“I make my life with the things I can name,” Ruth Lepson wrote in her 2016 book ask anyone. It is a simply worded statement that dredges up difficult questions — for instance, what are the things that can be named and how is a life made with them? And, contrariwise, how is a life to be made without the things that cannot be named? A deceptive directness often splinters into perplexities in the poems of on the way, which were selected by Ben Mazer and draw on four previous collections, along with more recent writing, to distill decades of patient construction.
Lepson does indeed make her poems with things, often minute things that can be named—small gestures that dislodge, glances out the window that abruptly disorient, a hand falling asleep from being slept on, ducks mistaken for rocks, “an orange cat with a ripped seagull in its mouth,” “foam at the ocean’s edge spills / over another bunch of foam,” “fir tree fractal glows”—but she scarcely has time to make word-paintings with them; they shift and change too quickly for that. “This is a map of the world we are living with,” a world where any resting point appears to be temporary, and any silence bears the traces of the noise it has escaped from. The reflection of sun on wires registers “something turning into something new”—yet if everything moves dangerously fast, a perpetual instability is also a perpetual emergence into the unanticipated, which might turn out to be the very heart of pleasure.
The pleasure is that of a movement inherently musical. Lepson, who for 25 years has been poet-in-residence at the New England Conservatory, has been in the doubtless enviable position of teaching poetry to exceptionally talented musicians, making possible a mutual exchange across practices. (Her poems have been set to music and she has frequently read very effectively with musical backup.) These are poems of action, of moving through space, of negotiating switches and transitions. The first poem in the book, “Living with People,” is not a description of people, or a description of anything except the act of looking, the desire to look: “What are they asking. / What am I looking at. / A person talking and eating. / I’m looking at the eyes / that don’t look at me.” A life lived is to be found here, not parceled out in extended anecdotes, but glimpsed through intrusive urgencies of association, facets lit up in passing flashes.
Portraits are oblique (“The rooms can breathe now that you’ve left”), people make their presence known by no longer being there, trees affirm their continuing existence with “persistent green humming” in the absence or disappearance of the observer. The structures of the poems are open, there is air not only in them but around them, and we are led to understand that they go on after they end, like a broadcast sound after the listener has tuned out. The mysterious forays and escapes of desire move in and between the lines—long and sometimes splintering histories of loves recorded in fragments—in a music defined as much by the breaks as the notes. The apparent solitariness is nonetheless populous, full of lovers, friends, poetic mentors, and the anonymous inhabitants Lepson sees or is seen by—whether on the street or in recollection, and pinpointed precisely in space: “love as a series of angles.” They are just as palpably present in the dreams that provide the matter for her book Morphology (2007), a collaboration with the photographer and printmaker Walter Crump.
The dream notations have a sharp-edged matter-of-factness scarcely distinguishable from what happens by daylight, as if the same detached observation were going on whether asleep or awake, alert to passing anomalies while some dreamt informant comments, “It’s not possible to have such a dream.” The reader experiences sentences as physical spaces to be inhabited and explored, discreetly slipping across borderlines as if to test Thoreau’s notion of a “one and continuous everywhere.” Such an everywhere both includes language and is included within it. Also included are the poets who pop up in so many modes, alive and present, recollected at a distance, mourned, dreamt of, transformed, given words to say. Lepson affirms a tradition through the names of its bearers—Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, William Carlos Williams, Lorine Niedecker, Gerrit Lansing—and in the process makes it hers, as she converses with the dead, reads unwritten poems spelled out in dream language.
The poets are there to speak and be spoken to, along with musicians (Cecil Taylor, Steve Lacy) and painters (Brueghel, Philip Guston, Cy Twombly) who are invited into these shifting spaces. Direct transmission—a will to blurt out, to glide through barriers—is all the more imperative because it so often comes up against obdurate human limits: “This music is order and dream. After the applause, we all return to what we cannot share.” Or, in Lepson’s ekphrastic study of a Guston painting: “My heart’s chipped, like a mug or an Egyptian bust.” Against whatever odds and absences, the conversation must go on, as in the exchange that ends her “Motet for Mom”: “What do you think about?” “Everything that happens at that moment.”
on the way: new & selected poems by Ruth Lepson is published by MadHat Press, 2021 and is available online and from independent bookstores.