Steven Leyva, The Understudy’s Handbook. Washington Writers’ Publishing House. 2020
Elizabeth Hazen, Girls Like Us. Alan Squire Publishing. 2020
Dora Malech, Flourish. Carnegie Mellon University Press. 2020
At least several times a week, it occurs to me that this needs to be our city motto. There’s a deep pool of poetic talent in this town. Here we take a look at new collections from three of our best.
First up is Steven Leyva, assistant professor at the University of Baltimore and the winner of this year’s Jean Feldman Poetry Prize from Washington Writers’ Publishing House. Leyva will celebrate the launch of his first book, The Understudy’s Handbook, tomorrow night at UB. This is not your average debut: the individual poems are bold and assured, the collection as a whole is brilliantly assembled and thematically cohesive. Understudy no more.
Underlying the book’s title is Levya’s interest in social performance: the masks we wear, costumes we don, and shows we put on for one another’s benefit. Part of this stems from his biracial background, a situation that has not only placed him in a variety of uncomfortable, performative scenarios—an American Sign Language performance for a group of wealthy donors who quickly forget “how colorblind they’d been before gin,” for example—and rendered him the clear underdog in his own life.
Structured in three parts—“Inside the Mouth of a Trumpet”; “Under the Wig I Wore Cornrows”; and “Leaving the Panopticon,” respectively—the book traces Leyva’s journey from New Orleans (where he was born) to Houston (where he grew up) to Baltimore (where he went to grad school and now lives with his family). In the process of finding his voice and coming into his own as a poet, he ponders the often-uncanny links between these places: cataclysmic hurricanes; massive inequality; systemic racism; the legacy of slavery; the power of music.
Contemplating his birthplace in “Primer,” the first poem, for instance, Leyva wonders: “What has all this /iron wrought?” In “Ethel Cooking Béchamel,” an aunt gives poignant tips for emulsifying flour and fat:
This is from scratch
& memory. Take it like a slow drag.
Sauce won’t brown when whipped gradually or
quick. Give yourself some time. Cream won’t sag.
Along the same lines, the uplifting rhythms of Zydeco are intertwined with “the accordion’s broken back,” the knowledge that “another / fiddle’s whip over catgut.” It’s hard to imagine a book of verse more perfectly attuned to the disparate chords of this particular historical moment. Leyva’s “contrapuntal baritone” signals the arrival of a phenomenal new talent.
Next up, Elizabeth Hazen. A fixture in the local literary firmament, Hazen’s been known to make appearances as an essayist right here at BFB. Her star has been on the rise these past few years, from the inclusion of her work in Best American Poetry 2013 to the launch of her debut collection, Chaos Theories (2016). Her second book, entitled Girls Like Us, is now available from Bethesda-based Alan Squire Publishing.
By day, Hazen teaches English at Calvert School. We’re told on good authority that her classes are “lit”—as in, exciting, turned on, ablaze. No accident, then, that Girls Like Us has been described as “poetry on fire.” From the first page, Hazen’s words burst into flame, lingering in the mind with explosive residue long after the book has been shut. Take, for instance, “Devices,” which opens the volume and sets its tone. On the surface, this is a conventional list poem, a series of mnemonics to help students learn poetic terms (also known as “devices”). Dry material? Wait until Hazen strikes the match between her teeth:
repeats vowel sounds: hot bod, dumb slut, frigid bitch.
Even his line—“Girl, we’ll have a fine time”—
or her refusals—“No! Don’t!”
Just like that, a clever exercise becomes a meditation on the casual misogyny of everyday life and language. We often think of poetic diction as elevated or rarified. Hazen dispels that notion. She writes poetry that’s legible because it’s also real and relate-able. Notice, above, how her carefully chosen slang examples riff on the note sounded by the term’s first syllable (“ass-”). Am I right to think you won’t have any trouble remembering “assonance” from now on?
