How to Grow Matches, S. A. Leavesley
Against the Grain Poetry Press, 2018 £5.00
When the words themselves are metaphors
This is a poet who most of the time avoids the first person and slips more readily into second-person mode, the kind of ‘you’ the reader can easily identify with. A number of poems also feature instructions. Arguably, imperative verbs do imply an ‘I’: somebody must be giving the orders. But maybe what a sequence of imperatives does best is establish clarity. So when instructions are fluid or surreal, it’s more interesting because at least the verbs are placed clearly, the reader’s stepping stones.
The title poem falls into this category. The method of growing matches might have been horticultural. But the matches grow into a ‘felled forest’ only by dint of piling them up. It’s a metaphor, beautifully extended, for the daily bitternesses of having to conform to the ‘hip-sways and lip expressions / condoned for your office / as a woman’.
More unusually, words themselves, and their complex sounds (S. A. Leavesley is exceptionally sensitive to sound), become their own metaphor. They are dangerously alive and can be active barriers to communication, especially in the context of love. In ‘From His Uncoy Mistress, 2016’, untypically in the first person:
Your words rise up to meet me
at the most awkward times.
In ‘Territory’, two people’s shared understanding of linguistic metaphor confirms their affinity, but also fundamental misalignment. Sharing metaphors is not the same as sharing feelings. Starting with joint exasperation (‘Life’s a bitch, he says / Life’s a bitch, you repeat’) the poet extends the metaphor of a pet dog. The ‘ow’ (a pain sound) in the word ‘howls’ echoes sonorously through ‘hound’, ‘round’, 'found’,‘sounds’ and ‘bounds’, before it painfully slithers into ‘flounder’.
And in this same poem, ‘You both believe it when you promise’ invokes a marital pledge. On the other hand, ‘And for this, you weighed your life in sounds’ calls in betrayal, in which the person ‘fooled’ becomes the one who ‘failed’.
To illustrate that, here are the last six lines of ‘Territory’ (to maximise the effect of the sound texture, these lines are best read slowly, and out loud):
And for this, you weighed your life in sounds.
For this, you beat the bounds — fooled,
you failed to shape a place where feelings
won’t yap and meaning flounder,
as a puppy jumps round you,
your rags in its teeth.