The American Journal of Poetry
"Strong Rx Medicine"®


Sydney Lea

Living History


Dad drove through the rows of small crosses, which looked pretty to me.

You could still see gun nests dug into the steep cliffs’ chalk.

My father turned chalky himself, which scared me half-witless.

I was not quite ten years old the day we traveled

To one site of the D-Day invasion nine years before.

When I asked what the trouble was, his words seemed cryptic:

“We lost a lot of men here.” I felt something like shock:

How could things from such ancient history survive


The whole length of my life?  I watch a portly man hide

These many years later behind a rhododendron                                                      

By a field in late spring. The man and a dozen others,

Look a bit goofy in tricorn hats and knee britches

As they re-enact a scene from our revolution.

With a ramrod, the guy tamps imaginary powder

Right here in Vermont, not far outside of Bennington.

I suddenly recollect a certain movie,


Touted by some reviewer or other as “searingly

Realistic.” Searingly. That description

Summons to mind Red Logan, my longtime dentist,

And you’ll see why.  Shortly before he died

Of cancer, Red set up a clinic for our local poor,

The ones with the truly bad teeth.  The film in question,

Almost twenty years old, was Saving Private Ryan.

That clinic showed Red’s big heart. Because we were friends,


I asked him how realistic the movie had been.

Red manned a tank in General Patton’s force. 

“Well,” he replied, “It was about as convincing

As anything I’ve seen on what combat looked like.”

Today’s re-enactors in a gentle Vermont meadow

Always refer to themselves, I know, as “living

Historians.” My soldier suddenly waddles toward

The middle of the field, but soon feigns a mortal wound.


The pageant is young, so he’ll have to lie around

A pretty long time.  But it’s such a lovely spring day–

The same as the one that time not far from St. Lo.  

My father spoke little of the war but for funny stories,

Like when one of his grunts attempted to steal a piglet

From a convent’s barn. But that’s not on my mind now,

Even though pork-scent pervades this outdoor play–

Barbecued meat on the gas-fired grilles of observers


Here for the fun.  Years back I was stunned that my father

Threw up on those cliffs. Tonight I’ll be safe at home.

These living historians are playing at chaos, their skirmish

All scripted. I’m a lifelong civilian, but think I’ve learned

That chaos can never really be replicated

Except by itself.  Clearly it hurt Red to finish.

“There are things...,” he murmured. “You know, it’s hard to explain....”

“Nothing else captures, you know...” – he concentrated.


“No movie can give you the smell of a human in flames.”



Sydney Lea

Eddie's Mutt


At the dogleg downhill stands our neighbor’s mongrel,

The one that chased after all of our kids on their bikes

When they were young. He chased us too

When we slowed for that rutted angle.

Now here was a creature that no one on earth could like,


With his mottled coat, all shag and mat.

I hated him, in fact, even his ears,

One lop and one erect. I recall

Half-wanting to crush him flat,

If only so our family could pass in peace.


I have an appointment, I’m running late.

I’ve grown a cataract that jumbles my vision,

My crossword addiction, my driving at night.

Last evening, for instance, I made

A hard turn left for gas at my usual station,


But in the bad light I steered into the break

In the plow-drift, catching my error an instant prior

To smacking right into the snowed-over guardrail.

I think of that dog, how he’d streak

From his yard and just be there by my front tire,


As if materialized out of nothing.

After I lurched the wheel in panic and veered,

He’d scrabble a while, then go back home.

In my rearview, I’d watch him trotting

Back under his tree on Eddie’s lawn, which he shears


As clean as any tournament green.

Just last evening, plumped in my comfortable chair,

Too lazy to get up and turn on the lights,

Over and over again

I stared at a crossword, misreading “despair” for “repair.” 


There had to be a four-letter word

That signified despondency. What was it?

Our neighbor Eddie is civil and decent,

But I’ve always loathed his cur.

Today, however, as I head for my doctor’s visit,


The dog stands still as a garden gnome,

Hips collapsed, tail dropped. He couldn’t chase

The children nowadays if he wanted,

And if they were still at home.

He’s a nearly invisible smudge on that well-groomed grass,


And his chalky eyes can’t even see me pass.




SYDNEY LEA was Poet Laureate of Vermont (2011-15). His twelfth collection of poems, No Doubt the Nameless, was published in 2016 by Four Way Books. His fourth collection of lyrical essays, What’s the Story? Short Takes on a Life Grown Long, appeared in 2015 from Green Writers Press.   Lea founded and for thirteen years edited New England Review. Before his retirement, he had taught at Dartmouth, Yale, Middlebury, and several European universities. His thirteenth volume of poems, Here, will appear in 2018 from Four Way Books. He and his successor as Vermont state poet Chard deNiord have recently published Roads Taken (Green Writers Press, 2017), an anthology of contemporary Vermont poetry.



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