The Heaven-Sent Leaf by Katy Lederer. BOA Editions, $16.
Reviewed by Sara Lockery
Katy Lederer’s The Heaven-Sent Leaf probes the conflicting yet interrelated concepts of art and commerce, establishing a fruitful tension between the technical and the emotional in contemporary society. At the heart of this tension lies the startling observation that the spirit of money occupies the core of such timeless institutions as poetry and love. “There is, in the heart,” Lederer reminds us, “the hard-rendering profit.” Likewise, the threat of art continually rebels against the order of city life, voicing a recurring plea for its emancipation from the doldrums of industry. Behind every facade of society, we are told, the artist is “waiting, like an animal, / for poetry.” The dynamic quality of Lederer’s language further exemplifies this tension; alternating between observational narrative and lyrical rhapsody, it is at once detached and intimate, tentative and insistent.
One of the most apparent themes in The Heaven-Sent Leaf is the interaction of the external world of business (money, capital, trade) with the internal, primal state of passion (love, art, nature). Such association becomes evident in the second “Brainworker” poem, in which the narrator begins by expressing the need to “keep drear managerial impulse away from the animal mind.” Located along the borders of logic within the mind, however, is a “silky white cat. / Howling,” an image soon interrupted by the narrator’s anxiety over her “year-end review.” The poem finally closes with “The moon… settl[ing] into its shadow” and the narrator “howling.” The reference to the cat howling within the “mind’s little prison” gives the impression of entrapment and suppressed desire, which reflects Lederer’s recurring assertion that the expression of the artist is stifled by the monotony of the business world. Additionally, the perpetual oscillation from the dreariness of office life to the unruliness of the creative intellect establishes a tumultuous dialogue between these two opposing forces, exemplifying the state of constant flux that pervades much of the book.
Another way in which Lederer creates tension between opposites is by structuring her poems as quasi-sonnets that simultaneously transcend and adhere to form. Such experimentation with the sonnet is evident in “Heavenly Body.” For example, in the second to last line, the formerly detailed depiction of vast distances (“Between these mountains runs a pass blasted through by the / movements of water and indebted plateaus. / Imagine it widening, eternally, as the owl will fly or flower bloom”) is solidified into “Long silences between us.” Likewise, the previously elaborate reference to the serenity of the moon* is compacted into “Imagine, Love, the patience of the moon.” In clear, sparse language, the ending thus operates as a kind of condensed summary of the fundamental elements of the poem, a technique characteristic of the sonnet. And by breaking the poem into thirteen lines, Lederer roughly recalls the sonnet form. But the odd number of lines defeats the possibility of consistent couplets and the poems do not regularly follow iambic pentameter, thus distinguishing Lederer's work from the sonnet by upsetting its symmetry. In this way, the structure of Lederer’s poems provides an additional example of the interaction between order and chaos.
Aside from the continual fluctuation of subject and style, Lederer’s technique is further distinguished by her ability to grant physical, tangible properties to the abstract. For example, in “The Rose, The Ring,” thoughts are depicted as diamonds falling to the floor. The genius of this portrayal lies in the fact that something as theoretical and intangible as thought is successfully embodied in the distinct, concrete form of a jewel. Furthermore, such characterization resonates with the larger theme of commerce; the narrator has in effect transformed the act of thinking into a commodity: “We sweep them up, the little jewels,/ The little bastard trinkets.” By illustrating human thought as a token of sorts, Lederer has raised the possibility that anything of value, even ideological value, has the potential to be channeled into a form of capital and used to obtain power. The seeming disparity between the timeless, psychological value usually associated with mental reasoning and the temporary, mechanical value Lederer assigns to it reflects the general atmosphere of tension that characterizes her work.
An additional trademark of Lederer’s technique includes a distinctive kind of repetition that involves a refocusing or development of particular concepts. Take, for example, these lines from “Heaven-Sent Leaf”: “To imagine oneself as a river. / To imagine oneself as a stretch of cool water, / Pouring into basin or brain.” The repetition here is both linguistic (the reusing of the phrase “to imagine oneself”) and conceptual (the recurrence of the idea of water). However, in the first line the tone is dry, fragmentary, and abstract, whereas in the following lines it is lyrical, rhythmic and precise. The idea of a river has thus been extended and developed into something entirely different. The effect of this particular kind of repetition at once ties the images together through shared wording and conceptual grounding and isolates them by splitting them up into two tonally and stylistically separate contexts. The interaction between the opposing ideas of variation and repetition and between unification and differentiation reflects Lederer’s larger theme of the interrelation of conflicting concepts (money and love, business and nature).
Lederer’s adeptness of execution, including the way in which rhythm, alliteration, and repetition perpetuate the mood of the concept at hand, further demonstrates the strengths of The Heaven-Sent Leaf. The phrase “The legs are mimetic of the mind’s locomotion” is a particularly effective instance of such cohesion between style and content. The aural similarity between “legs” and “mimetic,” as well as the alliteration established by the words “mimetic” and “mind,” suggest the repetition and circularity involved in the act of imitation. Moreover, the gradual widening exemplified by the transition of sound (‘eh’—‘eye’—‘oh’) mimics the regulated motion that characterizes the functioning of machinery. Together, these linguistic factors both aurally and mentally enhance the motion and circularity inherent in the concept of moving legs, cycling machinery, and imitation. The fusion of the technical and conceptual aspects of writing amplifies the impact and intricacy of Lederer’s poems by generating an alternate layer of complexity and cohesion.
With panoramic scope and fluidity, The Heaven-Sent Leaf depicts contemporary society in a way that at once criticizes and embraces its materialistic impulses, artfully balancing the conflicting extremes of art and office life. The title itself effectively embodies the core tension of Lederer’s poetry: a symbol of nature as well as materialism, of temptation as well as salvation, the heaven-sent leaf can take the shape of either a leaf from a tree or a paper money to be used for barter. The perpetual flux of its tone mimics the natural rhythm of human thought, and the conceptual variation of the collection as a whole masterfully articulates the dual nature of reality.
* The sarcasm inherent in the lines, “Is she angry? Is she edified? / Does the moon crawl into bed at night, drunk and restless as any kept woman…?” suggests the outrageousness of the moon acting in such a way, thus intimating, by reverse logic, that the moon is normally associated with calmness and serenity.