Dedicated To a Fine Vermont Poet

I have been invited to do a talk and reading at St. Michael’s College in honor of the late Vermont poet John Engels, an annual affair. That invitation has set me, scarcely for the first time since his death or even before, to thinking about how much he has meant to me — and how desperately I want people to know his wonderful work.

In my very first book, Searching the Drowned Man, published in 1980, I dedicated a poem to John. I was 40 years old when that book saw print. Four years earlier, at what already seemed to me a rather advanced age for an aspirant author, I’d been a Scholar at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and John, at the seriously older age of 46, was a Fellow, doing a workshop with Mark Strand. After that year and until his death in 2007, John remained a cherished friend and a precious poetic model.

I remember’ finding him in ’76 a superior poet to many who outranked him in the Bread Loaf hierarchy. The difference between his reputation and theirs seemed unjust to me then, and it does now. I concede that this view may have something to do with the fact that from the start we two had certain interests in common: we both loved jazz, for example; we loved to tell stories; we loved trout fishing; and we loved Vermont (whose state poet he should surely have been named during his lifetime).

I can’t legitimately claim to remember my precise motive for dedicating the poem in question to John. In any case, here it is:

A Dream Near Water

You walk toward the river. White flecks in your beard have gone;

But so has the beard. Completely. You’re surprised,

Bending to cup up water, at the glossy tone

Of your skin. You notice the wave and swell

Of your arms. All the women — girls, really —

You ever adored: they seem to be wishing you well

From the opposite leafy bank. As one, they stand

In smiles, wearing the billowy loose beach suits

Of another time, breeze-riffled, extending their hands.

It’s before the invention of clocks, or any chronometer.

(Amazing, what this means to time in the dream.)

So save your distinctions — happy, sad — for later,

For you feel no desire. You’ll recall a pleasant view

And directly, the taste of water so clean you’ll ache,

But not until awake, with something like sorrow.

Slim birds are fluting from the clickety reeds,

Pastels. Your children aren’t a factor. Summer

Looms, as wide as ocean. This soft morning haze

Will be half the day burning off, uncountable hours

Will pass before your father sends up to your window,

Through which the dusk air puffs a scent of flowers,

His familiar whistle of greeting. He’s come home

From a day trip on the lake. Later, he’ll mount

The stairs to tuck you away in the violet room

Where, for a time that passes slow as an age,

You attend to tales that provoke unthinking laughter,

To your mother whose sobs are beading like dew on the page,

To the June frogs that wake and call to you over calm water.

All these years later, I offer an interpretation, both critical and memoiristic, of the poem. It’s scarcely water-tight, and I know as much. It’s almost as if the words belonged to someone else, as in a sense they do, their composition more than 30 years old. The relatively young man who first admired Engels was in many ways different from me, from the septuagenarian who now mourns him.

Now any poem with “water” in its title would of course have seemed an apt tribute to John, precisely because of his and my craving for rivers and fly fishing. But looking at A Dream Near Water now, I simultaneously sigh and chuckle over what may have been its stronger urge. The poem’s rather fuzzy addressee, you, was likely John himself, though I guess I somehow was as well; that protagonist hankers for youth, for that immediately post-Edenic condition in which, as Milton puts it, the “world is all before” us. If I thought myself somewhat antique for a beginning poet, I found inspiration and kinship in the suave and moving Engels, who was in his mid-forties, old indeed, as I say, for the rank of mere Fellow at that famous conference.

There is a subtext of honesty and even of realism in the Utopian vision of the poem, however, despite its evocation of a world so open and full of potential that he and I might over time inscribe ourselves upon it. For example, both of us had experienced the influence, for good and ill, of ultra-powerful parents, a mother in my case, a father in his. It may not show overtly, but under the surface of A Dream Near Water was my own reliance, too, on a father whose mildness was a buffer against the rigors I felt exerted upon me by his wife, one actually inclined more toward command than to shedding of tears. And yet, on the “opposite leafy bank,” there is a flicker of hope, some signal that a redemption, even if momentary and partial, may after all be available.

It seems to me now that at the heart of my love both for John and for his poems was precisely his capacity to signal assurance, even solace, at the same time as he masterfully registered pain and regret, his writing’s joy simultaneous with its darker pathos.

John Engels was his life’s own protagonist, of course, one who, no matter that like all of us he was a fallen creature, persistently reminded us of all the good motives for living this full, vexed, trying, funny and tragic life we’ve been given.

I’ll close simply by quoting a work by his hand, having bid ave atque vale to a stout heart, to a dear soul who outlives himself in my dreams near water — and everywhere.

Damp Rot

Water sheets on the old stone of the cellar walls,

trickles out over the floor into little deltas of mud,

worse every year, so that now I can see daylight

at the footings, and upstairs the floors sometimes

tremble and the clothes go damp in the closets. And sometimes

I think the whole place is about to come down, and have begun

to dream at night of moving, unaccountably sad

to think of leaving this house which has possessed me now

for eighteen years, in which one of us has died

and two been born, for all its elegance of detail most everything

not right in it, or long gone bad, nothing

ever done which should have been, one hundred years

and more of water rancid in the cellars, moldings

never finished or else mitred crookedly, all

the small and growing energies of dirt and rot

wherever we care to look, whenever we do. And we do.

But I dream also of the pine grove of my planting,

which I know I love and which is the green truth

of this place: in one day ten years ago

I dug fourteen small trees, wrapped the roots

in burlap, dragged them down from the top ridge

of the hill, spaced them carefully, watered

them each day for one whole season. Now

they are twenty feet high, thick roots

already at the cellar wall, vigorous and loud

even in little winds, only the hemlock

mournful and reluctant to do much in the way

of increasing itself. But it is clear

that if I do not freely leave this place,

it will leave me — though, as Ray Reynolds says,

digging at a powdery floor joist with his knife,

there may be more here than I think, better

than a two-by-six at least; and his blade slides

two inches in and stops at what he calls

the heartwood, meaning, as I take it, at the wood

which has not yet given way.

Sydney Lea lives in Newbury. He is Vermont’s Poet Laureate.