By Leanne Averbach
Reviewed by Jorge Antonio Vallejos
Reading Leanne Averbach’s first book Fever will leave you floored. If you’re a poet, her poem The Funeral will have you thinking of how much you need to grow as a writer. Her descriptions and metaphors flash on and off in your head for a long time after.
In The Funeral you’ll see rain flooding the scene with sadness as opposed to washing it away; umbrellas with rods barely holding up and “aching to snap”; and contemplative thoughts as the casket is lowered:
“She was a cruel woman.
Still we came, felt our ancestors pull
At the hems of our overcoats.”
Describing Averbach as gifted does not do her justice; she is creative, bold, and well read.
It’s no surprise that Averbach was nominated for the Gerald Lampert Memorial award for a first book of poetry in 2006 for Fever. The Funeral alone should have gotten her the prize. This review is not a rant about the past and shady award processes, it’s a celebration of her new book Come Closer.
In the same fashion as Fever, Averbach brings you real close and personal into her life. Poems about activism, incarceration (featured in Descant 150), love lost, immigrant family struggles, and the history of the blues bring you closer to Averbach’s life.
My Youth Machine Rolled, Smoked To Its Stub explores the voyeurism of those locked up. “Tales of my youth are a big hit at parties” starts the poem. The want to know about those doing time, what got them there, and the experiences they had while behind bars. It’s also about the incarcerated wanting their stories known, being centre stage and feeling important for a moment.
Prison has always intrigued those who have never been. John Cheever wrote Falconer, Stephen King wrote The Shawshank Redemption, both writers never being jailed and most of their readers never being jailed either, both books becoming best sellers, King’s turned into an Oscar nominated film. So, those writers who have been inside such as Averbach have a one-up on most of society who want to know about jail from a distance, a very far distance.
While enjoying the attention of sharing her experiences, the stories at parties and the poem in Come Closer are a form of activism. Averbach’s writing My Youth Machine Rolled is a form of exposing the brutalities of arrest and incarceration through the arts:
me to their sedan…
The beefy woman in uniform
watching me bathe
through a slit.”
Averbach writes of her brain shredded by the constant buzz of a shining light in her cell. Also shredded is her fame, fast, once leaving jail. No longer a novelty on the inside for fellow activists to boast about, Averbach writes, “The quicksand of celebrity, how important I must be.”
Teacups and Mink, a thirteen part poem, takes readers through the life of the Averbach family: leaving Tchernovka, Russia in 1921; crossing the Atlantic; her father peddling Canadian streets for money and hustling his way to owning businesses and then dying. It felt like the poetry of the first book with the struggles of family and the transparency of their hardships.
“I remember my mother’s affairs with books and boys,” writes Averbach. Subtle. Honest. Brave. Young writers share the fears of what their families will think of their work airing out the dirty laundry; Averbach has long moved past that. Experience shows in her writing. By reading her work closely you’ll catch such lines and wish whole poems were written about things like her mother’s affairs.
Averbach is at her most creative in A Brief History of the Blues. The title says it all. You are swept through the lives of many of the Blues unsung heroes: Blind Willie J, Baby Face T, Pappa Charlie Jackson, Peetie Wheatstraw. Averback writes of their trades, deaths, inspirations, disappearances, and styles. You want to run and YOUTUBE them or hit the Silver Dollar room for its Blues night.
In her activist style Averbach plays with famous book titles while deconstructing society’s problems. In Grand Central Station He Sat Down and Wept (named after the popular novel by Elizabeth Smart with the similar title: By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept) Averbach writes of a homeless man who is ignored—like most homeless folk—and who hungers for McDonalds. Another poem which uses the same title as Virginia Wolf’s famed book, To The Lighthouse, Averbach take you into Wolf’s world.
Come Closer sees Averbach take you into her life, play with her titles, trace the history of her favorite musicians, and expose the ever growing prison industrial complex. It’s a fun read, a sad read, a worthwhile read. The pomes that touch you will be re-read several times. Poets both experienced and new can learn from Averbach’s style. More poems about affairs and family secrets such as seen in Fever would not only have been appreciated but also have the collection live up to its title: Come Closer.
Tune in to Black Coffee Poet Friday January 21, 2011 for a video of Leanne Averbach reading her poetry.