On the Seawall
from Eighteen Poets Recommend New & Recent Collections
November 26, 2012, Judith Harris
Occasionally, a book of poetry comes along that, while maintaining poetic conventions, also breaks them in exciting ways so as to appeal to a broader audience. Paradoxical? Yes, but one need only think of that wonderful bombastic pronouncement by Whitman: "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself; I am large -- I contain multitudes."
Something of Whitman’s protean magnitude describes Leffler’s poetry at the outset. The title emphasizes the importance of music, particularly jazz, with its strong but flexible rhythmic understructure. The book as a whole alternates between “poetic solo” and “ensemble improvisations” on basic tunes/structures resulting in a more disperse harmonic idiom. Sometimes, that harmony does not work; the poems in some sections clash with one another coming from such variations of theme and style. But for the most part, the movement is cogently realized. The sectional Interludes combine lyrics and narratives as well as typographic poems, then shift back to meditations, and comic satire—a cornucopia of poems, and a feast of melodies. Leffler is a reveler. As he writes in "The Republic of Imperishable Lines": "Who shall say I am not the happy genius of my household?"
Leffler has long been immersed in poetry, as a scholar and a poet, from his early years as a graduate student studying poetry. His skill is evident in poems shimmer with nuance, and invocation such as in the poem "Arise":
The poem is sleeping deeply in his body
However, Leffler’s muse is not always as passive and precious as invoked here, as we learn from his first poem of the collection, "Metaphor."
"Metaphor" is a particularly clever and intriguing opening, giving the reader a taste of Leffler’s wit and knowledge of American poetry and how it has evolved through modernism. In that poem, the whimsical speaker personifies metaphor as a female escort, such that “she (a metaphor) can say anything” and she can be in “love with anything” because she functions as the keel of imagination. And, in the making of the traditional poem, she is the one who garners most admiration. The modernists were ambivalent about the use of metaphor: Williams used it as a means of entering the inner self, Stevens tried to abolish it as an impediment to gaining access to the real.
Leffler’s Metaphor has a job and that is to make the poet look good to readers, to appear richer or more talented than he feels he really is. "Metaphor is at your service—always, just don’t take me for granted. I am no sentimental blonde. I have an accountant. I pay my bills on time." And the speaker laments: "She charges by the hour. Nothing is free." In a postmodern era, Metaphor has lost some of her zing: she can bring only "stale flowers, elaborate tropes, grief that is delicious, and lacks propriety." Still she is insatiable. "Just when you take her as your friend/ confessing everything, baring your nakedness / metaphor grabs hold of you like a mad cop and roughs you up."
In the end, "Metaphor" has the power to desert the speaker, to leave him in his nakedness to a world bereft of imagination, a non-presence. Metaphor has become autonomous, as the art object has become autonomous. "She says find your own way home". The admonished speaker is belated—he is left to cover his own nakedness without her. She leaves him without the language that can express that flood in the heart—and so he withdraws from the stage, back to the absence of his own mind, a new and genuine basis for making poems without her flirtations and distractions. The poem that turns failure on its head: the poem itself is a triumph despite the foreboding image of backing into an absence, a hollowing like death.
Poems that follow capture the poet’s narrative from early years when belief felt true as in "The Man Who Stole Laughter":
I wanted to call out to him,
This poem, dramatizes a childhood memory recalled as a traumatic story and yet, in the conscious ordering of the poem, the original fear of self-dissolution is abated by the persistent order of formal devices and rime schemes that make the interloper less threatening. Stories recalled from childhood progress through the book into poems about adult experience and quotidian life, allowing Leffler a range of topics to explore with only a wink of sentimentality, broadening the narrow vision of the personal into poems about cultural inheritance such as "Opera Americana" and "Montaigne and me."
Throughout, the persona of the poet moves forward into the world of middle age shadowed by cultural memory, both personal and collective, a familiar pattern of second-generation Jews brought up by assimilating parents who wish their children to become fully Americanized. And so one senses the allure of the forbidden as the poet returns to themes surrounding his European ancestry. He includes translations from Hebrew texts and translations of poems by Israeli poets.
Mark the Music is a book by a mature poet who has honed his skills over years of immersion in poetry revealing a truly remarkable love for language expressed through the genre. His breadth of knowledge is impressive, his poems particularly frank and availing of the natural world, where he regains the customary stance of the solitary poet trying find solidarity with nature and the universe. The book closes with a wonderful ending poem, "Beginnings and Ends" celebrating language and its power "To open the dark/…To empty the light/…And here is the last/ To carry you home."
Mark the Music is formed on the value of self-expression and self-examination—through rumination and reflection. Leffler’s poems are large, honest, frank, lyrical and prosaic, celebratory and mournful a book that should be feasted upon for years to come.
Judith Harris’ new collection of poems, Night Garden, will be published in spring 2013 by Tiger Bark Press.