Tuesday, August 28, 2018

The Fall Begins with Sandi Leibowitz's Eurydice Sings

On Saturday November 10, speculative poet Sandi Leibowitz will be reading at Montgomery College's Rockville Campus.  The reading will be in SW 301, starting at 1 pm.  A workshop will follow after the reading.  If you are in the Washington DC area, I hope that you will be able to attend.  

Eurydice Sings by Sandi Leibowitz.  Flutter Press, 2018.  48 pp.  ISBN: 978-1721683536. $10.

In this bracing collection of poems, Sandi Leibowitz recovers fairy tales and myths from the Brothers Grimm, Walt Disney, and others who have reworked these stories, originally told by women, for popular consumption.  These fairy tales and myths draw from a marvelous range of traditions: French, German, Latin,  Japanese, Norse, and contemporary American.   Leibowitz herself shifts these stories to reveal the woman’s perspective in them, a voice often obscured by earlier editors’ project of promoting their national culture or cultural conformity, which, of course, include gender roles. 

This collection begins with “Crimson-Hooded,” a poem of address from the perspective of Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother.  However, the grandmother is not a frail woman on her sickbed; neither is she a female victim rescued by the woodsman.  Instead, she confronts her granddaughter, revealing herself as a hybrid of wolf and woman, “not a wolf disguised as me,/ for I am my own disguise.”  The woodsman, the would-be rescuer, is already dead, already “gnawed. . . down to gristle” by rats, the grandmother’s familiars.  The older woman announces that this trip was a test to see if the young girl was “only/ obedient pup, fit for the whip/ . . ./ or wolf enough to sniff [her] own way.”  This poem sets the tone of women gaining a voice.  

Bracing, confrontational, these poems that follow build on worlds that seem familiar but contain unheard voices and unfamiliar perceptions.  “Sleeping, I Was Beauty” depicts the prince’s desire to silence Sleeping Beauty, the speaker of the poem whose “throat grows dustier/ than [her] father’s cobwebbed kingdom.”  Indeed, his kiss that, as the story goes, awakened her to life was, for her, also an initial attempt to stifle her, “his weight stopping [her] breath.”   With its short, constricting lines, “Hostile Country” portrays Apollo in the aftermath of Daphne’s transformation into a laurel tree. Expecting to be welcomed by nature as he has been welcomed by other women, the harasser is driven out while, in the last stanza of the poem, “oak, pine, and elm/ reach out roots/ to comfort/ the new laurel.”  “Eurydice Sings,” the title poem, epitomizes this theme of hidden voices in a familiar world as the speaker, Orpheus’ dead wife, attempts to convince her husband to remain in the underworld.  The poem shows the speaker’s prickly recognition that, even in a seemingly blissful conventional marriage, the wife is silenced.  As a result, Eurydice’s separation from her husband does not crush her although, as we know from the myth of Orpheus, it crushed him.  These seemingly familiar worlds also include our own, as we see in “To a Gentleman Who Is Visited” where a female ghost is drawn to the “high ceilings,/ wide closets, Hudson views” of a wealthy bachelor living in the Manhattan that we imagine and where we might choose to live, had we the money.

Other worlds may be less familiar to readers, for the poet is conversant with a variety of traditions.  Ishtar speaks in “The Gardener,” listing what attracted her to her lover Sargon and then noting what distanced her from him.  The form of this list-poem, a series of two-line stanzas, a form now common in literary poetry, adds a sense of self-knowledge and resignation that is missing in Gilgamesh’s depiction of a passionate, willful queen who sets the Bull of Heaven on Gilgamesh and Enkidu when they reject her.  Two poems concern the kitsune, a devious fox in the guise of a woman who figures in Japanese folk tales.  Others, such as the Jenahar of the Cormorant Queen in “What Gulfs Widen, What Seas Call,” may be wholly of the author’s invention, but this poem’s evocation of a beautiful woman in exile makes us believe that it is not and complements the other poems grounded in various traditions.  The poet uses diction, imagery, and techniques such as line length, stanza format, and the dramatic monologue to create these worlds.  She does not rely on simply repeating names or conveying well-known scenes.  As we have seen in “Crimson-Hooded,” “Eurydice Sings,” “Hostile Country,” and elsewhere, she undercuts these well-known scenes by presenting them from another, feminist perspective.

This book will certainly appeal to those who enjoy fairy tales, folk tales, and myth as they can find much to savor in Leibowitz’ poems, such as Eurydice’s fruits that “taste like honeyed peaches/ once you learn the hunger of the dead” or the kitsune’s “salty foretaste of the feast to come.”  It will also appeal to those who are less familiar with these genres as the poetry builds a world where the poems’ characters and settings are possible.  After reading “The Kitsune Goes Pub Crawling,” for example, one can believe in the encounter between a man and the mythological figure, particularly in his assumption that “[he’s] in control,/ that it’s [he] who’s brought [her]/ to the woods” even as her nip at his neck draws blood, “salty foretaste of the feast to come.”  After all, whether a poet is writing about a middle school classroom in Detroit, a deathbed in 19th-century Amherst, exile from imaginary Jenahar, or the appearance of a kitsune at a pub, that is what he or she does—build a world. 

And this is his "The Worst": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2g6MsY8vD1A

Here is Wayne Shorter's version of "Black Orpheus" with Freddie Hubbard and Eddie Higgins: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R4aJWz0ysDk

I'll add with Hirosho Suzuki's "Romance": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BFmH7moCL2c

and then finish with Toshiko Akiyoshi's "Salted Ginko Nuts": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3GjGsfV9gdw


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