To me, great poetry has always been synonymous with lucid insanity: piercing in observation, wild in expression, and utterly unnerving in its ability to expose the heart of its subject—even if that heart is grotesque, even if that heart is rotten.
I am aware, of course, that to start a sentence with “great poetry is” is to embark on a doomed quest. But this is, in any case, how I felt about Beauty Like a Rope, Leslie St. John’s slender yet quietly awesome collection of poems. How else can you say, as she does in the exquisite “Things that Bend,” that “the heart is not straight and narrow/ It curves, sometimes splinters into tributaries,//Carrying all the waste of a community of two:/Words like dead fish floating to the surface”?
How else can you explain the schizophrenic beauty with which the poet introduces herself in the opening poem “Filling the Egg Carton?”
“My real name is Lucinda./Yesterday my name was speaks with no sound./Tomorrow my name will be centrifuge…”
Moreover, how to reconcile these words with the physical presence of St. John herself—a gregarious, down-to-Earth woman with a lingering Arkansas drawl?
I should disclose that I have, for several years, known the poet as a friend of friends. An English teacher, yogi, and modern dancer, St. John had always seemed on the move, but when I spoke with her about her recently released chapbook, she was in a rare moment of suspended motion: curled on her couch, recovering after an operation on the socket where her left eye used to be.
(The incident that led to the loss of her eye—a CD case thrown from the stage at a Christian music festival in Bushnell, Ill.—is poignantly chronicled in the poem “She Washed My Hair:” “The CD case/struck my eye,/expelling green iris and lens/to the dirt.” We learn of its polycarbonate replacement in the immediately following “Eye Cleaning.”)
This isn’t the only instance in which the physical self, with its joys and limitations, intersects with the intellectual self, the world of ideas.
“I’d like to rename/ every body part,” she writes in “Filling the Egg Carton,” postulating that this action may bring her “one day nearer what is unnamable.” In “Returning to the Arts Center,” she laments, “I’m in need of evidence that this body is more than injury
And, in “Winter Jars”: “My body/ has been hostage to an idea/ and now released, the idea’s hold persists,/ Where his new hand makes a circle.”
For St. John, who once led a yoga and creative writing workshop called “Prose and Poses,” physical and mental exercise have always gone hand in hand.
“If I can’t get in my body, I can’t calm down enough to be creative,” she explained. “Doing something, whether it's yoga, or a walk, or dance, just getting physical in my body, frees me up a little bit to get into the poetry head, whatever that is. … I like the blending of those worlds.”
“A Dream of Doors,” the second poem in the book, maintains the introductory note of the first with its inviting imagery of doors opening, doors being knocked upon, doors swaying in the breeze, and doors being unscrewed from hinges, feeling, the poet writes, “the open mouth/of a house gape at my indiscretion.”
The language grows whimsical and ecstatic: “let birds fly through and paper planes,/may a kite catch and hang in the frame…”
But as the book progresses, the themes turn more somber. “Winter Jars,” a sprawling poem that feels, at some points, like free-association, begins with the heart-sickening image of St. John’s dog after she was killed by a car. Yet before we dive into the aching vulnerability of “Things that Bend” and the senseless tragedy of “Elegy for John Mark, 2002-2004,”—a lament for her nephew, who died after choking on a shard of pretzel—we are granted a reprieve in the loveliness of “Reading Monet’s Garden.”
As St. John describes the artist at work, a pattern of doubles emerges, and with it the inability to separate one from another. As his wife and lover argue, St. John writes, “Monet has already walked the garden twice.” Out in his boat, “the granite-walled pond/ makes duplicates of bamboo and weeping-/willows.” The Japanese bridge might as well be “two bodies reach[ing] for each other.” The final stanza collapses all the poem’s themes so simply and elegantly that I immediately had to read it again.
Such beauty, especially arriving just before the poems become burdened with irreversible sadness, offers generous pause. This reprieve is analogous to the way in which St. John herself navigates difficult moments in her life, searching for something beautiful to sustain the spirit.
“I feel like I’m always looking for the poetic moment in a day,” she said. “For me, it’s a moment when an image stands out as beautiful, or there’s something that’s cinematic to me.”
“Beauty Like a Rope,” the poem for which the book is named—and which, oddly, was excluded from the final cut—describes these moments as a lifeline from despair.
“In Leslie St. John’s world, beauty is like a rope: It can rescue or kill,” local poet Jim Cushing wrote in his eloquent blurb promoting the book.
To St. John, this interpretation came as a surprise.
“For me, I didn’t think of it so much as ‘it could kill,’” she said. “It was like, if I can find beauty in a situation, or in a day, it’s a rope that I can hold on to; I can pull myself up from a place where I might not want to stay. It’s not a noose; it’s a line to safety.”
St. John’s “The Bicyclist,” however, comes close to validating Cushing’s interpretation. Watching a young girl on a bicycle cruising by, the poet begins to foresee many future consequences of the girl’s precocious sensuality.
“She will come to knowledge/differently than the others,” she warns. “It will cost her more. Men will bite/into the geometry of her shoulders/and collarbones … And women, they will take/from her.”
Wanting to spare her these (largely autobiographical) trials, St. John agonizes, “I want to lean over the rusted/chain-link fence, tell her to stop,/say, your kind of beauty is too much/ for us.”
Instead—perhaps realizing how crazy this truth would sound—the poet is silent. ∆
Arts Editor Anna Weltner wanted to present these poems in a way never seen in these pages before. Contact her at email@example.com.