Review of The Borrowed World: Poems by Emily Leithauser

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Review of The Borrowed World: Poems
by Emily Leithauser. Foreword by Michael Palma.
Able Muse Press, 2016. 65pp.

The Borrowed World won the 2015 Able Muse Book Award. The competition is run by Alexander Pepple, who is smart and serious and curates Able Muse Press. The Foreword, contributed by Michael Palma, himself a significant poet and translator, offers readers a number of insights into Leithauser’s début work. My reference to “Leithauser’s début work” may puzzle some readers of Brad Leithauser and his ex-wife, Mary Jo Salter, but only until they figure out that Emily is their daughter. It’s not a surprise, then, that The Borrowed World is polished, thoughtful, cagey, and a book you will want to read and then read a second time: she has inherited their talent.

Inherited their talent, yes, but she has developed her own voice. It is a careful voice, for the most part measured, even restrained, and a mist of sadness overlies the first two sections, titled “The Guesthouse” and “Privacy.” I am particularly taken by “Shadow.” It begins with this couplet:

As the plane descends, its shadow runs
ahead, widens, spreading like a bruise, . . .

I assume she is watching the plane from the ground, and, watching, she recalls having previously seen a hawk circling above rocks, gripping some small creature, “a vole or a squirrel,” with its talons. That small creature cannot, or could not, see the shadow cast by the hawk’s wide wingspan. It “only senses rushing air, / only knows the angled fall.”

One reason I like this poem is that the poet presumably had to put it together in her imagination. Maybe she really did watch a plane and maybe she really did remember the hawk and the small creature, but I think it more likely that she imagined the scenes, or put together two events that had not previously been bound as one. This is what a poet can do: invent the world.

It is a dark poem, reminding us that to eat is to kill. But her diction, meter, and alliteration distract us from the darkness. As Michael Palma has written in his Foreword, “Powerful emotions are everywhere in these poems, but they are frequently portrayed as disruptive, better indulged in fantasy than acted upon. . . .” Moreover, Leithauser lightens her poems with sensory descriptions that enchant: “sheets / that smell like the sawdust and wild lilies outside” (from “The Guesthouse”), “cabals of wind-warped parasols / tipping in the growing tide” (from “Undertow”), and “. . .a guitar string pulled / inward, waiting to become a note” (from “Fallen Elm”).

While her poems often at first appear to be about nature, it is not uncommon for her to return to what she feels, or to what she surmises someone else is feeling. “Fallen Elm” leads her to think about trees that bend, and from there she goes on to ask,

Was it
too much? Did I learn to curve around you

too well? What you left is smooth and cold,
whittled into a holding shape,

an upturned hollow, barely deep enough
for the rain to fill.

Does the speaker in this poem think she loved her lover too well, too much? Did she invoke her own loss? What else should she have done? Should she have pretended to love him less? To an outsider, it’s clear that the guy didn’t have the guts to be straightforward with her, but women (I say with experience) nearly always blame the end of a relationship on themselves. Leithauser’s poem effectively portrays the dynamic between male and female and her—grief? depression?—brings the poem to an almost silent close.

The poem “Instinct” raises the reader’s anxiety. In terms of poetic unification, it is beautiful, but the scene it describes is blunt and dark. The opening lines tell us that the speaker spies an animal—we don’t know what kind of animal, but it has lost a paw—close to the street. “Cars keep missing him,” she say, and then she adds, “You tell me a rock will do.” Presumably the speaker and her friend think they should put the animal out of its pain. The speaker refers to a “five-pound block / of cement I pretend / is a stone.” Five pounds of cement would certainly do the deed. But having picked up the block, she realizes she has lost sight of the animal.

I place the rock back in my purse.
It’s for the best—
this instinct teased,
and put to rest.

Her stated, or created, ambivalence about the right thing to do is how she stirs anxiety in the reader: would we, in her place, put the animal out of its pain, or allow it to live as long as it can? A question like this, a question of morality, is not simply her question. The poem asks the reader what is the right thing to do, and certainly it is not an easy question. Philosophers and doctors, but of course not exclusively them, wrestle with it constantly. And a poet who confronts the reader with such a question has a searching mind and an acute sensitivity to moral dilemmas. I have to say I always admire writers who take on issues of morality. Their work may make the reader uneasy, even queasy, but that is precisely why we have to think about this subject: what is moral? and what is not?

