For many, the Covid-19 lockdown has exacerbated a feeling of isolation—cut off from family, from society. Despite technological advances that connect us to others around the globe, some of us still feel profoundly alone.
Thankfully, Jean LeBlanc, the author of the poetry collection, Ancient Songs of Us, has provided a guidebook to lead us through time, to our immediate future, where we recognize we are very much connected.
The theme of Ancient Songs of Us is conversation. From the eclectic moon-like face on the cover to the last poem, we’re embarking on a voyage to converse with a variety of people who, although different, bear similarities to us through our shared humanity. Published as part of Aqueduct Press’s “Conversation Pieces” series, which caters to speculative fiction and feminist writing, Ancient Songs of Us harkens back to places throughout time that challenge us to consider our place in the footprints of humanity.
The opening poem, “This Story Tells,” cleverly establishes the idea that every hero, every story ever told, can be our story. Whether our adventure is great or small, an ordinary day to us may in fact be an extraordinary life to another person looking in. The poem resonates with an understanding that we can view our lives as adventures in all their wonder, no matter which one it is: ordinary or extraordinary.
This theme of the cyclical story—a narrative that is both yours and mine and anyone who has ever lived, connecting us through time, space, and history—comes alive in the prose poem, “In Some Version of This Story.” An eloquent testament to how many versions exist of the same story. It is this crust that can be broken off and savored, to recognize, yes, we’re all important to this world. We’re all integral to history. Your story is my story.
LeBlanc writes, “In some versions, the hero is still out there,” echoing the need for our stories to continue, to not end, to be a possibility in the next moment. In this way, LeBlanc channels some of the greats of literature, including J. R. R. Tolkien, famous for leaving a hillside or valley unwritten and unvisited, to allow the reader a place to continue to imagine, what’s out there? Likewise, LeBlanc draws us toward the question: What adventure will you take tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that?
In “Penelope,” LeBlanc explores how memory impacts the way we think—and what we’re bound to or not bound to at all—if we give up those memories. In “The Trouble with Immortality,” we’re asked to consider what we would do with eternity.
It brings to mind the ancient words of Marcus Aurelius, who said, “Time is a sort of river of passing events, and strong is its current; no sooner is a thing brought to sight than it is swept by and another takes its place, and this too will be swept away.” Cities and names are all washed away, but we’re here, still witnessing and partaking in life, adding more footprints to the eternal shores.
“Poem for a Newborn Son” takes us deeper into the ever-present awareness that our children become our future and, at the same time, reflect the past. What mother wouldn’t wish a life free from violence for her children? How many mothers in ancient times wished this very thing, and still sent their children off to war?
Without being obvious, LeBlanc asks us what role we will play in the future—if we have a role in the future. Do we, when we “birth” something, recognize the rippling effects it will have generations to come? The answers come with the subsequent poems/prose ushering in more conversations, forcing us to consider the past as both a mirror to the next moment and the part we play for the future.
In “Riddle of the,” we’re given a “little dollop of clay” to consider—it could be synonymous for our lives, our dreams, the things we strive for. But more importantly, we can consider how much agency we have in fashioning the clay. LeBlanc reveals even things that are broken bring light.
Life comes with its trials, but we’re alive to experience those trials. It is the difference between living as one of the ancient Greek Immortals who ate ambrosia and hung out watching humans all day, and being human, forced to fight for our survival. “For Every Happiness” brings this full circle, reminding:
Like a child at the beach, learning…
that for every happiness,
there is a tide opposed.
We have a chance right now to live daring and confident before we become dust and bones (See: “There are Bones and There Are Bones”). Some of us will live good lives, some not so much. Some will have opportunities, some will know mostly struggle. Which life is yours? That’s the question LeBlanc is posing: are we resolved to the way our life is or are we willing to change it before it’s too late?
The entire collection explores that query. We’re haunted by the ghosts of past and present, and though it might seem like life is sweeping us up without choices, LeBlanc suggests we actually have the very next moment to rise up, take the next adventure, and become the hero of our lives—before it’s too late.
And I dreamt it all, dreamt it all, my addled brain intent on monsters and ghosts and the thousand ways to die… Everything is pain, and who knows when one is awake, who knows from sleep.
Part of the incredible quality of Ancient Songs of Us lives in the title. Our life is our song. Your song is my song. We’re singing together. We’re all very much creating this world, whether it’s the one we like or not. We’re part of the threads.
hold your loved ones, and for a moment
you may keep them safe from
poison, sharp edges, fire
strangers, all manner of precipice
fate builds a dangerous house …
Yes, our fate sometimes seems out of our control, but we have this moment, this one right here, to hold on and keep that which we love safe.
How many more moments will we squander our time or opportunities? LeBlanc reminds us:
Purity and light are what
you’re squandering now,
LeBlanc’s treasury of ancient songs is the type of book you carry with you, stuffed in your back pocket until it’s nice and worn, easy to take out in the middle of rush-hour traffic or waiting in line at the checkout. There, we’ll be reminded over and over that life is in the moments we live awake, facing the monsters, no longer settling for the illusion of being alone—together we craft the future.
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