issue 31 > nonfiction > goldberg
Forget about back east—"Poisonous and beautiful," a phrase from Leavitt's villanelle "Datura," should be the title of this new collection. The poems are an exquisite balance of pain and beauty, starkness and art, chaos and control. And what is most amazing about Leavitt's poetry is that she captures this dichotomy not just from poem to poem but within each poem itself, revealing grief, pain, danger, and even the dinginess of life as well as its beauty within finely crafted lines of poetry.
The voice in these poems is so strong that at times the poems almost form a single narrative. The book starts with a creation story, "Personal Mythologies," told in simple, evocative language:
More rain. My bones roll in the mud
collecting twigs for tendons,
fallen blossoms for organs. The muck forms
This poem lays out the direction for the ones to come. Poems—and people— are built out of mud and muck and bones and flesh, words that repeat themselves throughout the book, that are in turn ugly, then beautiful.
In "Aunt Cora's Fever," a poem about the death of a relative, Leavitt captures both pain and beauty in just two lines. She uses alliteration, "breath" and "bone," "fire" and "flesh," as well as rhyme, to bring out the conflict using both meaning and sound: "and fever burns. A breath of fire enmeshed/inside the dreadful gift of bone and flesh."
People suffer in Back East. Leavitt traces addiction and trouble back to painful origins: in the continuation of "Personal Mythologies," the narrator is a child of incest. In "Amniotic," the narrator remembers waking up in a stroller in a bar:
That was my Momma's job, near what she loved—
That drinking that she held so much more dear
But do not think this is only a book of victims. Leavitt is brutally honest about the characters in her book. The narrators of these poems are often ugly and base, the cause of pain, even their own. In "Datura," mentioned above, the narrator chooses the poisonous seed herself: "I choose datura from the racks of seed/as poisonous and beautiful as need." In "Wreathmaker," the speaker
caught razor clams
at the low tide
by pouring salt into their holes
'til they rose up through the mud,
each shell opening like a flaw
as I reminded them
how the ocean tastes
on its return,
and I'd suck their sweet
flesh out raw.
And even when the speaker is clearly a victim, such as the abused girlfriend in "Seven to Life," Leavitt still has her narrator fiercely taking responsibility for herself, saying "Still, my guts hold an appetite for drama."
Leavitt's poems range in style from free verse all the way to sonnets, but she rings out the strongest in her blank verse poems. She uses blank verse like a razor, a honing knife, a sculptor, cutting away the excess to show the bones, the shell, the beauty. Tight pentameter construction works with her stark, gritty images to make them even more powerful. In "Ladies Night" a blank verse poem about the narrator getting beaten up by other women at a biker bar, the poem's last lines encapsulate how beauty can counteract pain in the image of a pearl relieving thirst.
…This story rolls
Just like a pearl inside my mouth. It clicks
Against my teeth, against all kinds of thirst.
The lines themselves do what they say, the pentameter a pearl inside the mouth, quenching the reader's thirst for beauty.
Even in "No Whispers," which would have to be categorized as very loosely metrical, if not completely free verse, Leavitt's pentameter lines jump out at the ear:
the kind that can't tell risk and freedom apart,
the kind that feeds on danger like a drug
The final lines of that poem are perhaps the strongest in the book, capturing the dichotomy perfectly. And to the ear they sound as if they are two lines of perfect iambic pentameter: "no need to learn if closeness/speaks of benediction or a plan to pull a blade."
In the sonnet "A furnished place," Leavitt shows her complete control over form and meter. She uses the same stark language as elsewhere, and short sentences break up the flow of iambic pentameter at the same time that they are metrically perfect. Line breaks are used to marvelous effect, and she uses the sonnet's couplet like a knife to end the poem about a speaker content with temporarily taking over (to no good end, one suspects) someone else's furnished life:
Delights. This avocado tree. These dead
Dry fronds of palms, just barely musical
Beneath the breeze. The wind's arrived. Me too.
Just visiting. Another's place will do.
She experiments with a looser sonnet in "A flawless theory of everything," taking delight in hummingbirds which
… have mistaken me, my shabby
ruby robe, my frou-frou feather slippers,
for wells of nectar, confused our meeting with
In the poem "St. Mary's Home," Leavitt again uses meter and rhyme with great skill, the tetrameter and rhyme in stark contrast to the bleak visit of a narrator with her nieces living in an orphanage:
The girls walk in, smoothed out enough
so I will never know what rough
spots and changes I have missed,
what price they paid to just exist.
Dark skies release their sudden rain.
The ground streams, rivulets and mud.
Small twigs and leaves get swept away.
And here are those words again, rain, mud, twigs, that return to remind us of the base elements that make up everyone.
Leavitt has included a number of sestinas in this book. "White" finds the balance between blurring the repetitive words and using that repetition to good effect: "I can sound more like the wind than the wind itself."
The final and title poem of this collection, "Back East," is an evocative crown of unrhymed sonnets. But if the title of the book had been Poisonous and Beautiful, then "At Last" would have been its final poem. An "old and wrinkled, celibate and wise" narrator tells us how she has moved beyond lust to passions of the mind. But even though "Death/whistles, insistently: I am a bitch/who will not come." Even in this new incarnation of wise crone, she is still caught between opposites of good and bad, poison and beauty: "Solitude - what I once wished/for furtively—becomes me - lair and trap."
In the author's biography, Michele Leavitt describes herself as "a high school dropout, hepatitis C survivor, and former trial attorney," and she brings every bit of that experience to Back East, which was the winner of the first Michael Macklin Prize from MoonPie Press. These poems are the answers to what the poem "An Anniversary Prayer" says are "what ashamed hearts call for/from their cribs of bone and discontent."