“And, Again, Walking with You” is a poem that embraces two people as if they were a couple, but they are not. At least they are not a couple who share a sexual life. They walk after rain: “[b]urst blossoms” are “rain-heavy.” We can smell those words without knowing what kind of flowers have been rained on. Interestingly, the speaker then informs us that the couple are “already remembering / future walks, months from now.” They are so close and so comfortable with each other that they look forward to the past, that is, to repeating their past walks. They also know that, months from now, “the days will narrow into flame-thin slivers / and leaves will spin, mandarin and gold.” They know this because they have walked together in autumn as well as in spring. The two “take cover, like two betrothed // under the chuppah of a cherry orchard, / latticed with stitches of rain.” I’m not sure that comma after “orchard” should be there, but are not those lines transporting? The speaker cherishes the relationship, glad there will be no emotional storms to darken their friendship; indeed, she believes they “can always live / on the edge of something we cannot ruin. . . .” The poem concludes with this stunning line, offered as an explanation for why their relationship cannot be ruined: “. . .the body and its vagaries / are incidents and not the story.”

But then we might wonder if the body and its vagaries, when they are the story and not incidents, tip “the borrowed world” into chaos and disaster.

The book’s second section concerns itself with family, seemingly with the family in which the speaker grew up. I suggest that the last poem in the first section, “Elms,” is deliberately placed to connect with this second section. Of a tall elm she writes, “[I]ts upper reaches may entirely lose / the soundless crackle of the stump / it split to rise.” (Don’t we love that inventive syntax? I know I do.)

The first poem of the second section opens up the lives of the speaker’s birth family. Each stanza in “Haiku for a Divorce” is a haiku. The poem is dedicated to her father. We easily recognize that some of the details of the poem are biographical and therefore assume some of the emotions, or the general tone, probably represent the poet’s reality. One haiku reads:

Sleeping in the crook
of your arm I can sense my
mother in your shirt.

This haiku links her mother and father, perhaps in a way neither of them would have recognized in the past. For the daughter, they are still a single thing: her parents.

Elsewhere in the poem we learn that the speaker and her parents lived for a time in Iceland, where her father was later made a member of the Order of the Falcon on behalf of his work about Nordic literature, which strikes me as fairly exotic even though many have read at least some Nordic literature. Following that, the poem tells us they went to the South in June. A very sweet passage in the poem conveys how much she loved her father, how she thrived on what she learned from him. Then, suddenly: an abrupt two lines that call everything into question: “in the city I told you / you need not visit.” Was she simply occupied with something else? Or was she deliberately placing distant between them? The poem does not tell us. She reads a novel her father has written. For a number of stanzas we think she is backing away from her parents—growing up, no doubt—but next she remembers how her dad relearned chemistry to help her with her homework. And then, without a change of tone, she remarks that her father entered a mental institution. Is this fact, too? I don’t know, but, given earlier details, it seems likely. She tells us about a note he has written:

What I most regret: doing
this to my children. (Italics hers)

For me, this is the climax of the poem, the greatest depth, the saddest and most human efflorescence of emotional pain. It is also an irony, considering that we don’t normally think of any efflorescence as dark. But that is how I think of it here.

The remaining haiku take us to Japan (the family, as you’ve no doubt gathered, traveled frequently). The poem’s last lines pose another irony:

Too much, now, to hold:
my young parents, such tourists
in marriage, in need
of all my watching.

A poem that illustrates Leithauser’s delight in poetry-that-challenges is “My Mother’s Riddle.” The poem is a sonnet in iambic pentameter couplets, but instead of end rhyme she gives us end words that are anagrams: garden / danger, lives /veils, secret /erects, slip / lips, silence / license, respond / ponders, amend / named. It is, obviously, ingenious. The poem suggests a secret even her parents can’t, or won’t (she is still a child), reveal. Yet the playfulness manifest in the end words upends (rather like the anagrams themselves) the sadness in the poem, converting it, if only partially, to a cheerful, lively game. We could say that the mood of the poem is an anagram, a revision, of its sadness, its mystery. Then again, we could say that the anagrams are analogues of the secretiveness mentioned in the poem. In fact, I think we can say both things at the same time.

