Mary Leader | She Lives There Still | Shearsman Books £9.95

The cover of Mary Leader’s She Lives There Still is entitled ‘Wildflowers with a View of Dun Laoghaire, Dublin’. The picture is detailed and colourful contrasting the lower half of the picture with its whites, golds and blues, in the daisies and poppies, and the surrounding green of the grass. In the top half, the artist uses mauves and blue-greys to suggest the sea and the view towards Dun Laoghaire. While too much can be read into the choice of a cover, the range of colours and the sense of contrasting perspective is present in Leader’s poems. The poems range from a variation on a poem from the seventeenth century poet, Ravenscroft, through to two long, very personal sequences.

The first of these sequences is ‘Cornucopia of Arcadia’, which is prefaced with a quotation from Tsvetaeva, ‘Love lives on words, and dies of deeds… The word, which for me is already the thing, is all I want.’ This sonnet sequence purports to ‘report’ Leader’s ‘relationship’ with the academic Arkady Plotnitsky, while they were both working at Purdue university. The scare quotes in the previous sentence are necessary because the sequence details Leader’s clear attachment to Plotnitsky, even while Plotnitsky has a girlfriend, who dedicates a book to him. In the midst of the sequence, Leader writes ‘I did not get to be with Fred, and I / Caved in. I did not get to be with you, / And by the way I liked you much better, / But did not cave in.’ To this reader, such revelation might almost be embarrassing; Leader seemingly parades her attitude to Plotnitsky, her commitment to that attitude to him and the way in which her commitment affects all her dealings with him.

I was reminded of the section on ‘The Look’ in Being and Nothingness. Here, Sartre describes the moment when a person is caught looking through a keyhole. Sartre suggests that this is the moment when the I is most fully itself, is most delimited and delineated. Leader’s undoubted skill is to write from the perspective of both the I who participates in the relationship, who seems so close to the empirical Mary Leader. But also write from the ‘onlooker’s’ point of view, who sees the ‘relationship’ being outlined. As we can see from the brief quotation above, the writing conveys these layers of perception in language which is essentially unadorned. Thus, there is little ‘poetic’ to intervene between the reader and the reading. In this sequence, the sense of the ‘poetic’ is held in the fourteen line forms the poems have, as well in the ten syllable lines, which often break on weak syllables, or between, for example, possessives and their nouns. So, the ‘poetic’ itself, is debunked and subverted.

Elsewhere, however, Leader is happy to write in more ‘conventionally’ heightened language, ‘Where laden boughs stoop to her fingertips, / there she does not hesitate to grasp red.’ Or this from the poem ‘St’, ‘Such left wagons tilt into the gloaming, / perpetual. Such tilted rectangles / resemble, but ar not, tombstones, forlorn /under high vasty stars.’ Both these excerpts suggest Leader’s stylistic range, although they also show that her rigid adherence to the ten syllable line can occasion some tension and clumsiness. Clearly, part of Leader’s poetic is to jostle a sense of traditional form and as we have seen, she is very adept at playing with the readers’ expectations. As the note from the New Yorker on the back cover suggests, Leader has a ‘quite remarkable sensibility, which is one of the most self-possessed in contemporary poetry.’

by Ian Pople

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