And Hazen’s power doesn’t stop there; rather, it is derived from the fact that she holds nothing back. Observe, too, that while stanza and sentence conclude on the word “bitch,” she continues, extending the illustration with the devastating “his and hers” dialogue that follows. Implicit in this conversation is the fact that a boundary’s been crossed, and Hazen underscores the violation even as she reclaims that space for her own lines. (One is reminded of the phrase “Nevertheless, she persisted,” first uttered by Mitch McConnell in reference to a filibuster by Elizabeth Warren and quickly adopted as a feminist slogan.) This is #GirlPower at its best.
To be sure, Hazen persists—and perseveres. Like the subject of her splendidly perverse sonnet, “Why I Love Zombie Woman #6,” she keeps going “even after the hatchet hacks clean through / her reaching arm.” In the process, she forces us to bear witness, to confront the dark underside of artistry. “Tips from a Nude Model,” for example, cuts right to the heart: “Try not to worry / if you lose sensation,” the speaker advises, it’s best simply to “ignore the pain . . . till he completes his sketch, / and then you may unfold yourself and stretch.” Once again, Hazen ends by twisting the knife yet deeper: “Embrace who you are, the nothing that you do.”
Finally, we have Dora Malech, an assistant professor in the Writing Seminars at JHU and the author of Shore Ordered Ocean (2009), Say So (2011), Stet (2018), and now Flourish. Malech is also a visual artist, and the speaker of her poem “The Gods Before Me” begins by recalling all of the things she was taught not to do in drawing class. Outlining, filling in, spiraling out, tracing . . . it would seem that every mark one might possibly make on the page was prohibited. Instead, the students were instructed “to focus everywhere at once,” an obviously impossible order. Still, if the teacher’s object was to intimidate, to prevent even trying to approach the work of the “Gods,” Flourish is Malech’s defiant, jubilant rejoinder.
Published by Carnegie Mellon UniversityPress, Flourish in some respects is a departure from Malech’s earlier work. By her account, her new poems are driven by more overtly political concerns, including a desire to examine the line between thriving (flourishing) and surviving in post-2016 America. These poems are designed to complicate our worldview, to give us pause, to make us question what we think we know—and what we don’t want to know. The highly symbolic “Party Games,” for example, features a blindfolded little girl’s second attempt to crack open a donkey piñata. “There’s no harm in letting her // take another turn,” Malech writes, adding:
how good it feels to play at this
violence and darkness,
that harbors something sweet.
Here, as in both Hazen and Leyva, we’re made to confront the manifold ways our complacency makes us complicit in the world we’ve created. Malech’s poem “Personal Device” makes this explicit:
Stare-gazing, lap-glancing calls me all
the world’s this rectangle set to the right
of shrimp fork, of steak knife, or a-knee like
a bleating, beeping baby . . .
Here Malech critiques our tendency to reach for our phones rather than use our brains. By giving us access to so many other places, she suggests, technology actually prevents us from experiencing our own lives. More disturbingly, she points out, this seems to be what we want, this endless array of virtual options. Even our breaks are taken on our phones: “one can refresh, go for a scroll to clear /one’s thread.” Even the alternative amounts to the same thing: we can get unlimited data “and text all u can eat-urge-grit—regurgitate,” indulging “our better wreck tangles overhead.”
But Malech’s poems are also deeply personal. “To the You of Ten Years Ago, Now,” a tour de force that first appeared in The New Yorker, commands our attention from the outset:
Never fear. I know the difference between
arteries and ardor, arbor and treed,
my bower and a weak-kneed need, a harbor
where one might moor tonight and a port worth
the oars’ effort to come ashore for, a bit
part and the serpent’s gravid apple.
Note how the rhythm draws us inexorably forward; how “arbor” becomes “harbor” and “moor” becomes “ashore.” Malech is a master of associative wordplay; one is tempted (mischievously) to say she’s the mistress of linguistic mysteries. Reading her verse forces us “to train / our eyes on everywhere at once,” to appreciate the finest detail and take in the whole canvas. In the words of Walter Pater, Malech’s brilliance requires us to “be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy.” Flourish burns with a hard, gemlike flame.