University of Iowa Press ($13)
by Arielle Greenberg
Mary Leader's first collection, The Red Signature, was a breath of fresh air; adhering to no particular style, the poems were witty and warm, and as often abstract as forthright. This 1996 National Poetry Series Award-winner felt wonderfully free of the workshop influence, and indeed, Mary Leader did not come through the usual poetry channels: for many years, she practiced law in Oklahoma, serving as an assistant attorney general before receiving an MFA and making poetry her full-time vocation.
In many ways, The Penultimate Suitor, which received the Iowa Poetry Prize this year, follows through on its predecessor's promise—it soars whimsically around the relationship between love and fine art, dabbles in traditional form, and generally gives the impression that the poet is having a really good time, as is charmingly evident on the first page of the book:
How the tenor warbles in April!
He thrushes, he nightingales, O he's a lark.
He cuts the cinquefoil air into snippets
With his love's scissors in the shape of a stork.
Clearly, this is a poet acquainted with the ecstatic, and at the book's best, it is this musicality and emotional vulnerability that make the poems work, as in the closing lines of "White Sands," reminiscent of Molly Bloom in its self-scrutiny and affirmation:
Will we be together again after all,
somehow? Do you believe in me? Don't you find
this dusk-mounded world a beautiful, a strange, place?
I answer yes, I answer yes, wholly feminine,
I answer yes.
Why am I not a deity, in my marigold shawl?
But too frequently, as this last excerpt also reveals, Leader crosses from sincerity into sentimentality. This is most noticeable in the poem "Letters," which feels too concerned with the story of a real-life crush to pay much attention to language. Elsewhere, in the poem entitled "Heavy Roses," Leader uses the "@" sign to visually indicate blossoms (a move which calls attention to the Internet/love connection, though Leader doesn't go there) and even shapes one poem into a concrete long-stem. Much of the work tries to translate other pieces of art—a photograph by Irving Penn, a piece of music—into poems, and although some of the results are finely crafted, others rely too heavily on novelty. I can think of no reason for including, in such a slim collection, a poem in which an entire stanza is written in dingbats; experiments like these seem self-consciously postmodern, just playing on the page.
Leader is certainly capable of more, and her inquiry into the ekphrastic has genuine passion behind it. I hope that, in future books, she can retain her vision, resisting gimmicks that dull her openhearted and wise sensitivity to the human condition.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001