Keith Leonard

Mariner Books, 2016

In Keith Leonard’s first full-length collection, Ramshackle Ode, what rescues many of the poems from sentimentality is their quirky swerve into dark complication. In “The Could Be,” the speaker, a new father of a baby boy, tells us:

he lies down
in the rough bassinet of my hands
and sleeps. Just listen: even our enemies whimper a little in dreams.
Quiet now, little aardvark who roots
the nonsense away. Sleep, little gardener of my soon enough grave.

Throughout, there’s nature’s drive to increase and create simply because it perpetuates existence. “Honeysuckle” describes a plant that might spread like “a perfumed / disease over the garden (…) because it would be compelled to.” Later, the honeysuckle is compared to a friend’s unnamed “thoughtless” and “innocent” sickness that causes harm because it is programmed to do so. Many of the poems’ subjects set about being fruitful and multiplying, from June bugs to strawberries to the speaker himself..

In “Dead Man Float,” the speaker fears what gender expectations might mean for his young son:

There was an unspoken rule
not to help. To need help
was a weakness. We
were boys. It was a game
we made ourselves.

The language proceeds without much gimmickry, except the artifice of aphoristic, plainspoken diction. But the poems can be too abundant with vulnerable wisdom. That they can also nod to their own sentimentality—such as when the speaker in “Strawberries for Dinner” remarks “Good for the strawberry / for wearing all its seeds on its skin— / too few things say here’s all of me”—mitigates the cloying effect.

Though the book eventually becomes repetitive in its iterations of the reverent nature poem and the awed fatherhood poem, its exploration of the terrain of joy feels fresh, especially since it does not shy away from difficult realities. In “Osiris Ode” the poet imagines himself dead and buried, his plot tended by a hateful groundskeeper, but, he muses, “even hell must have its respite.” Regardless of the context, every poem in the collection wends its way toward hope.

The poems build tonally, taking on progressively darker subjects and finding more difficult paths toward light, taking in complex forms of loss and offering back odes of gratitude and humility from a speaker who has come to contentment, recognizing that he “was [his] own / storm once” but now loves “this old boat, / this settled-in thing.”