–for Forrest Bartlett (1936-2011)

leaI’d arrived a bit late, and the lot for the church had filled up. So I parked in a spot by the shady lawyer’s office, which was closed on a weekend afternoon.

By the time I ran in, the tributes had already started, rough and funny and tender all at once, just like the dead man himself. We heard words I suspect had never been heard in that sanctuary, and wouldn’t be heard again, but without them, none of us—more than two hundred strong—would have found the hour right and true.

Our old friend died in the house where he’d been born. He logged, he farmed, and whenever he could, he went hunting. The reminiscences tended to dwell on all that. One of a dying breed: the phrase kept repeating itself, as if it had been invented for him. Nowadays the breed’s descendants have generally left the farm, but they haven’t found a better thing to take its place. Most live in trailers or shabby apartments, and the only hunting they do is for work, which has lately been scarce.

Even if I hadn’t watched some tough people cry that day, I’d have cried on my own, just as I’d have laughed even without hearing others’ laughter, or the jokes told aloud by an arty-looking woman about how she, a Vegan, for the love of God, could have loved him so.

Sure, he could get worked up, said his friend John the blacksmith. He might take a poke at you. But John reminded us as well that he’d be there if you called him for help with your cow or your wood or your heart. The dead man didn’t want preachers at his burial, so it was the blacksmith who spoke the eulogy, a word whose meaning, he admitted, he’d had to look up: “A formal speech in praise of someone who’s died.” I wouldn’t have called John’s eulogy formal, merely perfect. Cow or wood or heart indeed. Furthermore, what it said was all true. Try making the same claim for that lawyer, for the politicians, for the smug professors.

John ended the service with “After Apple-Picking” by Robert Frost, partly because another of our late friend’s callings was that of cider-maker. Truth is, he did more or less whatever he needed to do.

Where I’d parked was not, after all, the lot for the shady lawyer but for the tenants who lived above the next-door Laundromat. A tattooed woman with a basket of wet clothing, her voice rough with smoke, got all worked up because I’d taken her space. I don’t give a shit why you’re here, she snarled. My temper might easily have flared; yet all I could find to say was, I’m sorry. Jesus, I’m sorry.

Sydney Lea is poet laureate of Vermont, author of ten volumes of poetry, most recently I Was Thinking of Beauty, and three collections of essays, most recently A North Country Life.

Photography by Jordan Wrigley