Poetry that Jingles, a Good Value: Zinta Aistars on Katy Lederer’s The Heaven-Sent Leaf


heaven-sent-leaf

The Heaven-Sent Leaf, Katy Lederer, BOA Editions

What do poets know of money? What do poets know of capital? Katy Lederer asks and answers such questions in A Nietzschean Revival and throughout her new collection of poetry, The Heaven-Sent Leaf. And why not the poet, perhaps the best stockbroker of all in tendering the crumpled and transparent leaves of the spirit, exhibited here as expert in capital. Life is, after all, all about transaction, barter, the give and take between human beings, or between oneself and oneself—the hardest bargain of all. Katy Lederer, poet and author, is also Brainworker,
To learn to keep distance.
To learn to keep drear managerial impulse away from the animal mind.
Along the dark edge of this reason. Along the dark edge of this mind’s little prison,
inside of its bars now a silky white cat.
Howling.
Crawling in its little cage.
Inside of its cage is the bright light of morning.
Inside of its cage is the light of disease.
To learn to be an animal. To learn to be that primal.
To know who will slip you the fresh dish of milk.
To long for your manager’s written approval.
So soon am I up for my year-end review?
The moon above settles into its shadow.
I am howling at you.
Lederer titles more than one poem, Brainworker. There are four of them, in fact. And so you begin to sense the spinning we do in our every day routines, work work work, and then home, and then work work work, and all of it about transaction, some profitable, some not. This collection is money (transaction) put into poetry, and if at first glance that seems an odd fit, Lederer proves the fit is very near like that of a glove.

To know something of Lederer’s background explains this fascination. She is also author of several books, notably a memoir, Poker Face: A Girlhood Among Gamblers (Crown, 2003), included on Publishers Weekly list of Best Nonfiction Books of 2003, which tells of her family ties to some of the best known names and faces around Las Vegas poker tables. For the poet, it could just as well have gone the other way, to becoming a card shark, but instead, her pull is toward poetry, even while working as a “brainworker” at a hedge fund in New York City.

I can’t speak for her poker-playing skills, no doubt remarkable, but Lederer’s poetry chinks into place, has the solid feel of coin on a green felt table, and slips easily into a rich bank of poetic capital. There are plenty of lines such as, “In the wallet of his soul he files the crisp new bills of morning,” (from The Tender Wish to Buy This World) to keep the analogy flowing. And they work, mostly. Although it doesn’t take many pages in to already sense the Lederer style: a naming of observations, almost a grocery list at times (“To avoid the whole mendacious thing./To sign yet another financial release.”); fragmented sentences and phrases (“Orange-red eyes like small, derogatory suns.” “Not wanting to do.” “Systemic and assembles with great calm.”); questions without answers (“We can’t let go? Why are we laughing now?”). This is not an entirely bad thing, not at all. A writer, a poet, seeks to find one’s own recognizable voice. A reader can find in it an agreeable echo, a mirror to one’s own, and so become a fan. The line to toe here is to not become overly predictable, still leaving room for the occasional surprise.

Lederer’s use of the analogy of money as capital to be traded in for pieces and parts of life does not narrow her range. With this premise, she explores the topics all poets adore: love, sex (what more profound transaction!), the daily aspects of a life well or less well lived, and, finally, death. She sets her stage against the backdrop of the big city, but the big city clamor still reverberates against any landscape where people meet. Money is a great symbol and so is not limiting, no more than she who possesses it imbues it with meaning and power. The exchange of value for value, or value for lack of it, resounds through every line, and with it, the echo of a void inside the self, “the lobotomized wishes—/Where brains once were …/Hear the awful racket of their want.”

This is a collection of poetry that jingles in the mind like loose coins in a deep pocket long after it’s read. You’ll pardon the analogy stretched here, but it is accurate. If on first reading, the poems seem simple enough, almost predictable in style (list-fragment-question), you can’t help but find your fingers wandering the linings of that pocket and playing with the coins, testing their value, enjoying the jingle, rubbing them one against the other, until they are warm in the palm and ready for trade. Lederer’s poetry is a good value.

“Poems that Pick and Choose Their Own Path”: Al Maginnes on GC Waldrep’s Disclamor


Disclamor, G.C. Waldrep, BOA Editions

It is difficult to say who is being addressed in the first poem of G.C. Waldrep’s second collection Disclamor. “If I believed you what would change,” asks the poem’s final line followed by the imperative “Tell me.” Until the final lines, the poem reads as a slightly off-kilter description of dusk’s falling, but the introduction of “you” thrusts the poem into new territory as does the observation in the poem’s penultimate line, “The holly plays host to its spare nation.” Given the historical and political territory that some Disclamor’s other poems take on, the choice of the word “nation” is no accident.

