Monday, April 06, 2009

The Heaven-Sent Leaf

BOA Editions, 2008
Reviewed by Karen Rigby

Money is not evil. It is the love of money, or so the proverb goes—the pursuit among the hustlers and rainmakers, the hunger that inspired alchemists to try turning lead to gold—that leads to tragedy in so many stories. In Katy Lederer’s newest collection, the desire to distance oneself from the financial world is a recurrent theme. With its legendary robber barons and tumultuous history, the New York of these poems would set the perfect stage for an energetic series: panoramic in its breadth, sexy, and even damning, presenting glittering vices, a high-rolling playfulness, or a satirical critique.

Lederer, however, has chosen an unexpected and much quieter approach. Money isn’t turned into a grand idea. It is a means for describing the private exchanges in the speaker’s life—that bartering between “The brain pumped up with longing” and the soul.

These forty-five poems employ mostly linear, sonnet-like forms. They rely on a reflective, first-person voice. The images are simple and concrete, spaced throughout the book rather than forming densely woven patterns—they include “cups of breakfast blend,” “dark, expensive chocolates,” a “vial of Botox,” “emerald-green flow,” and a cello, among other objects. Many of the titles derive from the opening or closing line, or from a phrase contained within the poem. These plainer titles are in keeping with the poet’s sensibilities; there’s a strong sense that the message is often more essential than the manner of its expression, and that the poems, however cool in their atmosphere, are meant to reach the average reader.

One of the notable threads in this book is the difference between office workers and poets:

Me, a brainworker toiling in pristine white hallways.
Abnormal, aboriginal, endemic to this site.
Some people sell their wares outside.
In the pristine light of Times Square they are singing.
In their noses and nipples, the glinting of rings.
Let us call them unoriginal.
Let us call them all these awful things.
The busy unoriginals are throwing out their trash.
But on this lovely parchment they are writing priceless poems.
They suppose that by such rendering they’ll be remembered after
They suppose that by such influence their souls will sing eternally.
In the hallways, we are killing time,
Its blood now thick and lurid on the freshly painted walls.

The speaker is aloof, but does not spare herself from criticism. She doesn’t belong in these hallways and may even possess a small envy of those “unoriginals” who are free to write. Poets reappear in “A Nietzschean Revival”:

These poets speak of capital as if they had the least idea.
I ask you: what do poets know of capital?
Across this harp, their fingers play a Nietzschean revival.
I envy them their will to power.

And again in “The Dead-Level”:

The poets standing, one by one.
I lie here, shaking, all alone, the cosmetician in the hall.
Lord, let it cover me, this sheet.
Immaculate particulate.
I hide here in your cleanliness.
The poets standing, one by one.
What shall I make of them, beneath this light?
Their hair is white, their eyes are white, their skin is porcelain white.

A complaint is being registered about the nature of white-collar brainwork. In another poem, "Brainworker," the speaker writes: “To learn to keep distance./To learn to keep drear managerial impulse away from the animal/mind (19)."

The distinction between two modes of thinking could prove puzzling or even artificial for some readers: why doesn’t the speaker appear to entertain the possibility of disparate halves (logic + rationality / spontaneity + creativity) working in conjunction with each other rather than in opposition to each other? Later, the speaker expresses “this wish to be penniless, free.” Being“penniless” is almost a romantic hyperbole for a more poetic lifestyle. As the book progresses, the speaker says, “I am waiting, like an animal,/for poetry.” What was once viewed as the providence of those “unoriginals” has become vital. What seemed incomprehensible has become alluring. The transformation is critical to understanding The Heaven-Sent Leaf. Money may have served as the hook, but self-discovery and the pain involved in any difficult moment of transition emerges as the salient theme. An uneasy, ambivalent peace is finally reached between the spirit, mind, and heart in “A Triumvirate”: “Dilapidation of the spirit as the heart gives in, the mind gives in./These three, a triumvirate, laughing./This bitterness breaks me.”

Writing about office drudgery can sometimes result in a flatness to the language, or run the risk of reinforcing familiar views. While this series doesn’t entirely escape such problems, the ambition is nevertheless admirable and the topic is prescient. The title would appeal most to readers seeking affirmation of what it’s like to be trapped in the “pristine white hallways,” or for readers already familiar with the author’s previous work.

* *

Katy Lederer’s books include Winter Sex (Verse Press, 2002) and the memoir Poker Face: A Girlhood Among Gamblers (Crown, 2003), included in the Publishers Weekly list of Best Books of the Year 2003. Her work has appeared in The American Poetry Review, Boston Review, Harvard Review, GQ and elsewhere. She has been anthologized in Body Electric (Norton), From Poe to the Present: Great American Prose Poems (Scribner) and Isn’t it Romantic (Verse Press), among others. Educated at UC Berkeley and the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, her honors and awards include an Academy of American Poets Prize, fellowships from Yaddo and the New York Foundation for the Arts, and a Discover Great New Writers citation from Barnes & Noble.

* *

Karen Rigby’s recent work appears in Meridian, Quarterly West, Canteen, and other journals. She is one of the editors at Cerise Press.