The Things I Heard About You. Alex Leslie. A Blewointment Book. Nightwood Editions. Gibsons, British Columbia. 2014.
Today's book of poetry is admittedly a conservative literary machine but Alex Leslie does something in The Things I Heard About You that I've never seen before - and it is exciting.
This book is comprised of only thirteen poems. Each work starts with a prose style full version of a scenario, the events at hand. Then Leslie disassembles the poem right in front of us, pares it down, slices away access that was previously essential, guts the poem for essence and continues. Leslie provides, in sequence, two or three distilled versions of the original thought/poem/discussion.
Imagine it like this: Leslie starts with a reasonable finished, sanded and polished, milled and planed piece of lumber 4" x 4" x 6'. Then, right in front of your eyes, cuts away the unnecessary until there is a perfect pool cue.
But that isn't the end. Leslie then gets to work again, the pool cue becomes a pointer or a baton and then a pencil.
This is happening in front of your eyes. It is magnificent and intriguing stuff. We rarely get to see this sort of intrigue.
Today's book of poetry usually cites three poems from each author but today, because of the nature of Leslie's work - Today's book of poetry will only look at one of Leslie's poems, in full.
Knocking on Heaven's Door
After you died, I broke the shuffle function on my iPod by down-
loading eighty-four covers of "Knocking on Heaven's Door." Its lyrics
followed me through my skinned days, my headphones sealing in a
small theatre of mourning. Mama take this badge off of me / I can't use
it anymore. The ska cover, the African gospel choir cover, the chil-
dren's choir unravelling into atonal choruses, the three slurred bob
Dylan versions, indecipherable. It didn't matter because the words
were mine, I searched out their melody in anything. Commuter-train
arrhythmia, schoolyard jungle yells, the morning cash registers tol-
ling double Americano, Kaddish. It's getting dark / too dark to see.
All mantras are identical. A harness, a poem made too small. A trick
of bearable limits, an exercise in the planned application of pain. I
feel I'm knocking on Heaven's door / Knock knock knockin' on Heaven's
door. Put a rope around and tighten until it bends. Scale or body.
Bright or arms. Mama put my guns in the ground / I can't shoot them
anymore. A cover for every moment. Everything is a slight variation.
Public transit was my repeat track, my song loop, a recursive tongue
that extended and withdrew with the lyrics on its tip. That long black
cloud is comin' down / I feel I'm knockin' on Heaven's door. Dolly Par-
ton babbled my song to me, twanged me and beseeched me, then
marched through the doors onto the Broadway-City Hall platform,
swinging her rhinestoned sceptre, disappearing between a skater
kid and a lawyer. My ears shuddered. The sentient tooth of a bass
line, my near deafness, that safety. Three months after your death a
transit cop approached my seat and demanded to see my badge. It
was fibrous, wet. The badge had grown through my jacket. Skin graft.
Hot mark of it. The transit cop pulled, harder harder harder, my skin
barely skimmed my resistance. It's all fun and games until lyric be-
come ingrown. How you printed the verses on my dog tag, marked
me for darker traffic. Put my guns in the ground / I can't shoot them
anymore. Commuters in stasis dream state watched the transit cop
demand to see my identification. I put my head between my legs, a
knee for each headphone, pressed the thunder inward, repeat button,
repeat, repeat. Feet shuffled stations forward and more as it comes in.
My iPod died and I kept my headphones on, city buffered, the
train lurching on, shouts above me cresting and falling, cresting and
falling, and it sounded like being under the floor of the ocean.
After you died, the shuffle function on my skinned days: a small the-
atre. Come take this badge off of me / I can't use it anymore. Atonal lost
choruses, slurred words. The words in anything -- arrhythmia Kad-
dish. Too dark to see / too dark. Mantras are small limits, pain knock-
ing on doors. Rope bright, my guns in the ground. A loop for every
recursive tongue. Extend, follow, beseech, disappear between a tooth
and safety. Three months after your death: wet skin, bare ingrown
dog, dark in the stasis, the demand to see thunder. Repeat, shuffle,
forward, the kept city lurching above, falling like ocean.
You died, I followed. I can't use it anymore. Indecipherable. Words,
anything. Arrhythmia yells: Kaddish! It's getting too dark. Poem too
small, plan the rope. Put my guns in the ground. Slight tongue with-
drew the long black cloud, twanged me, beseech me, marched me
through deafness. Lyric become ingrown.
After: appear grown. Watch the ocean.
We don't often get to see a process like this played out in front of us. It is a bit like watching grapes become wine, wine become brandy. True alchemy.
The Things I Heard About You was shortlisted for the 2014 Robert Kroetsch award for innovative poetry.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alex Leslie has published a collection of stories, People Who Disappear (Freehand, 2012), shortlisted for a 2013 Lambda Award and a 2013 Relit Award, and a chapbook of microfictions, 20 Objects for the New World (Freehand, 2011). Alex's writing has won a Gold National Magazine Award for personal journalism and a CBC Literary Award for fiction and was shortlisted for the 2014 Robert Kroetsch Award for innovative poetry. Recent projects include editing the Queer issue of Poetry Is Dead magazine, which brought together different approaches to Queer poetics from across Canada. Website: alexleslie.wordpress.com.
"To hear everything available for the hearing is still to misperceive, but to enter the condensation is to enter an entirely different world. In Alex Leslie's brilliant new collection, The Things I Heard About You, melodies seem to repeat everywhere, with the slightest of variations. What is easily fixed becomes easily refused. The most succinct articulation may be the most beautiful, but what it captures of the original utterance is the palest, most ghostly glimpse of the original, and often its opposite."
- Larissa Lai
"Prose poems, soundtracks, mini-fictions -- the lyrical, multi-faceted pieces in The Things I Heard About You record the ways in which language makes and unmakes us. "Between a tooth and safety," bodies, weather, genders inhabit and are inhabited by histories of loss, institutions of violence. These stories don't shrink even as they grow smaller; each is distilled to a potent drop that sinks into the mind like into into skin: "I, not here, write."
- Jen Currin
This video is of a man who has been spontaneously
asked to read Alex Leslie's poem "Exile Garden"
at Vancouver's Community College.
Video by: Howpedestrian.
Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher. They are shown here for publicity and review purposes. For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.