Gravity's Plumb Line

by Ross Leckie
94 pages,
ISBN: 1554470021

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A Larger Heart
by Eric Miller

Ross Leckie's third book of poetry, Gravity's Plumb Line, feels permanent. It evokes the work of writers such as Wallace Stevens, Theodore Roethke, Elizabeth Bishop and Eric Ormsby. Yet the cadence and phrasing of most of the poems are unmistakably Leckie's. If the book's title should cause readers to imagine that the poems consistently prize velocity over obliquity or free-fall over artful, careful hovering, they will be surprised. Effects of velocity and free-fall do have their place in Leckie's verse; even when his topics and procedures are contemplative, Leckie's poems exhibit a fine speed of association, which freshens his imagery and syntax, as in "Easter, Queen's County". This piece connects the aspirations of sacred music to the life of a Maritime farm, with comic profundity. Bach's "Mass in B-Minor" and "the shuffle of the cattle in the field", "the lowing/blats of the cornets" and the cows' "collision of flab", testify to the power of resurrection¨the resurrection of the abstract in the carnal, of the carnal in the abstract. The poem reflects the workings of a principle of incarnation: "The cattle understand this melody and how/to flesh it out." The reciprocities of music and meat preoccupy Leckie. This materialist theme, often played by artists for shock-effects, appears in his work without pretension.
Leckie's poems manifest a wise apprehension of the variety of ways, some very slow, by which inevitable gravity pulls at us and at our world. His book's opening sequence, "The Saint John River", demonstrates sumptuously, acerbically, tenderly how gravity perfects and deforms the movement of non-human and human nature. A river such as New Brunswick's St. John travels toward its union with the sea, but as it flows it undergoes retardations and refluxes; it sustains reflections, counter-currents, snaggings, poolings, divisions and re-gatherings; waterweeds impede and elaborate it; and human practices¨ farming, industry, recreation¨alter it aesthetically, connotatively and physically, poisoning and beautifying it, often at one and the same time. Every river is both a site of remembrance and a tributary of Lethe.
Leckie's "Saint John" sequence comprises fourteen poems, each named for a station on the river's progress toward the Atlantic. Leckie's characteristic line varies between eight and thirteen syllables. The bias of the verse is usually toward tetrameter and pentameter. Such technical features are unobtrusive, but their presence, as reliable as a river's banks, assures us that Leckie's poetics conform to the contours of tradition, just as water, seeking a new course, subordinates itself inventively, with greater or lesser subtlety, to the dictates of physics.
Bach is a point of reference in "Easter, Queen's Country", from which I quoted above; as a whole, "The Saint John River" has the recurrent complexity of a fugue. Certain features return with variation: a sensitivity to colour, a preoccupation with a personal and collective past, an awareness of natural history, and a concern with the human body, its inheritances, its susceptibility to pleasure, pain and ageing, its material doom. "Hartland" moves me:

I knew that I could die, but looking through
the wooden slats of the covered bridge,
an eight-year-old, a comfortable hand in
my father's, I realized he would die too.
It was pleasant to stand in the gloom,
aware of the blistering brightness at each end.

I wondered why the timbers weren't painted
like a house. We both loved the "thunka-thunka"
of the planks as a rusted pickup lumbered over them.

"The world's longest."From one end to
the other. A name can tell you everything
you want to know. A name can say that

this is a place where everything is dear.
For a moment I thought the heart carved
in the board was my father's: RL loves DB.

I looked through the boards at the tawny
colour of the water, lit by the light, so
heartlessly transparent, its hands washed clean.

The piece speaks for itself. The nature of things and human love intersect emblematically in the river's passage and the bridge's span. Leckie's image of filial happiness, at once precarious and stable, exposed and protected, reminds me of other famous phrasings of transience¨for example, of the sparrow in Bede that flies briefly through the lit Saxon feasting-hall, out of a night of winter storm, then back into it again. In "Hartland", Leckie puns touchingly, a rare procedure. Elsewhere, Leckie's wit may approach satire, but a superb humaneness transforms the impulse, and there is no condescension in his verse, either to his reader or to his subjects.
Leckie's unnamed second section includes extraordinary poems, many on subjects drawn from natural history. "Lady's-slipper", veridical as botany and persuasive as allegory, meditates on how nature equivocally seduces us:

I look and look at a little yellow shoe and the print
it makes in the impressionable gravel of the mind.
Its dipper is made of the matter of star fields.
It is a globule of the sun itself, spun of the tendrils
of solar flares. Growing along the embankments,
it is a rare thing. It clings to your eyeball and keeps
you glued to its articulate totality, to its ember
of nothingness, to its return, its return, its return.

The flower is treacherous. Leckie observes "the insect glued to the blossom's insole where/the juices are sucked right out of it." If Linnaeus, a botanist and a theologian, were to read this gorgeous poem, he would recognize in the print that Leckie's lady's-slipper leaves "in the impressionable gravel of the mind" one of God's footsteps, as terrible as it is beautiful.
The poems of Leckie's third section, which bears no name, are the most formally diverse. Their tone is frequently playful:

The moths spun cotton around the yellow light.
The crickets scratched their hind-leg ache.
The maples stretched their limbs in a hush.
The sky bristled its hair like a cat.
The moon crusted the house in its chemical white.
("Woke up this morning")

Sometimes, they recall the dense yet airy structures of which Eric Ormsby is a master:

The twist of the cord lends strength
to the stem, which binds itself in a weave
of intimacy and reaches along its length
toward a core of seed. We want to believe

that a pear doesn't drop to prove gravity;
in undulation it bellies out and hangs
by a thread; it leans against the depravity
of autumn's ultimate proof.
("The Double Pear")
In these lines, one meaning of Leckie's title Gravity's Plumb Line becomes apparent. The poet's mind feels over and confirms the existence of that skin on one side of which is objective experience and on the other side of which is subjectivity. Ideas and things press against each other as lightly and as fully as the sky, in its lower reaches, encompasses a ripe suspended fruit.
Leckie's last section, a sequence of twelve poems, bears the title "The Horizons of Tragedy". A sombre compression marks this section, the effect of thematic gravity, so that more frequently than in the rest of the book an oracular voice speaks:

The mind devours the vastness of the sky,
or it longs to, to see the distance of the stars

and galaxies flattened like kernels of grain
sprinkled across the shadowed floor of an old

silo. We know these stars to be the ovens
of the soul. The careless flick of a cigarette

ignites the subsequent explosion and so
the hero is spent in the waste of an idea.
A flame cupped in the hand, the spark of fireflies
ascending from the mistake of the weeds.

Yet Leckie meets the challenge of a topic as risky as tragedy with the same honesty that everywhere characterizes Gravity's Plumb Line:
You wanted nothing more than a larger heart,

but your suffering is only that of a single
blade of grass washed by the rain's catastrophe.

In these verses, there is neither grandiosity nor a false reduction of human claims. Gravity's Plumb Line is the testimony of "a larger heart", in several senses. There is magnanimity in the range and tact of language; compassion in the treatment of people, places and animals; subtle courage in the fidelity to tradition, subtle courage in the disavowal of easy scorn, of casual sadism, and of rote responses. The scrupulous grandeur of a curiosity that pauses repeatedly to humanize the nature of things suffuses almost every line of this pondered yet mercurial book.

Eric Miller's second book of poetry, In the Scaffolding, appeared in spring 2005. A collection of prose, The Reservoir, is forthcoming.

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