Reading poetry is an exceedingly personal experience, particularly the reading of Recluse Freedom, the fifth poetry collection by John Leax. In these poems, we’re drawn into one man’s personal communion with the natural world — the communion of an avid gardener, hiker, fisherman, birdwatcher, and man of unassuming faith. Leax follows the tradition of such nature-inspired poets as William Wordsworth, Robert Frost, Robert Siegel, and Mary Oliver.
Your personal connections with the out-of-doors will in part determine which of Leax’s poems you most closely identify with. Some of your favorite poems may be ones I slip quickly over; and the ones that resonate most deeply with me may not catch you in the same way. Although this is true of all poets, I especially sense it here. One scene from the opening poem, “Considered from a Certain Aspect,” says as much about the observer as it does about what he observes, and may give us a glimpse into our own observing:
The beaver, rippling the still pond of its own making, its small paws feeding the thin branches into its nibbling teeth, is in its own way— good and beautiful. . . .
Recluse Freedom is a book that has been twenty years in the making. His previous collection, Tabloid News (2005), a wild ride of speculative experimentation inspired by the headlines in supermarket tabloids, seems to have little in common with it other than the author’s name on the cover.
Prior to Tabloid News his most recent collection, Country Labors, appeared in 1991. In contrast, Recluse Freedom is a deeply felt book—a book that shows more of who the poet is, and more of who we are. The flights of fancy here are more philosophical. A casual dip into the longest section, “Flat Mountain Poems,” might make you think it traceable on Google Maps—following the poet who has “walked alone the snowy ridge / above the river.” You may want to follow the Genesee River to Mouth of the Creek, seeking the hidden heights of Flat Mountain. We’re told, however, “The geography of Flat Mountain has never been described. It can be located on no map. Existing nowhere and everywhere. . . .” There’s a playful seriousness here—speaking of a state of mind as if it were a specific place. It’s wild with bears, yet domesticated with a child-friendly garden at its summit—a garden of green beans and blueberries, with forsythia to trim and firewood to split.
You start to wonder what the subject of these “Flat Mountain Poems” might be; at first, it seems to be just his garden. For in the fourth section of the poem “A Scrap of Paper,” he reflects on his intentions for retirement—“to live companioned / by my books and poems among these vegetables, flowers and / fruit”—but in this somewhat neglected garden, regularly invaded by neighborhood children, his idle question becomes, “shall I rise / and close the gate?” I think he will leave it wide open, to invite every possibility in.
The fifth section juxtaposes a famous poet’s work selling out after a reading with small fish in “the shallows of the lily pond”; the sixth shares a dream of a dead friend who’s been secretly alive for years, and the seventh goes from a dentist appointment to a deeper reason for silence. Of course, the “Flat Mountain Poems” are also connected with hiking. To find Mouth of the Creek you can follow the stream up or down, we are told, so “Getting lost is not an option.” This is also true of the mountain itself, for “The mountain finds / all climbers” (“Invitation from Flat Mountain”). Throughout Recluse Freedom Leax opens the book of nature—showing us, for example, “the evening grosbeak” that “stunned itself crashing into the window.” He tells of all that happened in caring for the bird until it “came to its / senses took wing and lifted itself away” (“A Bird in the Hand”).
If there’s a bit of an ornithologist in you, you will especially appreciate such poems in the section “Bright Wings” and others that also feature feathered flight. In the central section, “Recluse: An Adirondack Idyll,” he celebrates his interactions with the region—speaking of bears, wolves and coyotes that may or may not be just around the next turn in the trail. Leax intertwines the public history of the Adirondacks with his own.
There are three pantoums, and a fourth poem that resembles a pantoum in this section. Because, to me, the prime pleasure in the pantoum is the form itself, these poems would be more appealing if more widely spread throughout the collection. I find myself particularly drawn to the seven poems in “Walking The Ridge Home”; each one steps out from a reflective phrase from the Psalms. Unlike the rest of the poems in Recluse Freedom, these poems avoid punctuation—using line breaks, varying indentations, or mid-line three-space caesura breaks (quite similar to what I do in my own poetry). The seventh poem in this series begins, “If you should take back your Spirit Lord / and gather to yourself your breath / all all would perish.” A page later he continues:
Up the knobby spine Thy kingdom come I place my feet with care Thy will be done plunge my stick through the sharp crust on earth heart pounding breathe breathe
through the trees arcing in the wood bending word as it is climbing home. . . .
Since I don’t live in New York State, and have not spent a lot of time there, I may be missing the pleasures of some of the particular references throughout Recluse Freedom. Even so, there’s plenty that I can relate to and enjoy. I think you’ll find the same.
Recluse Freedom, by John Leax (WordFarm, 2012)
D.S. Martin is a Canadian whose poetry has appeared in Anglican Theological Review, Canadian Literature, Christianity & Literature, and Ruminate's Issue 18: Sound & Silence. His poetry collections include: So The Moon Would Not Be Swallowed (Rubicon) and Poiema (Wipf & Stock). View his blog about Christian poetry at: www.kingdompoets.blogspot.com.
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