Story & Bone
by Deborah Leipziger
Lily Poetry Review Books, 2022
Reviewed by Ken Bresler
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do / With your one wild and precious life?”
– Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day”
Poet Deborah Leipziger has answered Oliver’s famous question this way, in effect: She will write poems filled with colors (“The night washes amber over cities”), filled with flowers whose very names are poems (bougainvillea, jasmine, frangipani), poems that honor the women she is descended from (even if the inheritance she writes about in “Inheritance” is not clearly a gift), poems that subtextually are love poems to her daughters, including a set of twins, and poems that honor other poets, poets she did not meet and one poet, dying of cancer, whom she tended (“Radiation on Valentine’s Day”). And those are among the themes of her poems, not categories, because many of her poems are too large for one theme alone.
These poems appear in Leipziger’s wonderful new book Story & Bone. At least two poems help explain the title’s meaning. One is “What is home,” with its heartbreaking italicized line:
What is home
a house made of kites
and orchids bleeding
language and story
color is home.
home is story memory
and the bones I carry
I did not know that everything
would be taken away.
Only later did I learn that
my Grandparents sewed gems
into the hems of their clothing
for each border crossing.
In addition to recurring themes, Leipziger’s poems contain recurring stories, including “gems sewed in hems” and “the umbilical cord wrapped around my neck” when she was born. These are both lines from “Self, Archaeologist,” a poem “After Walter Whitman.” The umbilical cord story is like an origin story out of the Bible or mythology, classical or Norse, like the story of two famous twins, Jacob trailing his brother Esau and grasping his heel as their mother Rebecca gave birth. (Genesis 25:26) And the gems in hems reminds me of Rebecca concealing her father’s idols after she fled his household (Genesis 31:34), another story of a person hiding valuables while journeying to a new life.
Story & Bone contains two recipe poems. One of my favorite poems by Leipziger is “How to Make Challah.” I was glad to see it reprised from her chapbook “Flower Map”; reading it again was like an old friend greeting me. Here’s an excerpt:
Measure 7 or 8 cups of flour,
challah is not precise.
Notice the flour cloud.
Make a well.
A deep well to contain the grief.
Pour the yeast water into the well.
Let it seep.
Add 3 eggs and 3 tablespoons of oil.
Take off your rings.
Is there an anthology yet of recipe poems? Leipziger’s poems should go in the next anthology.
In addition to two recipe poems, Story & Bone contains two breakup poems. I miss A. J. Huffman’s “Napalm and Novocain,” a website of breakup poems that went inactive in 2016. Leipziger’s breakup poems are not the literary equivalent of napalm but still deserve to go in an anthology. They are sad but not mad, written with a feeling heart but not a broken one, touched with grief but not grievance.
This is an image-filled excerpt from “By the bay, before the breakup”:
“It’s abalone,” you say
fingering the shell that hangs
around my neck.
Your eyes take in my every pore
this small ear of the ocean.
Here’s part of “Inheritance,” one of her poems about her ancestors:
Where do you end and I begin?
I once lived in your body,
your blood in my veins.
Your grief grafted onto me,
I carry your sadness
growing over itself in layers
into the cavities of the tree its lacerations
etching maps of ancient forests
in the trees
until your pain is mine.
Nature washes wounds,
as salt forms a delicate crust on the waves
of melancholy rage.
Your gift to me.
In “Sueño,” Leipziger writes: “I sleep inside your sleep/Your touch is my touch…./Your sweat in my pores/I dream inside your dream.” The poem evokes E. E. Cummings:
i carry your heart with me(i carry it in/
my heart)i am never without it
I admire Leipziger’s neologism “coup d’ivorce.” Line after line, image after image, she astonishes me. In “Daffodil Waves,” a poem with four sections, here are the last two:
How quickly change arrives unbidden.
I am this schoolgirl immersing in jonquils.
No, those are my daughters amidst the blooms.
It is gratifying to observe Leipziger grow as a poet from her chapbook Flower Map to Story & Bone. I am grateful that she has shared her themes, stories, images, lines, recipes – and loving heart – with us.
What will you do with your wild and precious life? In her poem “Flower Map,” which appears in both her chapbook by that name and her recent book, Leipziger writes: “I am lush and wild in my joy.”