Low Parish Review
“Sick With Remembering”
A Review of Steven Leyva’s
By Matthew Falk
The first time I heard Steven Leyva read his poetry, I was spellbound. In a resonant, confident voice, he brought his work to life; his images hung in the air like the smell of sweat and gumbo in the poet’s hometown of New Orleans (which was the subject of the poem). I’ll get back to this experience shortly, but for now let me simply say that the name of the poem I heard was “Natural,” and it’s included near the end of this, his first collection. In many ways, that piece is representative of the whole book: vividly detailed, rhythmically adroit, and haunted by history, both personal and social.
“If I say New Orleans, I must number the things / that do not drown,” Steven writes, and that might as well be a description of his poetics: the effort to enumerate what’s been lost, or could be lost, and in doing so to rescue and reclaim it. Toward that end, he moves from intensely private accounts of family drama (the loss of a father, the birth of a son), through closely-observed descriptions of place (not only NOLA, but also Baltimore and Brooklyn), to sharp political analyses of race and class, often within the space of a single poem. A fourth theme, one which surrounds and supports the others, is religious faith, specifically Christianity.
Wending its way through the book, like a recurring motive in a musical composition, is a series of open letters to a figure named Rabu, whom the speaker addresses as “Brother.” These short pieces appear designed not only to bookend groups of related poems, but also to comment upon and clarify many of the book’s preoccupations. The first of the “Dear Rabu” letters begins, “I too am sick with remembering and not remembering / father…,” while the last of them ends, “So talking to you makes language sick with memory.” The rhetorical shape of the book, its symbolic movement, charts the expansion of its speaker’s awareness of this “sickness,” out of the “I” and into “language” itself—an opening up beyond the borders of the singular, conditioned self towards an engagement with larger, transpersonal forces.
Naturally, then, for all its introspection and political engagement, it’s language that’s at the heart of Low Parish. Steven is an accomplished craftsman. He likes to let the sound of the words carry him along towards new ways of saying things. Consider these lines from “One for Sorrow”: “Slumped against mortared stone // like ignored whores, the roses / cover their pistils and piss away // the morning dew against the walls.” You’re not likely to come up with an image like that if you start from basic propositional content. It’s the sort of thing you get to only by diving into the play of internal rhymes and assonance, mortared/ignored and so on. In that sense, Steven is a poet’s poet, one who respects the primacy of language.
And yet (there is always an “and yet”) the book is not an unqualified success. There are times when the play with language becomes a little too mannered, when you can see the poet working a little too hard to bend words to his will, and this can create a certain preciousness that pulls you out of the experience of the poem. There’s a suite of pieces about Charles St. in Baltimore, for example, which immediately call attention to themselves by their long lines. While it’s nice to see a poet working in long lines, which are somewhat unfashionable these days, it’s hard to see the necessity of something like this: “Here a man’s work is to leave early with his brief / case, gray suit, overcoat, and nothing else.” Splitting “briefcase” over two lines is the sort of thing that makes a reader think, “Yeah, I see what you did there,” but doesn’t otherwise contribute much.
In addition, Low Parish suffers at times from a lack of variety in subject and tone. Steven returns again and again to the same preoccupations and treats them in similar ways; while this can certainly be said of many poets, this book could have been a bit shorter without loss of impact. “Neighbor” and “New Wife,” in particular, could probably have been left out; “In Creole” is a technically accomplished take on the villanelle form, but not entirely successful otherwise.
This brings me back to where I began, with the memory of hearing Steven read. Coming from his mouth, his words felt inevitable, precise. It would surely be a revelatory experience to have him come to your house and read the book to you; I have no doubt that even the least of these poems would then come vibrantly to life. But that’s unlikely to happen, so the words sitting silently on the page will have to suffice. And since the best of his work sets the bar rather high, it’s perhaps inevitable that the momentum sags from time to time.
All in all, the highlights make the experience worth the price of admission. Scattered throughout are many moments of empathy and pathos: the man who waits for the mail to come so he can burn his past-due gas bills to keep warm; the woman who sits in the snow breastfeeding an imaginary infant. Low Parish is a memorable record of this promising young poet’s passion for language, life, and love.
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