Published on Academy of American Poets (

Evening Walk as the School Year Starts

When was the last lobotomy, I wonder? 
Too late for Carl at least, whom it’s all but hopeless 
to think of as a whipsaw of hateful passion 
that would if it could have torn up his mother and father, 
mild as they are; but that's how old villagers say 
Carl acted before he was cut. Their smiles are rueful. 
They shake their heads, subtle. A raven, unsubtle, 
grates from a hemlock as Carl steps into sight.

His wave's familiar: he jerks and drops one palm. 
How old must he be? He's ageless. His eyes are empty—
the operation. He turns now: ninety degrees, 
then ninety again like a sentry, the other way. 
He turns the same on each warm evening, retreating 
past the house of our mutual neighbor, who will not speak 
to Carl's father, for reasons likely beyond recall. 
It seems a shame not to edit grievances.

It’s some awful stink nearby that draws the raven, 
but the rest of the world seems fixed on the morbid too:
a squirrel keeps pouring spruce cones down at me;
a gall-blighted butternut groans; the broadleafs wilt; 
there's a pair of toads at my feet that wheels have flattened 
side by side, like cartoon icons of failure; 
mosquitoes strafe me, a mammoth dragonfly—
one of the season's last—attacks a moth

so close to me I can hear the fatal click. 
The other day a son went off to college. 
His mother and I are quietly beside ourselves. 
We embrace each other harder now, and vow, 
as one vows, to love our children harder too. 
Though I hum to distract myself, the raven dives 
loud as gunfire through brush to its mess. I jump, 
but Carl doesn't seem to hear. I watch him limp

to his family's drive—then again that sure right angle. 
Like him, our family finds a virtue in order: 
we rise at six to eat our breakfasts together, 
then make a certain sandwich for one of the girls, 
a certain one for the other; we leave at seven; 
we gather the girls promptly at end of school. 
Carl opens his door and shuts it—click—behind him. 
It's after Labor Day, it's end-of-summer,

it’s another season upon us. Now he scolds me,
that squirrel on his branch, his store of weapons gone.
Why me, dumb brute? I haven’t done anything wrong,
I’ve got no grievance with him—not with anyone really.
The darkness deepens, Lord with me abide.
The wishing star is not enough to light
the space around me while this bit of hymn from my schooldays
plays, while daytime’s creatures crawl to cover,

and night ones, having no choice, confront the night.


"Evening Walk as the School Year Starts" is from Ghost Pain by Sydney Lea, published by Sarabande Books, Inc. ©2005 by Sydney Lea. Reprinted by permission of Sarabande Books and the author.


Sydney Lea

Sydney Lea was born on December 22, 1942, in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania. He graduated from Yale University with a BA, then later a PhD in comparative literature.

Lea is the author of numerous poetry collections, including I Was Thinking of Beauty (Four Way Books, 2013), Young of the Year (Four Way Books, 2011), Ghost Pain: Poems (Sarabande, 2008), and Pursuit of a Wound (University of Illinois Press, 2000), which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Lea has also published a novel, A Place in Mind (Scribner Publishing, 1989), and several nonfiction books. The outdoors and woodland areas of New England feature strongly in Lea’s poems, which are rooted in local life and take an unwavering look at nature and spirituality. Lea’s work, which has a markedly regional quality, also recalls the transcendental spirit of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.  

Poet Mark Jarman writes: “The life in Sydney Lea’s poems is entirely local, whether the locale is Italy, Montana, or his home in Vermont … The making of the soul that occurs in Sydney Lea’s poems is intimately connected with the place where the making occurs … Sydney Lea’s poems show us that all spirituality is local spirituality. He is our preeminent poet of the soul’s making among local places and people.”

In 1977, Lea cofounded, along with Jay Parini, New England Review, a literary magazine that has published many distinguished authors, such as Dorianne Laux, Mark Doty, Jorie Graham, and Louise Erdich, among many others. Lea served as editor for thirteen years.

Lea has held teaching posts at Dartmouth College, Middlebury College, Vermont College, and Wesleyan University, as well as Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest and Franklin College in Switzerland. His honors include fellowships from the Fulbright Association, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation (Bellagio Center), as well as the 1998 Poets’ Prize.

In 2011, Lea, who has been a Vermont resident since the early 1990s, was appointed the state poet laureate. He currently lives in Newbury, Vermont.

Date Published: 2005-01-01

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