A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Sweetgum & Lightning by Rodney Terich Leonard;
What Happens Is Neither by Angela Narciso Torres;
EVERYTHING by Andrea Cohen;
Four Way Books, 2021
“Poetry is not an expression of the party line. It’s that time of night, lying in bed, thinking what you really think, making the private world public,” Allen Ginsberg is quoted in the biography Allen Ginsberg. These new releases from the not-for-profit New York City publisher Four Way Books—in three distinct, diverse, yet contrapuntal poetic voices—offer tantalizing glimpses into their poets’ private worlds.
Sweetgum & Lightning (Rodney Terich Leonard’s first book) and What Happens Is Neither (Angela Narciso Torres’s second full-length collection) are dedicated to the ancestors: Sweetgum & Lightning to Leonard’s mother—probably one of the two Black church ladies in the book’s cover photograph—and What Happens is Neither to Torres’s Filipino mother and father, who died within days of each other in 2019. Both Leonard and Torres explore the intricacies of family history and culture along with the states of their contemporary lives, in poems palpably rich with details of food, clothing, furniture, sound, scent, speech, and nature. Leonard and Torres use music as a through line—in Leonard’s case, Black jazz and pop artists from Otis Redding to Abbey Lincoln to Nina Simone to Beyonce´, and in Torres’s, the kundiman—a traditional Filipino love ballad sung in Tagalog—as well as classical music, including Bach’s Goldberg Variations and the opera Carmen as performed by Maria Callas. Andrea Cohen takes a different tack in EVERYTHING (her seventh book), whose spare, sometimes aphoristic poems in lines of two to five syllables cover a lot of ground while recalling both Emily Dickinson and Japanese senryu and tanka—the intense focus on a moment, the surprising sting of revelation. Yet several of the longer poems in EVERYTHING deal with the decline into old age and death of Cohen’s father, a theme that resonates with Leonard’s and Torres’s work—and Cohen also writes, as does Leonard, of same-sex relationships and desires.
Leonard (born and raised in Nixburg, Coosa County, Alabama), begins Sweetgum & Lightning with a bang in “Language beside the language,” a proud poem in Southern Black dialect:
In da first place—
I come from baghetti & banounce
baze & baff whutta
from chullen, pititation & clare fo god
from coosa county yall…
Torres (born in Brooklyn and raised in Manila), starts What Happens Is Neither with the haunting folk wisdom of “If You Go to Bed Hungry”:
If you go to bed hungry, your soul will get up and steal cold rice from the pot.
Stop playing with fire before the moon rises or you’ll pee in your sleep.
The adage goes: coffee stunts growth. Twelve grapes on New Year’s: the opposite.
Advice from the learned: book under your pillow. Never step on. Never drop.
Cohen (born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, the daughter of a Jewish doctor) reimagines a stock fantasy/nightmare with wit and a touch of terror in the second poem of EVERYTHING, “Desert Isle”:
If I have to
go there, I’d
like a phone-
book I can
sit on, on
I’m a child
comes back for.
Childhood holds intimations of adulthood for all three poets. (Leonard now lives in New York City, Torres in Southern California, and Cohen in Cambridge, Massachusetts.) In “Hula Hoop Children,” the boy Leonard— who will grow up to serve in the Air Force during the Gulf War—causes a family commotion by expressing stirrings of queer longing:
…Boy-to-boy pajama dreams
they come here switching
of someone else’s embarrassment.
One Thanksgiving, in 1978, I asked if I could marry a cousin.
Asked in the company of dentures & frowns
amid mounds of meat & starches & sweets
hell broke loose
in a roomful of what-the-f’s
potato salad on lapels & the floor
onions & gravy gone to waste!
Torres presages the deaths of her parents and other elders in an ironically titled prose poem, “Disappearing Act.” In the poem, it is the child who vanishes into clouds of perfumes and cigarette smoke at a family party, while in retrospect, it is the reverse:
…At the party, she made me kiss everyone: aunts reeking of Joy by
Jean Patou, swaybacked uncles cradling beers, my grandmother
smoking clove cigarettes between puffs of her inhaler. Someone was
laughing loudly. Someone played a ukulele. From a far table, the
rumble of mah-jongg tiles being shuffled by a quorum of matrons,
their lacquered nails clicking, wreathed in cigarette smoke.
In “Eleven,” a poem about her father’s dying, Cohen recalls the past in the failing present with a touch of humor as well as of pathos:
…Below are oaks
and magnolias and tracks
on which freight and passenger
trains pass, and my father
knows the difference by
the blowing of their horns,
both of which he prefers,
he says, to that other one
he’s hearing, by which he
means Gabriel’s, disguised
as tinnitus. He’s remembering also,
since it’s fall, the shofar Herb
Karp blew for the new year—
a sorrowing sound, he
always said, especially
if you were a ram.
Between beginnings and endings lie other complications and joys of adult life. In “Kamasi, Muscadet, and Mary Lou Williams,” Leonard measures the closeness and distance of a new, white lover:
…Long legs agape in a Black man’s home—
the third date—
We have six more minutes of
“Leroy and Latisha,”
Kamasi Washington’s brewed-astral bronze.
Plucky & white of him
to ask no questions, though fits of wow!
Not the alcoholic
He surmised, my keen interior notions—
framed black & whites of Blacks,
stacked Kente, nickel-stoked Skylar bar cart
While in “Pont des Arts,” Torres charts a romantic vacation in Paris with her husband turned suddenly melancholy:
night in Paris and we were ready
for discord. Was it the wine,
the want of sleep, the relentless feast
of beauty? When I fell silent at the Jardin
Des Plantes, your eyes stayed fixed
on the fountain. I slowed my pace
at Varenne station: you thought I’d lost
an earring. Back at the hotel I sobbed
in the shower, you flipped through channels
though all of them were in French.
And in “Pain and Suffering,” Cohen encapsulates a situation similar to Torres’s with a woman partner:
All three of these books end with moments of reflection—triumphant, surreal, mystical. In Sweetgum & Lightning’s “At Le Diplomate,” dedicated to his sister, Rodney Terich Leonard describes the two having dinner at a French restaurant on Washington, DC’s vibrant 14th Street corridor:
Front window banquette—
Patient & citrus
How we sister and brother.
Tonight We won’t crossword
Repasts & funerals.
Instead we menu pinot soup
Holler mignon & mousse.
In What Happens Is Neither’s “Self-Portrait as Revision,” Angela Narciso Torres imagines herself taking many different forms—animal, vegetable, and mineral:
…I am the olive’s skeletal pit, the cat’s paw, the thistle spear.
The clay in the kiln cast into a small flask to hold centuries of musk.
For weeks I do not sing, though I gush, an underground rill carving
blindly to the sea.
And in EVERYTHING’s “Bell,” Andrea Cohen resonates (as poets do) to a dream within a dream:
There was a bell
in my dreams.
It was beautiful
not to ring it
lest I wake.
Angele Ellis‘s books include Under the Kaufmann’s Clock (Six Gallery Press, 2017). She lives in Pittsburgh. Copyright 2021 Angele Ellis.