The Burning Door
(Tiger Bark Press, 2014)
There are two types of poets: those who write their poems in the same way for an eternity and those who are constantly trying out new forms. Neither is necessarily bad or good. The former includes Billy Collins, one of the most popular poets of our time, and Russell Edson, the grandfather of the American prose poem. On the other hand, mid-career poet Tony Leuzzi is always attempting and achieving something new. In his body of work, Leuzzi has explored formal strategies that create new ways of thinking about desire, the dream world, and language itself. His latest book The Burning Door continues this journey with excitement and wisdom.
You could almost claim that Leuzzi’s poem “Demonstration” is an ars poetica in and of itself:
The sign said he who loves loves love’s love love
which was neither savage nor ungrammatical
specious not stylized, defensive, absurd
playful maybe, not fallen nor flip
lily-gilded, prairie-skirted, careless, deranged
It’s no coincidence that on the opposite page Leuzzi puts a poem that seems to fit the description he has cleverly described. In that poem, “There is Something I Need to Tell You,” Leuzzi begins, “Don’t think too hard…” And somehow, through Leuzzi’s skillfully wacky poetic associations, he manages to move from an image of a legless bird to a jailor to a cup of water to war and finally to a coaster. It’s no small feat, especially when the poem consists of only 18 lines, and no line has more than seven words.
Later in the book, Leuzzi shows us that he’s always going to try to top himself. One of those attempts is a poem called “Interchange.” The flat, distanced title offers another ars poetica that complements and even possibly argues with the prior one. Here’s the poem in its entirety:
I speak in riddles so you’ll understand me.
If you don’t understand try tracing
like hands on a mural in an unlit cave.
Unlike “Demonstration,” which is written in the third person, Leuzzi moves to a delicate first. The poem’s speaker is generous as Leuzzi proves himself to be throughout The Burning Door. Here the lyric “I” announces his intent to remark on the beauty of poetry in general—those disconcerting obsessive “riddles”—and then offers us a way of finding answers. Through his ingenious simile, Leuzzi makes us feel secure. It claims reading poetry is an intuitive act. We don’t need to have access to an academic jargon or some fancy schooling. In fact, poetry should be more and less than that—a tentative discovery of wonder. Yes: it should be something as elemental and amazing as sliding your hands over a painting in darkness. There’s nothing wrong with fumbling in the act of finding poetry. In fact, it might be a necessity.
Leuzzi’s contemplations about poetry are supplemented by other endeavors. One includes a way of thinking about sound. Several of Leuzzi’s poems deal with this fascination directly. In “Dear Diary,” for example, he claims the poem is not
about numbers or how my steps sink
in a quicksand of longing. This is about
weird word pairings—lichen and fang—
soaring like wrens for erasure in Heaven.
And in the poem “Adrift”:
At what point does a word, any word—rouse of flight—
cease claiming what it means and become?
And finally in “Autumn Leaves,” the prose poem, which acts as the centerpiece of the book:
Birds appear frequently in my poems, not because I am enamored of flight or entranced by the power of song, not even because I am fascinated (though I am) with their delicate ferocity (such terrible beaks!) but because the terseness of “bird” can be uttered with a tart clarity I admire in the chime of bells.
“Autumn Leaves” is a highpoint in a collection of highpoints. It functions as a meditation on language, a slightly warped coming out story, and a pastoral that James Schuyler would be proud of. You see it in the parenthetical expression—that abrupt and joyful exclamation. There’s also a restlessness in the formal strategy of the poem: loosely collected vignettes and brief self-analysis. With admirable dexterity, Leuzzi orders a witty psychoanalytic comment and startling vignette. Look at this example:
At the time I couldn’t understand why Bill bullied me every day of seventh grade. It wasn’t until years later, during a five-minute writing prompt, I remembered, once, in sixth grade, when trying to explain what pussy felt like, he wrapped his mouth around my finger.
This poem is immediately followed by a strange epigram:
Even as children many of us without realizing it became acquainted with threads grass vacant spaces and were unwrapped.
If all these accomplishments were not enough in The Burning Door, Leuzzi also plays with the strictest of forms. The final section of the book, entitled “A Thing or Two: Cadae,” challenges itself with an experimental Western poetry form. The cadae is based on the number pi. The word “cadae” is the alphabetical equivalent of the first five digits of pi, 3.1415. The cadae is based on pi on two levels. Totaling 14 lines, there are five stanzas, with 3, 1, 4, 1, and 5 lines each. The first line has three syllables, the second has one, the third has four, and so on, following the sequence of pi.
Leuzzi himself described the form in an interview in the online journal The Bakery, declaring that the cadae is like reading a haiku-sonnet hybrid. The admirably rigid requirements of this form create a wordplay that is strangely both stunt and an act of sincerity. Thankfully, Leuzzi is always sincere, never earnest. He’s a rarity: a control freak who’s always surprising himself and us with the unexpected turns of his mind.
The cadae seems to inspire the most surreal poems in the book. These happen to be my favorite. The cadae are untitled. Because the poems are naturally so short, this is a smart move: they encourage you to jump right into Leuzzi’s calm dream world which often does boast a humorous logic. Here’s one in its entirety:
and become thinner.
Some say this was just a dream but dreams
in the space of the mind
and the mind that dreamed
Egypt in Egypt
and knew upon waking the dream
as something remembered of something
coming to swallow Egypt.
I would argue this poem needs a strict form, especially one as intriguingly delicate as this. It looks as though if you take too large a breath, you would knock key words out of place. A prose poem format would not have worked, which for me is quite notable. When I think of dream poems, I think prose poem. The hermetic quality of a prose poem brings everything in: dreams inspire a sprawling out. But a prose poem format would have reigned in the poem above in a way that wouldn’t have invited the reader to enter its alluring spaces. Leuzzi’s conception of the line makes generous room for us instead. This shouldn’t be surprising: the poem is essentially about inhabitation: dreams within dreams, cows within cows, and, perhaps, most eerily, “Egypt in Egypt.”
In assessing someone’s poetry, I believe that (to a degree), it’s insignificant if you’re a good poetry citizen. At the same time, I can’t help but note when someone is. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Leuzzi excels in this area as well.
In 2012, his anthology of interviews with famous poets entitled Passwords Primeval: 20 American Poets in Their Own Words was published by BOA Editions. Like Leuzzi’s poems, the anthology manages to be pleasurable not only for dedicated readers of poetry but also for people who might not ever have picked up a book of poems before. Leuzzi’s interviews are comprehensive, not a useless gloss of the highlights of the author’s career.
I don’t know if I’ve ever read interviews where the interviewer has spent so much time reading the author’s works. It almost makes you nervous. He possesses that rare trait that interviewers can’t fake: curiosity.
Through his poems, Leuzzi’s questioning of the world is so comprehensive that you’re bowled over. Yet you’re not overwhelmed. He invites you to take part in a communion that flashes back to the past (Walt Whitman! Emily Dickinson!) and into the contemporary moment, the now. Or as Leuzzi writes in one of many brilliant cadae:
a suitable way
to begin a poem in this form
begin as such without
story or flourish
feverEmily’s slant or Walt’s
wide oceanwithout wewithout you
in this instance of entrance.