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Review | More Radiant Signal, Juliana Leslie
Letter Machine Press

Juliana Leslie’s More Radiant Signal, transmitted through a cosmos of chaos and artistic creation, arrives to us with the opening line: “Thus begins a study of the secret life of the stick figure.”  This beacon, signaling the poetic realm to be encountered, foretells a culture that is equal parts abstraction and whimsy. Such a beacon proves accurate, of course. After spending some time in the country of Leslie’s collection, one is certain that Wallace Stevens and Mr. Wizard are the elder statesmen, or at least local legends.

One finds in Leslie’s poetry a tendency to view human experience with a playful, calculating, and ultimately insightful sensibility. Take for instance the following from “The Importance of Rising Motion and the Mechanisms Responsible for Lifting Air”:

If p equals all of my weight in wood. If n equals all of the life in traffic. If a watercolor of l is effortless science is subterfuge or biology. I erupts as facsimile . . .

Here as elsewhere, the equations of mathematics and syntax, the laws of physics and bodily experience, are all conflated. And the complication of each method for seeing and spelling the world provides the necessary estrangement by which the fodder of a typical life is catalyzed into exciting poetry.

In addition to the blending of the mathematic and lyric, a merger of fanciful and stark tones further fills out that vibrant patchwork of Leslie’s lyrics. “Confluence,” for example, exhibits in a small space a variety of tonal values: “In the end we will have the titanic the elevating and the harmonic / the rabbit quixotic as an imitation of a novel by Kafka.”  What is smart in these lines is how the tonal play leads to sophisticated equations. The first line mingles the transcendent and the tragic that leads to a strange harmony.  In the second, the “quixotic” and ominous produce an irony that teeters towards the absurd.  

Shifts in diction occur not just between levels of tone but also levels of abstraction. A poignant conflation of the numinous and the distinct can be seen in the opening line of “Palimpsest”: “Everything inside of everything else / fox and sparrow.”  And this, for me, is the real brilliance of Leslie’s collection: one finds not simply the semiotic abstractions, the focus on language as mediator (or is it arbiter?) of reality that is common in contemporary poetry, but more so, we find a lush and diverse range of tones within this trope.  The conceptual realms of Leslie’s poems are portrayed with remarkable texture, to the point that even amidst the fantastic we fancy tangibility. This is the case in Leslie’s (near) title poem “Softer More Radiant Signal”

Tell me we need more
of what happens to bodies when bodies decide
to say what they want more of
More love in the vernacular
for example
More words like
longing, appetite, hunger
more bodies to willfully embrace
in summer kitchens
Tell me you want more sublimation
of history
by palpable whim
and fancy
More French in brunette
more four inside five
more singular features to render
clean of muscle, more

In the slippery sphere of poetic thought, we drift from bodies to a vernacular of desire and hunger, to a language rendered palpable, to histories made palatable.  Leslie leaves us wanting both more of the ideal beyond the material and then, a quick line brake later, more materiality.  The problem and pleasure that persists, then, is the conflicting desire for a tangibility that proves tantalizingly beyond our grasp and a desire for what is indefinite, what is undefined, as it leads to greater lyrical potentialities. 

In these merging representations of a tangible world and a world of thought, the reader is invited to participate rather than left a befuddled bystander.  Said another way, Leslie’s poems prove sonar signals sent out to the world that we find returning. As in “From the Interior of All Other Knowledge,” we come across poems speaking to some real world out there only to then find ourselves fathoming our own dark interior:

Real things are part of a body

Real things like oranges floating in the palm of a hand

Have you seen the green ray?

One possibility is to apprehend the immediate and material darkness

Another is to walk a little further    

Such lines are wonderfully non-didactic even as they usher us to the interior of “Other Knowledge,” allowing us bumble about in that darkness. But, and this I feel is significant, Leslie’s poems are not a perpetuation of an opaque lyricism that seems common nowadays; instead, they reflect honestly on an opaque world, sounding out its fissures so that we might see further into it.

Leslie’s poems, then, explore the complications of the present, of presence.  Lost in signals, the physical definition of the surrounding world becomes hazy, making the linguistic definitions equally problematic. This difficulty is at the heart of  “No Single Binding Definition Has Been Found”:

I saw it
who would be made a motion picture of hills and comets

the edge of something
which is always hard to say

To dream inside the numbers five or six or seven

to think inside the dream
is a land to be lost in and to be from and not returning

I’m telling you something

a day is 24 hours

We’re building a passionate lilac to give to the sun

how many ways are there to say it?

By struggling with the concept of definition in both a linguistic and a visual sense, Leslie finds more radiant possibilities in the blurred borders between them.  Here, number and words are denied stable referents so that dreaming is possible.  With such prospects, we are not bound to a defined place but are free “to be lost” and thus free to wander and wonder.  


A. E. Watkins is the author of Dear, Companion, scheduled for release from Dream Horse Press in Fall 2012. He is a graduate of the MFA program at St. Mary’s College and is currently pursuing a PhD in Literary Studies at Purdue University.