By Jim Kates
Ruth Lepson’s poetry, at its most successful, creates the evocative and stimulating effect of a koan.
on the way: new and selected poems by Ruth Lepson. MadHat Press, 196 pp., $21.95.
Ruth Lepson’s best poetry begins in observation:
proceeds to experience:
and ends with a very unsyllogistic leap:
This is the full text of one of Lepson’s most successful and moving poems, “Swampscott Hour,” in on the way: new and selected poems.
A dead flatness to Ruth Lepson’s poetry, when it works, creates the evocative and stimulating effect of a koan. When it doesn’t work, her verse just falls dead flat, as in some one-sentence writings that are included here from 2007’s Morphology. These stretch the most liberal definition of poetry, even in these licentious times: “I wake up singing the French national anthem.” That and others like it stand alone as works of art. In another context, these zingers might constitute a consistent minimalist aesthetic, as in the Russian poetry of Ivan Akhmetev, but here, even the ones that contain texture and depth are distractions from the more dynamic poems.
Fortunately, on the way is rife with far more energetic pieces, many of which incorporate into their structure the minimalism that’s stranded in Morphology. Others draw on a different, incantatory compactness, redolent of a Gertrude Stein or an Edith Sitwell:
on the way selects poems from all four of Lepson’s earlier books and adds a double handful of newer work. The most compelling of the older pieces are those most conventional thematically: love poems and little dramas. In “The Old High Way of Love” with its evocation of Yeats,
Suffused with sunlight and vision, which isn’t quite dissipated when the lines veer off into abstraction, these works defy the ineffective minimalism of Lepson’s middle and middling work. Memory comes more and more to the fore in the volume’s chronological arrangement, and this constitutes a continuing story of its own. but self-consciousness is always at the heart of the most objective statements.
Here (also from Morphology) even the single question is presented as a statement. Assertion almost always eclipses ambiguity, and ambiguity is achieved by what is left out, not by what is asserted — the space between the lines:
The newest poems are elegiac. They incorporate all the fragmentary elements of her earlier writing (“Comparisons swim by like swans. / They’re too far away. Once I used them. / The pool is dank, / My brain flat”) but in the service of a more singular vision that reaches from ancient Sumeria through to the current Covid epidemic. The anaphoras of her litanies are constructed around the phrases “I remember” and “I wish you had stayed.” Her lament for departed makers enrolls Cecil Taylor, Cy Twombly, Robert Creeley, Gerrit Lansing, Bill Corbett. And her mother:
Usually, I prefer to read individual poems one by one rather than in a sweep or sequence. But a reading of Ruth Lepson’s poetry deepens from its association with what has come before. The earlier poems illuminate those that come after. If I am not always sure what is revealed in this light, I am encouraged by its glow.
J. Kates is a poet, feature journalist and reviewer, literary translator, and the president and co-director of Zephyr Press, a nonprofit press that focuses on contemporary works in translation from Russia, Eastern Europe, and Asia. His latest book is Paper-thin Skin (Zephyr Press), a translation of the Kazakhstani poet Aigerim Tazhi.