Lovely by Lesléa Newman,
Headmistress Press, 2018, 108 pages, $15.00
As I read Lesléa Newman’s latest collection, Lovely, I thought of a line from “Celestial Bodies,” one of my favorite Louise Glück poems: “The love of form is a love of endings.” By weaving poems throughout the collection that adhere to the rules of poetic forms (the rhyme and repetition schemes of ghazals, villanelles, sestinas, or her own invented forms), Newman masterfully explores the transformations in a rich life. As she writes in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Poet,”
The poet was of three minds
Like a sonnet, a sestina
And a terza rima.
The poems contain the grief of losing a mother, the aging and death process, and the acceptance of one’s sexuality. Endings are inherent in all of these changes from one state to the next; Newman holds these slippery moments in place not only by the forms of her poems, but by the boundaries of society and the sensuality of skin. This is the delicious tension Lesléa Newman creates for the reader who can recognize
what hides inside a piece of wood:
a dolphin, a porpoise, a while waiting
to leap out at the kiss of your knife.
Newman’s poems about the mother are both humorous and heartbreaking. In a longer “found” poem, “Maidel,” the mother’s admonishments and adages are amassed into a rhythmic chant, where the poet builds meaning and momentum syntactically. She also echoes and foreshadows her own true sexuality:
Don’t stick anything in your ear except your washcloth or
your elbow. Keep your legs together. Don’t talk to strangers.
Gay used to mean happy. Nobody likes a sour puss.
Newman embodies the identification with the mother as the speaker witnesses the physical changes occurring as she herself ages. In “1955-2001: A Hair Odyssey,” the mother cries when she sees the speaker’s “beautiful, dark curly hair” at birth. Almost as a mirror, the speaker states,
The first thing I do
when I realize I am a lesbian
is hack off my hair.
The second thing I do
At the end of the poem, the speaker finally dyes her own graying hair and realizes, “I look like my mother:/vulnerable, exposed, ashamed.” I loved the intimacy between these two women. Both grapple with physical and sexual shame. In “And Now Let Us Sing,” the speaker laments finding a “white whisker” on her “chinny/chin chin.” The humor shifts to the memory of her mother on her deathbed, still insisting the daughter tweeze an errant hair: “without a word I knew what to do.” The mother becomes an egg, becomes the white hair; the daughter becomes the mother, and later, “a doe too small to leave her mother.”
Newman explores the physical boundaries that must be ended or breached to facilitate transformation. She draws from history to underscore the impermanence of these bonds that tether us to the earth and to what we know. In “Poem For Two Dogs Hanged in Salem, Massachusetts, 1692,” the dogs, as they are being executed, “. . . . rose/to Heaven/leaving bodies behind . . . .” The body’s brokenness in “Viet Nam” is contrasted with sexuality. After the speaker has sex with a vet who has lost his leg (“Wanna hump the stump?’”), she holds his prosthetic almost like a child, “It was cold and smooth/and hard and comforting.”
This comfort is reflected by Newman’s use of the poetic form. There is something about writing in form that satisfies physically. In an interview with Nicole Rollender for Carpe Noctem, when asked about her prosody, Newman said, “Writing in form stretches me as a poet . . . . develops my ear, helps my musicality, makes me reach for the perfect metaphor . . . . I also love the aha! moments that occur along the way (1/26/16).” The poems celebrate form as much as they rub up against it; the forms become as sensual as food or as love: “The pastry bigger than my fist/caressed my tongue, like being kissed.” This celebration is also a reflection of the speaker’s embrace of her own self: her own sexuality, becoming her mother, returning to her mother, but transformed. In the lovely “Ghazal For My Beloved,” Newman writes:
Women spin round me as countless as stars,
but no one on earth can displace my beloved.
Two decades ago, when you whispered “Be mine,”
I gave you my heart, Mary Grace, my beloved.
Mary, the beloved, recalls an earlier Mary, in the poem “Statue,” a protector. The speaker, like the earth, has completed a full rotation, a full circle, has completed a form:
The new year is here and we’re happy and gay.
You kiss me at midnight and tell me to hush
I lie back in bed and do just as you say.
Lovely is a celebration of a woman’s life, or of women’s lives. Lesléa Newman confronts the physical and emotional shame of aging, of sexual restrictions, of a finite lifespan. The poems satisfy and delight with their completeness, even when exalting the most broken parts of us. We are comforted by rhythms, repetitions, and a mother who “cups her hand around my cheek/And draws me close . . . .” The poems are funny and poignant in their truths, unrelenting in their music.