Spirit Speech (Review)

A Field Guide to the Spirits, Jean LeBlanc, Aqueduct Press 2015

The poems in Jean LeBlanc’s A Field Guide to the Spirits cover a range of subjects, opening with mediums and ghosts, dipping into nature and natural sites, famous natural scientists of the 19th century and their family members, and historical figures from even older periods, before returning to the titular poem of the collection.

LeBlanc’s work is not rife with musical device; you will not find sonnet or alliteration here. I found the lack of musical device, usually intended to make a phrase memorable, a bit ironic given that the topics of so many of the poems were things to be remembered or involved remembrances by their speakers.

What LeBlanc’s work gives you is the surprising point of view—be it person or place—and the stunning epiphany.

For example, her “Hope, Hunger, Birds” does indeed trace a trajectory between those three concepts, although not in that order, and begins and ends in such different but related places that you cannot help but feel moved. I loved that the epigraph was by Susan Fenimore Cooper. It’s difficult to pick out just a few lines because it is the context they build together that is striking, but I keep coming back to these:

Like a songbird, my old heart,
still believing it will see another spring, craving
every tender blossom, wanting more.

In these poems, I appreciated the presence of Caroline Herschel, Catherine Barton (Newton’s niece), the unnamed woman describing how the town elders inspected the underwear of a group of women, especially her last snarky, surprising line. There is a lot to learn here; LeBlanc presents vivid portraits that made me, as reader, want to know more in the cases where I did not.

While she may not employ the poet’s arsenal of musical device, LeBlanc certainly understands it. In “Eleven Reasons Not To Marry A Poet,” she writes,

They are enamored of pretty words, but most especially of the saying of pretty words. You must be careful not to believe beyond the final iamb.

Indeed, it is the space beyond that final iamb which LeBlanc’s work explores.

May’s Mini Reviews (Neruda, Klocek-Lim, Heppermann)

I wish that I had enjoyed the poems in Pablo Neruda’s Then Come Back : the Lost Neruda Poems as much as the translator Forrest Gander passionately describes them in his introduction. But I found the book bizarrely broken up, all the English in one half, except for the occasional photostat of the original paper on which Neruda wrote, and all the Spanish in another, much more heavily broken up by original reproductions. I guess the publisher assumed most people wouldn’t want facing page translations (???) or that those of us who do would prefer to have to keep fingers in three places in the book to compare original handwritten version, Spanish, and English. This kept all but two poems from catching my eye: I adored the one with the obscure reference to abalone and Neruda’s lover’s ear, as well as the list poem (possibly because, after all these years, I could read much of it without assistance.) But nothing here moved me as much as “Pido silencio”. Possibly the best part of this was that it was funded by a Kickstarter. You can find more details about the book here.

 


 

The poems in Christine Klocek-Lim‘s Dark Matter have an intriguing genesis: they were all inspired by the Astronomy Picture of the Day. While those pictures have little in common from one day to the next, Dark Matter has a tight theme: the use of astronomical imagery as metaphor for family life. In these poems, Klocek-Lim tells stories of the narrator, their family, a husband and sons, an elderly mother. Sometimes there is a sister, sometimes a woman who I could only understand as a ghost. There are dreams, there are final days of school, old flames, and the tender epic that is the narrator’s relationship to their husband. As example, in “Stellar birth in the galactic wilderness”, Klocek-Lim writes,

New stars are forming but we are packing
up the house. The dust bunnies know something
has happened but have no explanation for why
the light has suddenly hit their abandoned
wilderness. I can’t answer their questions
because the spoon I just rolled in newspaper
has birthed a galaxy in its shallow bowl:
astronomical broth. I unwrap it to read more
while the boys shriek in our disemboweled
living room. I know there is silence in space.
The article insists that stars are forming quietly
in the galactic frontier but the scientists are puzzled.
There is nothing there with which to make a life,
nothing to eat, not even stone soup, but nevertheless
they appear in that unpredictable pinwheel cosmic wind.
The article claims the mystery is “absolutely stunning.”
Because some things defy explanation, I rewrap the spoon
and box it, knowing it will still be there next week
in the new house, cupping secrets in its quiet silver hand.

If there is a drawback to Klocek-Lim’s collection, it’s that it sounds the same note repeatedly. If this is the pitch to which you are attuned, it will resonate deeply. Even if not, it is definitely worth your while to listen to a few soundings. You can find more details about the book here.

 


 

The shiniest bits of Christine Heppermann‘s Poisoned Apples were, for me, a unique hybridization of popular culture and fairy tales, a blend I had not seen before. Heppermann’s poems include how hell freezes over when an anorexic woman eats, feminism expressed through Simon Says, eating disorders portrayed as though they were the Three Little Pigs’ houses, and exactly why Sleeping Beauty needed that hundred year nap in order to be ready for her marriage—in short, a necessary criticism of the predominant western culture’s views of female beauty. And the poems do it with wit and punch.

“A SHAPE MAGAZINE Fairy Tale” opens

Once upon a time there was a girl who
had a good hair week! Seven cute looks
she could do at home, and their names were
Waves, Bob, Bun, Bangs, Braid, Sleek, and
Party-Ready Ponytail.

One day, while out walking in the woods
at a steady pace with short bursts of speed,
the girl met a wolf and told him, What big
smudge-free lashes you have!

and goes on in the same biting vein.

I found the second half of the volume, which concentrates more on fairy tale retellings, to be slightly less powerful, possibly because their concepts were less new to me. You can find more details about the book here.