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Rust on the Ideal: Andrew Goodspeed on Teresa Leo
Posted By Andrew Goodspeed On February 16, 2011 @ 8:30 am In This Month | No Comments
Teresa Leo possesses what a previous generation of critics would have termed an incoherent sensibility. This is not intended to denigrate. It implies instead that her poetical world is notable for the disillusionment and discontinuity of its subjects. In the world of The Halo Rule, love is the cause of frustration and pain, hope is the more difficult because it so often presages pointless failure, and the reality of the phenomenal world is largely an assemblage of deceptions seeking solidity and coherence. Her refusal to react with cynicism to this is the basis of her verse; having been disenchanted, she is curiously willing to be enchanted again. She does, however, observe such discontinuities with an ironical, if not an enthusiastic, engagement.
If Leo has something that we may consider her common theme, it is that of an observer noting the rust on an ideal. She is less interested in exactitude than she is in describing the dispiriting connection between potentiality and actuality. The Halo Rule itself, as she states in her similarly titled poem, is the rule that protects the punt-returner in American football. No such rule exists in life. She explains:
The Halo Rule
intends to protect
a return man by two yards.
Even in football
the defenseless man
has an unimpeded chance
for a fair catch if
he waves his arm while
the kick is in flight. Not so
elsewhere. For us it’s
sideswipe, no berth, the
deference of play to hurt,
rough lust. For us there’s
verve, no return man. Our most
What is intriguing here is not the discussion of a protective rule, but the curious sense of besiegement and proximity. The sense of siege is clear: “for us”—whoever we are—there is no rule that guards us from harm, and we are cut loose in a world of affrays and assailants. This is, in itself, a minor observation; just try to tell someone in Africa that life is often painful and unjust. What is much more interesting is the connection implied between what happens “even” in football (a notoriously aggressive game, in which people nonetheless willingly participate), and the struggle forced upon one merely by being alive. Those who choose to play games are protected but, in Leo’s world, one who merely attempts to live one’s life is subjected to the buffets of “sideswipes” and “rough lust.” It is here that one encounters the notion of proximity. She is not here merely moaning about the unfairness of fate, but is instead observing how close this life often comes to being substantially better. If only the world had protective rules, such as those we institute amongst ourselves to regulate our least significant endeavors, our lives would be infinitely less painful, and likely substantially better, and perhaps more humane. It is not in a sense of despair, but in a sense of disappointed idealism, that one may locate many of Leo’s narrators.
It is perhaps in this sense that one can most profitably approach Leo’s frequent considerations of spiritual and intellectual discontinuity. She has, as many have, the sense that the discrete events of life do not cohere. She is not alone in observing that life is more often perplexing than enlightening. One wants to be overwhelmed and renewed by the birth of a child, but finds oneself guiltily disappointed by the wet and purple thing the midwife hands over: how did this happen, and what shall I now do with this useless thing? Many of Leo’s narrators find themselves in such predicaments. She frequents those moments when one’s hopes are suddenly smashed, and regards them not as tragedies, but as moments of curious clarity. Her “Engagement Sonnet” begins with the abrupt—and, to me, rather amusing—line “He takes back the ring”; the promise of lifelong love does not last long in Leo’s world. These strange and unexpected (and perhaps undesired) epiphanies can occur at any time, which accounts for the peculiar locations of her poems. Her characters do not move on great stages and occupy monuments. They find themselves instead “up I-95 through Wilmington, past the airport exit,” “in the brush where the creek to the fish hatchery met the tree line,” “in the elevator at the airport Hilton,” or “sitting on the park bench with their heads thrown back, looking up at tree branches against the fall sky.” These are not places in which one expects revelation, yet they are the commonplace places in which life is lived. If life has revelations, they will not necessarily be encountered where one wishes to find them, but simply where one happens to be.
The discontinuous nature of life as experienced also alters the form of her language itself. She tends not to write in clear, direct sentences, but in images associated by juxtaposition. A rather extreme example of this tendency would be the first line of the poem “First Kiss”: “Viaduct, overpass, backwood, breaker.” Grammatically this conveys nothing, and initially seems to be a product of that habit—alas, too common in creative writing courses—of substituting successions of nouns for the exposition and development of a thought. In this instance, however, there seems to be a clear progression of a journey, although it is only suggested instead of revealed. By this reading, each noun would represent a glimpse, or perhaps a memory, from the stages of an automobile journey, from the viaducts and overpasses of the city, through the backwoods of the rural areas, to the breakers of the sea. The poet appears to enjoy such lines, as they are sprinkled throughout her collection. At times these sentence fragments are notably less successful, as in “Muteness, their territory” (from “Dessicant”), or “Our most grievous infractions” (“The Halo Rule”). Yet merely to dismiss such lines is to, in a sense, mistake their purpose. If one regards the underlying thought behind The Halo Rule as an exploration of the unconnectable nature of experiences and hopes, it is not inappropriate to express that examination in broken grammar. Yet it can be perilous for a capable poet to dabble too often in the habits and techniques of the amateur.
One of the most fascinating elements of this collection is Leo’s recurrent examination of love. Predictably, one does not find Victorian effusions about the wonder of affection. Indeed, in The Halo Rule, perhaps no major force proves as deceptive and as purposeless as love itself. Copulations are inevitably disappointing mistakes—“After we fuck, he comes to himself, back from a scattering of parts and phrases, pulled from a starkness too violent to remember . . . and says, ‘I can’t do more than this.’” In this passage, please note both the dissociation from oneself that sex provides (here, not apparently very enjoyable), and the remorse and confusion of it all afterwards. The poem “Vanishing Point” details a similar moment “After sex, after the confession that came out” (apparently, a confession of love), that makes the narrator castigate herself, “Idiot.” The general experience of loving and being loved she analogizes—at least, for her narrator—with an experience of conflict and violence: “I loved like an army at the brink of war—all battle plans, camouflage, shoot-to-kill, seizures. The romance, first tear gas, then morphine, nights of white heat, sutures, slash-and-burn, shock.” This is perhaps the most unerotic love poetry available today; one reading Leo wants no longer to have any connection with another being again. But that is without doubt part of her point, if we may force such a point upon a poet. Her love poems are not about the joys of love, nor even really about the miseries love forces upon us, but about that terrible credulity that leads us, vulnerable and alone, to risk misery again by loving anew when only failure and pain can possibly result. Here again we observe that central element of Leo’s perception, which is the ability to observe the inadequacies of hopes and ideals with dismissing their impossibly frustrating allure.
The poems in which Leo writes of love have one final curiosity that may, to some readers, seem a failing. Her men seem utterly unreal. Whether or not the incidents she describes in her verse occurred, and whether or not the men she describes exist, is a matter immaterial to the verse and irrelevant to the reader. Yet it is worth noting that her men do not have detectable or credible reality even within the poems themselves. They are specters with whom one may copulate or think one falls in love, but in the end they are always an unknown and disembodied other, a group that has no greater substantiality than a memory. To the reader they are simply masculine ciphers. This is, to a degree, frustrating, as one has the sense of hearing only one side of a contested dispute. Yet it also has a pleasing poetical resonance, as so much of poetry’s history consists of the unpersuasive rendering of women by poets who profess to adore them. That such a turnabout is not entirely intended does not diminish the pleasant apposition of the justice it serves.
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