reviews the more extravagant feast
Sarah D’Stair received her Ph.D. in English from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Her poetry and short fiction have appeared in Burningword, Hypertrophic, Gertrude Press, IndigoLit, Damselfly Press, The Ibis Head Review, and many other publications. Her novel, Central Valley, was published by Kuboa Press in 2017. She lives and teaches in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
The Art of the Fugue: A Review of Leah Naomi Green’s the more extravagant feast
Leah Naomi Green’s the more extravagant feast reads like a gentle imperative, like a distant, friendly voice compelling us all to see. The poems model integration, wholeness, found identity, homecoming, the return to clarity after an extended state of fugue. Indeed, the metaphor of the fugue appears throughout the collection, drawing into focus both forms of the word – a woven tapestry of overlapping melodic lines, and a psychic loss of cohesive awareness.
The music of Green’s verse is in the way she un-braids the world, distills it all into singular parts, each with its own voice mirrored in and surrounded by other voices. She turns disparate worlds - a cardinal, a carrot, an infant, a deer’s corpse, a human genius, a peony – into their own melodies, complete and whole by themselves, yet wondrous, like magic, when intricately woven together by the poet’s deft hand.
This integration at first seems disorienting, like in the poem “Venison” as the skinned deer, who is markedly dead, becomes “all I see: a thing, alive, slowly becoming my own body” (7). Here, the dead and the living exist without delineation. Yet as we ruminate without hurry with the poet, as we participate in the deep meditative practice the poems require, these moments of shadowy consciousness become crystallizations of profound calm. The disparate becomes unified, the bewildered becomes deliberate, the commonplace becomes miracle.
As we engage in the process, as we allow the fugue to wash over us, we grow, learning to breathe with inevitability, like the speaker’s unborn child does in “Week 5: Measure”:
You will rise and grow full
on the air
in our blood. You will learn to breathe
how I breathe.
What else is there to do?
Or in verses like “Week Twelve: Taproot,” a sweet poem about how parental love is experienced in the body. As the child matures and becomes vivid in her own realm, she realizes an essential and enduring oneness:
It is not her body,
But her parents’ bodies;
how beautiful their human forms,
their insecurities. She is stunning.
The enjambed lines “how remarkable // their insecurities” also illustrate the delightful surprises offered throughout the collection. These linguistic turns of perspective keep us from feeling too sure-footed; they return us continually to the realm of undercurrents where new pathways are formed.
Green’s poetry sits just at the edge of language, as if the truth of poetry is found rather than created. The truth is already there, before the poetry, always beating within the pulse of each moment, each turn of the head, each blink of the eye. In “River and Fugue,” Green captures this truth-telling with a moment of stillness. The speaker sits very quietly, very still in the river, both “disrupting the animals” around her and becoming herself etched within the landscape.
I have sat
in the middle
of the river,
disrupting the animals
who live in it and come
to resemble it:
river otter made
of its same
blue heron wings
taking after the sky.
The speaker stays motionless while the animals either run or do not run, take flight or do not. The “fireflies blink,” but the speaker remains tranquil. The magic of this poem, and the whole collection, is that Green somehow re-imagines the natural world as incorporating the human, without discard or sense of intrusion. By the end of the poem, the speaker no longer “disrupts,” but rather “keeps / the company / of everything”. The poems even incorporate human forms of capital, for alongside deer, flowers, rivers, and wood thrushes, there are dimes, coins, flickering TV lights, Coke bottles, and Christmas parades. It all becomes part of the tableau, the natural world in a fugue state of its own, disparate elements mediated by quietude as they carry forward their own melodic lines.
Perhaps because of our fraught historical moment, at times I admit to feeling somewhat alienated by Green’s verse. I wondered, do these poems reach across to readers without kind fathers, without fresh carrots and garlic just pulled from the soil, to those caught within social discriminations beyond their control? Or do they rest cloistered, as if isolated from the cruel world many of us inhabit? As much as they grapple with illness, death, isolation, and suffering, many of these poems still read like a fantasy dream, like an unattainable meditation, like an escape into an ideal that is slow, calm, compassionate, yet just out of reach. I loved reading this collection, but by the end, I was left with equal parts wonder and jealousy, like when you regard a friend’s well-composed Instagram feed and feel envious that they are living a better life.
Perhaps, though, that is where the fugue metaphor becomes most effective – woven together are the organic, the mechanic; the fantasy, the reality; the loved, the discarded; the profound, the mundane; the transcendent, the heartbreaking. Green’s collection tethers us to the understanding that peace can come from suffering, and that awareness can be found in simply sitting still and seeing. In “Week 10: Plum,” influenced by Dharma talks at the Buddhist retreat Plum Village, the poem’s meditative journey helps us remember that as much as we in our humanness admire the natural world, also, perhaps more importantly, “The field adores the seed.”
Bodies within bodies within bodies appear in these poems. We are infused with the flesh of our ancestors, creatures who seed the field for our food, animals we consume and who fertilize the earth, even the cells and microbes that live within us. Green’s poetry is about that infinite center around which we are all drawn, about finding mindful appreciation for each moment, and being quiet enough to experience the collapsed integration of it all. Here again we find the fugue, yet at the end of the musical line, in the resolution, after the voices cease their echo, we find each other in unison, one voice, one line, one unified chorus of breath and sound.