BY CHARLES RAMMELKAMP
Author: Nathan Leslie
Filed Under: Poetry.
Known mostly for his fiction – six collections of short stories last I counted – I nevertheless became acquainted with Nathan Leslie when we both had poems in Red River Review in 2001 (one of these, “Chip,” is included in Night Sweat). While his fiction collections often cohere around a theme – motherhood (Madre), cars (Drivers), faith (Believers) – Night Sweat is a selection of poems that span a decade and sometimes seem so different, one from another. This collection is divided into seven discrete sections, an eclectic mix of theme, form, and focus. Thus, to get a handle on Leslie’s work and the vision it embodies we need to approach this collection in terms of style.
While he writes the occasional form poem – there are two ghazals in the final section and the book opens with a series of exphrasis poems, based on works of art – Leslie primarily writes free verse poems and keeps the language spare and descriptive. Whitman-like, he is fond of lists, but rather than cataloguing a stream of examples or representatives, Leslie uses the technique to paint a picture. “On a boat in the Severn we caught/eels, crabs, bluegills, croakers…” (“A Fishing Poem); “Though I hiked the juniper/trails – spying lizards, coyotes, hares and hawks…[the wrentit] plucking toyon berries,/wasps and caterpillars…” (“Wrentit”); “My sister and I found/washing machines, tires,/rusted box springs, hordes/of brown bottles, beer cans.” (“The Creek”); “in Indian Lake dotted with wildflowers,/moss, lichen, scrub bushes and beetles…” (“The Lake”); “a dragon stem goblet for mother,/topaz wings, a Sarpaneva sculpture/blown in a burned wooden mold/for Anne, a lavender opaline/bell gilt with a bronze mount for me.” (“Glassware”) These aren’t lists so much as details freed from the fog of prepositional language, as if Leslie is carving a statue from a block of wood, only the material is the concrete language of nouns, things.
One poem in particular, “Two Car Garage,” related from the perspective of emergency responders, depicts the stark results of carbon monoxide poisoning, almost as if these were archaeologists uncovering the deaths at Pompeii, the details stark, vivid, unobscured, observed: “Mom held a glass of water,/the newspaper stretched on the table;/the young girl with a curling iron, the radio blaring, mirror lights blazing;/the father in his sweatpants slumped over/the rowing machine…” A few lines into the next stanza: “We walked into the carbon monoxide clouds/and cut the ignition, cut the radio static,/walked back through the living room,/kitchen, mudroom, bathrooms, upstairs, hoping/we wouldn’t find another piece of this wax museum./Not so lucky….”
Many of Leslie’s poems take place by the water – “The Canal,” “Fishing,” “The Creek,” “The Lake,” “Brothers,” “The Shallows,” “A Fishing Poem” to cite a few – and others are similarly steeped in the details of the natural world. It is as if in focusing on these aspects of existence that Leslie wants to convey the idea that what we see around us is what really is and needs only be shown in its intricate detail to understand this, to grasp its beauty or its majesty. The details provide their own commentary and conclusions. Life is not about metaphor or essence (“No ideas but in things,” as William Carlos Williams wrote in “A Sort of a Song”). This is starkly conveyed in the poem called “In the Shade.”
Twenty cicadas encrust our mailbox poll
and I sit on the patio watching
a turtle lumber through
the grass, thinking of your touch.
I wanted to write a poem
about the nature of time,
of grace or the essence
of fury in a lost world,
but whirling blades whine
through the trees, and the snowpeas
we planted and the oily feathers
of the grackles pecking the grass
tell me this will do. Behind our house
winter creeper slinks from elms;
the shade casts a haven.
What else is there?
Leslie’s character poems similarly portray individuals in simple circumstances, coping with unremarkable situations that nevertheless are the crux of their existence: a disabled man (“James”) describing his circumscribed life; a boy (“Jerome”) coping with the consequences of a homemade tattoo; a not particularly attractive girl (“Kristine”) contemplating her loneliness and alienation. These are all ordinary people saturated in the angst of day-to-day existence, whose predicaments are ultimately irresolvable, their poems more a statement of fact and situation than the paradigm of problem and solution. These character poems that form the second section of Night Sweat all have one-word titles – “Ada,” “Simon,” “Chip,” “Carney” – as do the majority of Leslie’s poems as well, modified, if at all, by only “The” or some other stark adjective like “Black” or “Imperial.” This, too, suggests Leslie’s style of identifying the essence of a thing by its existence, its idea rooted in its name, and the immediacy he seeks to convey. The title of the eponymous poem captures this so well, and I suspect this is why Leslie singled it out for the title of the collection as a whole.
You don’t get a great deal of “attitude” from Leslie’s poems, but occasionally there’s a sly irony. Take the poem, “Relics,” which begins:
Don’t take this wrong;
Miracles are miracles.
It’s only the design
of queuing for a knuckle
bone that puts me off,
not the end result –
if you can believe tales
of dud eyes wiped clean,
and hard ears that perk to jingles.
Yet even here, in the bemused commentary on the waiting lines in museums and at holy sites where patrons and pilgrims gawp at venerable remains, you get the sense that Leslie regards these objects as no more sacred than a blade of grass – but no less sacred, either.
There’s pure satisfaction to be derived from reading Nathan Leslie’s poems, in their sense of immediacy, and that’s what poetry is all about, finally, isn’t it? There may be wisdom here, too.
Also read: Gregg Mosson’s Season of Flowers and Dust (for the nature images) and Joanne Lowery’s Jack: A Beanstalk Life (for the dream qualities).