seafarer

–on the anniversary of my father’s death

 

Technically, Marcus drowned in the fluid that flooded his lungs.
So I heard from a friend, his nurse. She told me he’d never wed.
So no wife. No child. Except for that nurse, he died alone.
Then some lawyer called, describing how Marcus had been as a kid:
   
Normal– until they yanked his tonsils out.”  The ether
In overdose drenched his brain. Eight years old. Too late,
My friend grasped why his words came like sounds from underwater,
Why for Marcus the rules of Bingo were so hard to navigate.
   
His nurse had wrongly imagined the man retarded, or challenged,
To use her euphemism. Whatever you’d call it, he met
The challenge head-on.  He worked for years at a bakeshop in Boston,
Then drifted north seeking harbor, which, given his case, turned out
   
To be our local church home.     The town librarian here
Brought him books. He liked to read about boats– but “wooden ones only,
“Not those messes made of metal.” His yen for old ships must have squared
With what little my friend later learned of his father’s career in the Navy,
   
   
Which ended when storm swept him off a cold steel deck to a grave
In the ocean.  The son wore a look     at times that puzzled the staff,
Though they came to recognize it, tears coming as if in waves
From his searching eyes.  And what, to witness that sort of grief,
   

Did the medical people imagine?

 
 

Having nothing but their accounts,

I conjure young Marcus myself: he brushes the flour from his hands,
Then walks a few blocks to the bay, where he gazes at ships in the distance,
The new metal kind, no doubt. I picture him as he scans
   
The prospect, squinting to make bright spars and planks appear,
Along with windlass and capstan, and himself standing tall at a tiller.
A fatherland’s out there somewhere. Calm and intent, he steers
Toward what he’s construed from books  
  or his own inner visions. However,
   
Something in me is looking for a similar hint at redemption.
I didn’t know Marcus at all. This is second-hand elegy,
So I know it’s only presumption to make of him a steersman,
As if such longing belonged to him alone, not me.

 

 

 

SYDNEY LEA's 12th collection of poems, No Doubt the Nameless, was recently published by Four Way Books. His fourth collection of personal essays, What’s the Story? Reflections on a Life Grown Long, appeared in 2015 from Green Writers Press in Vermont.

 

 

 

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