Review by Anita Sullivan
by Stacie Leatherman
76 Inwood Place
Buffalo, NY 14209
2011, 120 pp., $16.00
I admit it. I have a fixed idea of what a poem should do and be. It’s not the same fixed idea still held by many members of the largely non-poetry-reading public, who after 100 years of evidence to the contrary, will persist with the bewildered question, “Isn’t poetry supposed to rhyme?” It’s certainly not the same idea I held five years ago, much less six months. Nonetheless, over many years of relishing what I believe to be an enormous variety of poetic material, I–like many other poets and readers of poetry–have naturally developed a set of limits beyond which a thing simply doesn’t do what I expect poetry to do.
This is reasonable, of course–to have borders around your reading preferences, provided you water them now and then so they won’t petrify or ossify, and you can still chop your way through to the jungle outside. But to be a good reader, when and how am I allowed to be annoyed, puzzled, and just plain bored by a published grouping of words presented to me as “poems,” that, in the end, I am unable to muster any sustained attention for, even if I know the work represents a skilled and passionately realized version of a category of poetry fully robust in our time?
This is the dilemma that I face when I am confronted with what I understand to be “language poetry”–that is, poetry that offers words and word-groupings for their own sake, not so much for what they mean, but simply to let them have a go as beings at large in their own world. I am at a loss to know how to read this stuff.
In my own bewilderment, I hereby offer a brief chronicle of a recent journey through a collection of such poems by Stacie Leatherman, called Storm Crop.
* * *
The collection is arranged as an abecedarium, which means in this case that each poem’s title is simply a letter of the alphabet, in alphabetical order–27 poems including an extra at the end. This would tend to suggest to the reader that the subject matter will be pretty wide open.
Sometimes “abecedarium” is called a poetic form, but I don’t think it is, because letters of the alphabet alone do not invite or cause a repeatable pattern complex enough to wrap itself around an entire poem. Leatherman herself, in an interview with Emprise Review, responds to the matter of the abecedarium by vacillating back and forth between how important form is to her work, and how much she feels the necessity to flout it. “Too much control can be death to a poem,” she says, and on the other hand, “Form has always been important to me.” She seems to regard the abecedarium as a “strict parameter” (i.e. poetic form) and thus chose it as a way to organize her poems. But she adds, “I didn’t do too much C is for that, L is for that, before it started to wander away.” I think she enjoyed keeping the letters as titles because they gave her freedom from form, and offered a lantern in the dark whenever poetic inspiration faltered. Not a bad way to operate at all.
And speaking of lanterns in the dark, the alphabet acted for me as a set of training wheels while I was floundering through the poems trying to figure out how they were meant to be read. In the end, I basically left the fickle alphabet behind, because it seemed to me that what emerged instead of a “form,” or even a coherent set of ideas, was a structure more like subatomic particles in a cloud chamber, tending to coalesce around certain areas or fields. In this case, the two main force fields that I eventually felt my way into were the brain and the body.
All language poetry, by my understanding, is fundamentally word-oriented, and brain-oriented. In using the word “brain” I am deliberately calling up the split between “mind” and “body,” and I would place “brain” firmly with the physical–that is, the bodily realm. This kind of category talk invokes the three-way physical (body), emotional (heart), spiritual (soul, mind, imagination) model that has been around for centuries in a variety of religious and cultural contexts.
I receive Leatherman’s as primarily brain/body poems rather than mind/body poems. And this may be, for me, the rub. Since I am very much a mind and heart poet (I say that clinically, as in a category, not arrogantly, as in “I am a warm vibrant person and you are a cold intellectual fish”), it has been difficult for me to find a way into these poems at all, much less a charitable one. The same holds true for other poems or collections that compute for me as “language poetry.” Here, then, is my–what shall we say–my incomplete gloss of Storm Crop.
* * *
A – The first poem opens with (what turns out to be) a declaration of the brain and body theme: “the body’s metric/not the end but the anarchic, semantic crust….” The reader feels the immediate excitement of a journey that might include tantalizing literary allusions as well as some viscerally satisfying realism.
