By Leah Naomi Green. Graywolf Press, 2020. 80 pages. $16/paperback; $9.99/eBook.
I once heard the poet Li-Young Lee say something to the effect that he wanted his poems to have such integrity that it was like there was a direct link between his words and God. The More Extravagant Feast by Leah Naomi Green (selected by Lee as the winner of the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets) exemplifies what Lee wanted. Rarely has a book of poems so consistently caused me to gasp with delight and then call to my wife, “You have to listen to this.”
Green’s poetry is steeped in the kind of Quaker sensibility that makes a practice of openness, integrity, compassion, and respectful directness. In poem after poem, Green illustrates the breadth of poetic possibility inherent in the English language when it is used with honesty, curiosity, and unflinching self-reflection. I have not been as deeply moved by a book of poems since the publication of Lee’s The Undressing in 2018.
A letter from Green accompanied the book, which I received from the Academy of American Poets. In it, Green speaks of the dark times we are in and her faith that “poetry continues”: that “in the crevices” of this anxiety, we will continue to “write poetry to feel our way through the dark,” and discover how it can help us clarify our experiences and more deeply understand our sacred responsibility to the world in which we live.
The opening poem, “Field Guide to the Chaparral,” sets the stage for a journey steeped in the paradoxes of how we live and how those seeming contradictions can be embraced to help us make our way through the dark. “Because there is a there, // there is a here. . . . // Chaparral needs fire / (the pinecones cannot open // otherwise). Love needs lover, / whose last lover was flood.”
It might be said that the grace of a poem lies in its ability to speak truthfully about the complex physics of life; how, for example, giving birth makes the mother “human, which is to say animal,” and how the newborn, of its “own volition” both reflects and produces “light.” Green’s poems remind me of Rainer Maria Rilke’s in their honoring of the otherness of those she loves.
Throughout these poems, we are pointed toward deeply spiritual understandings of the ways we are interconnected with each other and the natural world. Indeed, the metaphors that Green uses embrace the complex nuances of human experience so successfully that they resist the abstraction of excerpts. Meaning is not hidden in these poems, but rather is so tightly woven into the fabric of each line that to remove a part from the whole is often to do an injustice. To my mind, this is a mark of truly exceptional poetry.
One of the ways Green packs so much into each poem is by interlacing disparate experiences in a manner that reveals their surprising interconnectedness. In her poem “Week Twenty: Indulgences” (part of a series of poems about being pregnant), Green begins with a hooked trout’s efforts to breathe out of water, shifts to the cut stem of a butternut squash secreting its life-sap, and then recalls:
. . . my own father,
whom just this morning
I forgave for not driving away
from the parking lot
of the first-year dorm,
though I needed
my world to begin.
It was the last
moment he had
with the man he had
loved to be.
She then segues all that into her relationship to “the daughter I do not yet know” who “quickens inside me.”
As I remembered my own college arrival experiences with my father and later with my eldest son, I thought how none of the three of us had the perspective, understanding, or grace to reflect on those experiences the way Green does. Here is how she ends this deeply felt poem:
her small clothes
hung on the line waiting,
and I loved them there
in the quiet.
It is rare to find poetry that lifts language into a realm so pure and precise that it feels rarefied. Green’s poems do that for me. “What if touch is not speech, / but food?” she asks, and I am struck with the realization that while most language is embedded with societal norms and the bias of the lens from which it gives voice, Green’s poems are different: tender, unafraid, truth telling. They are poems that offer us the nourishment of compassion and wisdom.
I have already ordered several copies of this book to give as very special gifts. You, friendly reader, can give yourself the gift of this book, and I urge you to do just that. You will not be sorry.
Michael S. Glaser was poet laureate of Maryland from 2004 to 2009. His short bio reads as follows: “Old age has invited me to embrace uncertainty / look in the mirror of impermanence / and find there, at last, my heart’s true song / smiling and simply humming to itself.” More at michaelsglaser.com.