Someone coming to Waldrep’s poetry aware of his back story—a PhD in history, the author of the study Southern Workers and the Search for Community, an adult convert to the Amish faith—might be forgiven for expecting a quieter, more narrative poetry. The poems in Disclamor as in Goldbeater’s Skin, Waldrep’s first collection, are edgy, angular, possessed of an itchy energy but tempered by a long view of the human enterprise that rescues them from joining much of the talky, hyperkinetic poetry that has been the vogue in American poetry for the last half dozen or so years.

The armatures of this collection are nine poems collectively entitled “The Batteries,” which were published as a separate chapbook by New Michigan Press. Each of these poems was named for one of the nine gun emplacements at Forts Barry and Cronkhite in Marin County, California. If the first two battery poems—the poems are spread throughout the book rather than grouped together—offer little more than sharp imagery and attention to detail, the third, Battery Mendell seizes our attention with its first line: “This is become  a place of children.” The poem continues:

                   I squat, and with the muscles of my calves

                             suspend my rhythm

                                                —-the dirge, the waltz—-

                                            over these sea cliffs.

 

                   Inheritance, then:

                             that which cannot be refused

                             that which is beyond purpose;

                                      that which is a given,

                                                                   given.

What we inherit and cannot refuse, among other things, is history. And given the setting of these poems, a portion of this inheritance is America’s history of violence. At the poem’s end, Waldrep turns his focus to the children who captured the speaker’s attention at the beginning of the poem. Delighted by the physical structure of the battery, they are unaware of its history. Yet their innocence, if that’s what it is, will not remain undisturbed:

                        They are the warnings we ignore,

                                                          the beacons.

                   They are so hot now we cannot touch them.

                             They will not be held.

Whatever misgivings Waldrep might have about the fate of the children, about the future of this world we have made, he is wise enough not to spell out explicitly or to dwell on. The restless surface of these poems does not allow for lengthy ruminations or for conclusions reached after long thought. “What is written here fades quickly,” Waldrep claims in Battery O’Rorke.

Caught in the tempest of human affairs, it’s sometimes too easy to forget that nature is more permanent than the whims of politics and the conflicts of men. Waldrep proves himself a surprisingly adept, if singular, observer of nature in many of the poems in Disclamor. Unlike many contemporary poets who take nature as their topic, Waldrep does not envision nature without the influence of humankind. In Many of Us Identify With Animals, he begins, “Half a toy being better than/ none. A forest being better than none.”

This juxtaposition of the manmade and abandoned with the forest—one can almost sense its shrinking—continues through the poem: “And the miraculous beauty/ of small objects. A broken comb. Detach’d/ leg of a beetle.” With the debris of nature and man so interwoven, it is inevitable that we ponder the fate of the forest. Again, Waldrep summons the specter of children, these “on their crutches.” As the natural world shrinks, as even the small wild places that once thrived in juxtaposition to human dwellings vanish, one wonders where the generation these children represent or the generations that come after them will go to observe nature.

If Waldrep is a poet who takes on, however obliquely, large and serious matters, it must be noted that he can be a very funny poet as well, although his humor is not the arch slapstick we have come to expect from so-called humorous poets. The comedy in these poems comes from their embrace of the absurd, as in Cosmologies of the Zinniae, when the poem’s speaker addresses a group of “valiant shirts,” thanking them for their courage before he has had a chance to wear them. In Feeding the Pear, we are presented with the dilemma of being required to, yes, feed a pear while trying to keep up with a group of singers.

With so much of our contemporary poetry falling into neatly defined categories, G.C. Waldrep is a poet who seems bent on writing poems that will not settle easily in any camp, that will pick and choose their own path. These are poems that do not yield easily to explication, but, they are poems that reward attention. And they are poems that deserve the attention of anyone curious about what new territories American poetry might have left to explore in this young century.

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Al Maginnes is the author of six collections of poetry, most recently a chapbook, Dry Glass Blues (Pudding House Publications, 2007) and Ghost Alphabet which won the 2007 White Pine Poetry Prize and will be available in October of 2008. New poems appear or are forthcoming in American Literary Review, Asheville Poetry Review, Green Moutains Review, Terminus, Mid American Review and Southern Poetry Review. He lives in Raleigh, NC and teaches at Wake Technical Community College.