There is also, in this first poem, the suggestion of a game, a kind of treasure hunt. What are the rules? See if you can find, buried among the wooly fragments, a discrete thread to hold onto. In this case, the thread keeps re-appearing as the letter A itself, standing alone as if it were a character: “A for birds of paradise”; “A is for order. Paradox”; “A for the before that was never before.”
The ascetic, martinet reader is somewhat mollified. Perhaps the seemingly interchangeable sentence fragments that signal this to be language poetry will have a cumulative purpose after all.
B – Here the poet continues the alphabet game with a new device. “Dear B,” the poem begins. How charming! A letter to a letter. Reading further in this lineated poem, I found references to letter-ish matters, such as Braille, “unabridged edition.” And the word “letter” itself is repeated often enough to satisfy the neophyte treasure hunter. In addition, the body is featured as a kind of counter to the brain, so that the reader might begin to think back to the opening of the A poem and suspect “Oh, this collection is going to be a neat game, in which the alphabet is utilized in a dazzling variety of ways, and there is a battlecock and shuttledore between physical and mental….”
Feeling cautiously excited, I moved ahead to C, D, and E.
C – But alas, already the poem seems to regret signing a contract with the abecedarium, and begins to wiggle out of any further obligations to continue that game. Granted, there are a lot of C words poked into this poem, but they lack whimsy, imagination, any suggestion of an attempt to resonate with one another or anything else. They seem to be there simply out of a vague, residual duty to C-ness, with no need for either music or meaning.
D – The alphabet weakens even further. “Eventually D knocks, we want nothing to do with it,” says the poem in the 2nd long paragraph of a four-paragraph prose poem. The poem seems to sputter, making spasmodic feints with the letter as if the poet is trying to work herself up to a subject.
E – This poem is built out of questions which seem to emerge from a despondent lover questioning her value as a physical being. The body theme asserts itself once more. But the questions feel empty, lacking the heft of true anguish. Perhaps if there were a context around them, they would have a chance to growl and crawl and start generating that strange miasma that always seems to rise above a good poem….
At this point (deprived of my miasma) I felt myself descending into a slough of despond, so I thought to change my attitude by changing my reading strategy. This kind of poetry seems to call for a “gang reading” approach–I mean, surely the devotees of the genre must have developed a skimming technique, a way of ingesting all the verbiage that only peripherally involves the expectation of clarity and new insight. I tried a kind of Scrooge McDuck approach–if you remember the Disney comic book character who used to enjoy his swimming pool full of money: “First I dive around in it like a porpoise; then I burrow through it like a gopher; then I toss it up and let it fall onto my head.”
“What’s the speech of sand?” says the F poem, and “Precision, my dear, isn’t everything,” admonishes G.
Bolstered by these insights, I just jumped into the pool, letting the words flow over me, hoping they would sink into nooks and crannies of brain, heart, and spirit they might not usually sink into. Above all, by this time, I wanted to feel something.
I found many wonderful lines, such as “I joyous,” unexpectedly in the middle of the letter J poem. In the L poem I got a sniff of surrealism, and wanted more. The R poem was musical in its religious imagery and repetitions, and probably would qualify as my favorite in the collection.
But. Nevertheless. “What is it, exactly, I missed,” says the Z poem (without a question mark), and I would say the same. For despite my efforts I came away from this collection feeling my insides all cluttered with words, as happens with the flash-flash images during the preview segment of the contemporary movie-theatre experience. I could not get away from my habitual need for some kind of moving-towards, a charging up, a clearing of paths; instead the whole thing felt static, confused, and in some way disingenuous. “What is essential is invisible to the eye,” said the Little Prince, and I agree this might well be so. But in a good poem what is essential is urgently present somewhere, or it is not. Both possibilities do exist. I simply could not, in this collection, read my way into a sufficient vitality to keep my imagination alive.
Anita Sullivan is an essayist and poet who writes about early keyboard temperaments, translation, gardening, religious philosophy and Greek islands. She has published two essay collections, a poetry chapbook and a full-length collection of poems. She is a member of the poetry-publishing collective Airlie Press, and lives in Eugene, Oregon.