Leslie Williams is a fine poet, skillful and smart. She takes a range of topics I find by themselves repelling or uninteresting (suburban life, nature, flowers, gardening, Thomas Jefferson, the American South, etc.) and makes them compelling; she demands my attention because she is such an attentive writer.
Leslie Williams’s first book, Success of the Seed Plants, wields its words like an axe. Its dark and strange approach to the natural world shows grace and intelligence. It is a serious, mysterious, and spirited take on humanity through the subjects of plants, rural America, and the bargain people and their environment have struck. Williams is like a twenty-first century Transcendentalist, finding spiritual breath in all manner of leaves, flowers, and branches, yet—as in Hawthorne—a gloom always lurks just below the surface of the poems.
Williams is a master of diction, especially when she seeks the inscrutability of the natural world; this diction is connected to a tone that is neither affectionate nor menacing. The speaker, who is removed and speaks in the third-person in section one, and is a closer and more attentive first-person in section two, is so adept at precision and sensuality of her word choice, that they appear spontaneous, yet inevitable. The best poems in this book are all stark, shocking beauty and insinuating splendor.
Take, for example, the end of “Notes on the State of Virginia”:
…left for dark
in Virginia’s spelled heart, hoof-sweet—
while boundless July, laden with evenings, returns
with trinkets and wares, trundles out to her farthest
field with all the stars finespun, coming on—
the still pool still fringed
with the goldenseal, with scuppernong.
Williams alludes to the speaker’s emotional state, and like the Transcendentalists’ spirit at the poem’s core, connects that state to the seasonal pleasures of the environment, and to language itself. The play with sound creates texture and visual interest not with rhyme, but with consonance. The double meaning of the word “still” in the last couplet make the reader aware of the speaker’s ancestral attachment to the land, yet makes a point of her alienation from it.
Like many first books, Williams shows facility in a variety of forms, some of which are her own invention; these forms range from intimate couplets to sculptural tercets to freer spaced lines splashed across the page. Of this variety, I find her controlled forms, like the couplets, to be most effective given her subject matter and challenging, yet pliable language. Her more experimental attempts, where syntax is removed and replaced with white space, are less interesting and useful. These experiments feel like mere lists; since they are formless the content has nowhere to go. Fortunately there are not many of these, but “As in the Sidewalk Gardens” is one such poem. Without the architecture of lines to tether it, the subject matter, which includes such terrible topics as a rose, a dead bird, a trellis, “undue love,” solitude, the phrase “a kind of” as a modifier, and the attempt at a narrative. Compared to the majority of poems here they are unreadable.
The book is intelligently organized, an immensely difficult task when a book is finally finished. Some of the strongest, most surprising poems appear in Williams’s third section, such as “Pressing Flowers” and “Amaryllis is an Alias.” These poems can be placed in a contextual conversation with perennial favorites like Marianne Moore’s “Silence” or “O to Be a Dragon.” Williams offers descriptions with such grace and accuracy that they sometimes astonish: “This flower is out for itself. Full velveteen throttle,” she explains in a poem that discusses the sexual metaphoric power of a flower.
The threads in Williams’s poem often allude to connections between the natural world and the world of culture, or human expression. Her poems therefore are self-referential pieces of evidence of these connections. For example, in “Small Diaspora” she relates boys playing little league baseball and the organization of suburban gardens: “From exuberant hanging gardens / populous with knaves— // rakes, lotharios, libertines, / paladins, princelings, brigands, rogues, / paramours, suitors swain—” Her deliberately Elizabethan language increases the formality and irony her point. Her sons in fact are part of an ordered natural world; the stakes and flowerbeds merely arrange elements of entropy and detritus: soil, decay, predation, unawareness. A couple of pages later, a poem called “The Rake” takes the double meaning of the first term in her list and employs it differently. Here, an especially trite Romantic idea—“Spring is sprung / from winter’s prison!”—complete with exclamation point, is just the beginning of a meditation on the beauty and perhaps insignificance the speaker feels observing—perhaps feeling distinct and apart—a garden.
Williams is a fine poet, skillful and smart. She takes a range of topics I find by themselves repelling or uninteresting (suburban life, nature, flowers, gardening, Thomas Jefferson, the American South, etc.) and makes them compelling; she demands my attention because she is such an attentive writer. This attention is a form of generosity. She makes poems that are meant to be savored. She was a terrific choice for the Bellday Prize, but unfortunately the production quality of the book itself is unappealing. It has a plain green cover with Photoshopped images of spores and a amateurish, last-minute quality to the design. The matte cover, with its plain type, suggests a much weaker and more sentimental book than what the book actually is. In fact, the book is the complete opposite of what the cover suggests, which is a literal interpretation of “seed plants.” This is a shame. The book is fantastic, careful, and a significant accomplishment.