Mary Leader began writing poems in the midst of a career as a lawyer in her home state of Oklahoma. She is the author of two award-winning books: Red Signature and The Penultimate Suitor.
"The book is designed to range the globe and fathom the centuries, albeit, in the end, the poet's settlement is but a momentary locality. Yet, if the beings who dwell in this book did have an infinitive, it would be "to survive."
When I moved to my first apartment in Indianapolis, my possessions were scarce: a bed, a couch, and two Virgin Mary nightlights. By chance, the only bulbs I had for them were blue and red — the remnants of an after-Christmas decorations sale. I joked with visiting friends, dubbing them Good Mary and Evil Mary. We talked about how the arrangement — one for the kitchen, one for the bath — was strangely apt; how we mortals live, doomed to oscillate between needs, walking constantly toward one, then the other. It wasn’t until much later that I became aware of the work of yet another Mary, who has just come out with her exciting third collection of poems, Beyond the Fire. It is in this book that I see this same sort of alternating movement.
Mary Leader has long been known as an innovator in her own work, using both aleatoric methods and traditional forms. Forms as machines, in a way, that make demands on their content. Her two previous books (1997’s Red Signature and The Penultimate Suitor, published in 2001) share this fascination with merging the traditional and experimental aspects of poetry. Starting with the experimental element in this book is: “They Vibrate,” what appears at first to be a concrete poem, an uneasy square of text for the eyes to enjoy at the expense of the voice. It’s a poem which ends up being, on closer investigation, the key to the entire book. It consists of lines of super- and sub-scripted opposites that vary over the course of the poem, the complementary colors red and blue, for example, which Leader sees as more opposite than black and white:
These opposites morph into others: whore / virgin, mortal / venial, Mars / Venus. Rose / Iris turns to Eros / Ire. What, at first blush, looks to be a block of wavering lines of text becomes instead the juxtaposition of opposites ranging from gender to particle theory, and it succeeds with wonderful economy. The book, as a whole, also oscillates between these. Pentacostal Christians and Jews. Age and youth. A child’s still life and the seminal works of Kandinsky. Poems even bisect themselves, such as with “Among Things Held at Arm’s Length,” divided into poems for Mother and Father. The patterns beget new ones. Writing becomes weaving. In “They Vibrate,” the block of text suggests fabric, and in “Persistence of Empire in the Dream of the Pastoral,” we find the weaver. The speaker finds nine trees and moves between them: “and around / their trunks one by one I move, a spool — // Red grosgrain—in my right hand, and in my wake — / Blue — a nice loose shank of rope narrow of / Gauge.”
It is easy for me to get hung up in the details of structure and how these various motifs set about these vibrations, but it is plain to see that these were not Leader’s only concerns. The language is incisive and exact. The poems are not only small machines, they are machines that do something. Take, for example, “Folio,” one of the major poems in this collection, which incorporates the elements just mentioned:
Consider the distinctions among aether and air and oxygen within a hundred breaths of death // I mean, normally, the outer sphere of heavenly edge whether imaginary in myth or actual in imagery from the Hubble Telescope (see, “aether”), and the grand earthly surrounding supply (see, “air”), are lovely—taken for granted—containing and expanding as they do—but when it comes down to it, the true necessity to keep life from stopping is the O (see, “oxygen”) // Molecule, element, fundament
The work also unforgettably portrays the scene of her mother’s death:
Her body is at issue: flesh, bone, ignored hair / [ . . . ] / Her teeth, loose pebbles, studs in brackish water, saliva pooled dark as tobacco
It is here that we see as it was suggested in “They Vibrate,” that the poem catches things mid-oscillation; a family’s argument surrounding the speaker’s not coming to her mother until the last moment fades in comparison to larger issues: “Within eleven years, I will forgive Armand, whose own skull, in her / nineties, under skin so fair it belongs only to those born with red hair, supplies her cheekbone-knobs, which mine match // And of self-forgiveness, that part of the Janus figure stays inchoate.”
It is with an intricate movement of thread against thread that the pattern on the face of a textile materializes, and so it is with Leader’s book, a wide-ranging and remarkably cohesive collection that comes highly recommended.