“Hakafot,” a word I was not familiar with, is the title of a poem that celebrates a Jewish wedding. “The bride circles the groom seven times in a traditional Jewish wedding,” she tells us in an epigraph. The bride “looks through eyelet lace. . .” Is she wearing it, this lace, or is she settling it on the ground? Perhaps both? We know that she is “walking clockwise.” What else we know is that “[o]ur eyes / are meant to witness love erase / its holy audience of spies.” In other words, we are in the presence of an event that is entirely private. And once again we have encountered a sentence of brilliant syntax.

Now we enter the last group of poems, “Trespass,” which suggests interruption, boundaries violated, encroachment, but perhaps also surprise and the newness of a new world. In “Delay,” the poet explains that she is on a subway platform, waiting for a train. “Looking down at blackened rails,” she confesses that she worries “if someone’s bag is ticking.” This is a fear that haunts many of us these days, and we are as immediately involved as the speaker of the poem is, although the poem takes us a step farther: “if someone’s bag is ticking, what my last thought will be…” The last stanza of “Delay” works a change in the poem:

. . . And suddenly
I’m shaking, not from thinking of you, or a bomb,
or any articulate fear, or the oncoming train.
I’m shaking so that I won’t disappear.

I find this conclusion moving—that only by shaking can she establish herself—and strange, for surely shaking is unlikely to underline her existence. Or does she imagine that her shaking will draw someone’s attention to her? But couldn’t it as easily put off that same someone? “Delay” is emotional and involving but also puzzling.

“Encounter in East Coker” is very well done. In rhymed couplets, the speaker recounts how she teased an “Arabic-trained former Iraq soldier,” by sleeping in her dress, smoking his cigarettes, kissing him on the street, and finally announcing that she wants nothing. “It’s something in my head,” she “tries to say by way of justifying herself. “I loved someone,” she says to us. “Now I leave things up to chance.” The soldier is probably not accepting of this, but the couplets are beautifully done and the scenes described are memorable. While the reference to East Coker is fine, an epigraph to the poem, taken from T. S. Eliot, is almost mystifying. I say “almost” because I’m sure someone else can figure out why it’s there.

Another poem in this section, a sonnet, displays extraordinary maturity. Perhaps Borges is partly responsible, as the poet notes that the poem is written in reference to a piece Borges wrote based on Dante’s Inferno , in which a leopard appears. In Leithauser’s poem, the leopard has awakened from his nightly dreams of “tearing flesh, the scent / of deer still on his paws.” But being awake in a cage is a nightmare for the leopard: where the leopard hopes to see fields, he sees his cell; where he hopes to see fresh ribs, he sees walls. If not even Dante’s waltz can alter the situation, “art itself reveals / no door.” The leopard cannot escape, cannot find his way back to freedom. He roars, he claws, he “scrapes the floor and steels / himself for solitude.” The reader wants the leopard to break out of its jail, to have the run of the widest fields, to be himself. But then if the reader let the leopard out of its cell, the reader would be complicit with the leopard, as morally liable to what the leopard does as the leopard himself is. Or no, the reader would be more responsible for the leopard’s deeds than the leopard, because the reader is morally aware of consequences whereas the leopard is not. The speaker questions her own morality, remember that she too has partaken of “meals // devoured in the wild.” These lines polish off the poem with finality:

. . . No words will quite coerce

these bars to bend, or move the universe.

It is a relief when, near the end of the collection, in “The Cut,” the poet states (it is indeed a statement), to her fiancé, that “if healing is a gradual disappearance, / then I don’t want to heal from you.” It is a relief because she has seemed to be alone through much of the book. Alone, or wanting to be alone, or fighting loneliness, or “shaking” with aloneness. That said, this is a marvelous book and I hope and believe many will read it.

Why is it titled The Borrowed World ? I haven’t a clue. Some of the poems are about her family members and close friends; that may be a kind of borrowing. Or maybe the title is a way of warning us that we don’t get to live in this world forever; we borrow it only for a lifetime, and then we have to give it up.