Four Way Books
84 Pages; Print, $15.95
Eugenia Leigh’s author page has a banner at the top, which is a quote from Muriel Rukeyser’s poem, “Käthe Kollwitz”: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about life? / The world would split open.” This is the perfect quotation to introduce Leigh’s first book, Blood, Sparrows and Sparrows, which is an exploration of generational trauma told in the starkest of terms. Leigh doesn’t shy away from abuse; she rushes headlong into it with the complex mix of emotions and viewpoints the topic deserves. In the poem “Wire Hangers,” replete with undertones of Mommie Dearest (1981), the speaker asks:
When you hold me, will you hold only my cocoa-butteredskin or will you hold my mother’s callous feet,her cigarette-stained apron? Will you holdmy grandfather’s charcoal lungs?His beer cans? When you hold me, will you holdmy mother’s rough hand, rakingnickels, food stamps from an unzipped wallet?Will you hold her morning prayers,her drum roll of tongues?And when you hold me, will you hold only the starsinked to my ankle, or will youhold my sister’s skinny armwhen I beat it out of its socket?
She writes with shocking compassion toward the abuser because of her understanding of the cycle of abuse, including admitting her own violent tendencies. It is one thing to admit being abused; it is another to admit to becoming the abuser of others in the cycle, even though we know from psychology that that is how the cycle works. This is where Leigh’s poems move beyond so many other survivor narratives.
The poems of Leigh’s that are the most visceral are those in which the speaker invites the reader to examine her own flaws, such as “Not a Warning, Not a Challenge, Not an Instruction Manual.” Here, she explores how damaged people often attract each other and the addictive intensity of their relationships:
I once slept with an older man who eclipsed every sliver of light in his apartment with blankets,
duct tape and ancient maps of New York.He flinched awake every hour
on his mattress on the floorbecause his childhood stalked him with a knife
at the other end of his eyelids. I orgasmedto knowing how to make him feel better.
Leigh then continues the poem to show the ways in which they damage each other and others:
This was the man I usedto cheat on the boyfriend whose parents blew outbirthday candles over a webcam.
The poem shows, unflinchingly, how both the speaker and the damaged man lash out at others, whether consciously or subconsciously, leaving a wake of emotional destruction behind them. A symbol that shows up in “Not a Warning, Not a Challenge,” and throughout the book is the “bell jar.” The next lines are:
While they ate cake in the computer screen, I reached under my bell jar and pulled out my mom. Pulled out her chain-smoking boyfriend.
Bell jars make appearances throughout the volume, most notably in the poem “Jar Party” in which Leigh writes, “I collect fractured humans and store them / in a bell jar for moments / I want normal.” This tip of the hat to Sylvia Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar (1963), at once solidifies for readers Leigh’s consciousness of the tradition her writing comes from and shows that Leigh is a trailblazer in her own right. Throughout the collection, Leigh alternates between the self and the outer world so that while the collection seems autobiographical, it never becomes too uncomfortably personal for readers. For instance, “Mother Asks If I Have Ever Wanted To Kill Myself” is beautifully counterbalanced by a tribute to Mark Linkous, lead singer of the band Sparklehorse, who committed suicide on March 6, 2010. Leigh contrasts Linkous’s suicide, “The day you pushed a bullet through your heart,” with her own experience:
My first time, I was thirteen,I tested five pills. My stomach barely...