In Leonard Gontarek’s poems, the unsaid is operating just as surely as the said. Watch closely Gontarek’s new poems in He Looked Beyond My Faults and Saw My Needs and you will see a sort of dance-chart delicacy at the same time as they hum with blunt observation and the colloquial:
There was the wolf that ate his leg, then his other one.
Then ate all of him. You would think sorrow would disappear too,
he writes in the poem “Imago Mundi.” This tension between the delicate pause and the yearning, quirky, cheeky voice is at the very heart of Gontarek’s aesthetic.
What Gontarek can get done in 10 to 12 lines should inspire envy in any poet and a clean and clear kind of enjoyment in the lucky reader who comes across his work. The poems are now oblique, now wry, now smacking with sarcasm, now wistful. Always, though, they seem created, almost brought about by, the great richness and wealth of surprise. Surprise as it goes back to its own roots: prehendere “to take” and then sur—a taking above, over, in addition.
But back to the dance-chart: Gontarek’s poems pivot and move with a masterful lightness and quickness, two qualities which Italo Calvino, in his Six Memos for the Next Millennium, isolated as crucial elements, alive-nesses, in the best writing. Calvino’s personal project–a set of talks/essays composed in 1985–was to define as exactly as possible “certain values, qualities, or peculiarities” which would be key to a vital literature into the new millennium. No doubt Calvino would find Gontarek’s poems exemplary.
Regarding Lightness, Calvino emphasizes, it “for me goes with precision and determination, not with vagueness and the haphazard.” He delineates further:
First, there is a lightening of language whereby meaning is conveyed through a verbal texture that seems weightless, until the meaning itself takes on the same rarified consistency…. Second, there is the narration of a train of thought or psychological process in which subtle and imperceptible elements are at work … And third there is a visual image of lightness that acquires emblematic value.
This seems to describe the very ways Gontarek’s poems work. In one of his other asides, Calvino pulls in a line from Valery which again is extraordinarily apt: “One should be light like a bird, and not like a feather.” The full substance of the bird is what Gontarek is after, not just some lilting, feathery drift.
Gontarek’s poems have often relied on the pared down diction of haiku, deploying the thoughtful pauses and contradictions of the koan. Just because there is an Eastern-religion sort of acceptance and measured looking does not mean the world here is flat, flattened or too still. Regularly the poems are jazzed up with the comedic and the rhythmic. In a poem like “Orpheus in his Underwear,” (re-printed in its entirety here), we experience rhythm as a kind of swell that accrues and delivers us to the end of the poem in the fullest possible way:
Two beers in front of him. He drinks the warm one.
Vodka he bought for the blue bottle’s drawing of a castle.
Eurydice he is thinking of.
How she turned around to lock eyes when he humped her from behind.
He shouldn’t tell you that. But, it’s done.
Michael Douglas DVD on with sound off.
I loved that bitch. How someone discloses they love orange chicken.
The river smells chemical, meaning the river of death.
Eurydice Disappears made the headlines.
A month later, banished to page 5.
Then it vanished, reappearing as an item on the anniversary.
Fucking vodka. This movie makes no sense.
The title of Gontarek’s book—He Looked Beyond My Faults and Saw My Needs—is taken from the title of a well-known gospel song. “How marvelous the Grace that caught my falling soul” the gospel group croons. The title does puzzle and fascinate; it ushers us into the open-ended, mysterious quality of the poems themselves.
These are markedly spiritual poems, so gospel words like “grace” and “fallen” and “soul” make a deep instinctive sense—they become qualities, distillations. We feel in the book as a whole, the grace of being caught upon falling—how, given all of one’s faults, one can still be seen and known beyond fault to the very vulnerable, human interior.
The need in many of these poems is both spiritual and candidly sexual–in the great vein of mysteries and ecstasies. “I see moon, crescent, halo of the rest, between your legs” writes Gontarek in the poem “Email.” In this poem “pain is under the skin,” and scarves are “still tied to bedposts.” Here is a pain that can be reached and assuaged. Here is a candor, a trust, a saving grace:
I would buy for you a dress
I would rip from you
if that is what you want. (“Airports and Trees”)
Loss is, as well, one of Gontarek’s abiding subjects. Even from the first poem in the volume—“Autumn Sonata”— we see it, as the speaker transits through a set of awarenesses which suddenly render a much beloved and appreciated Pollock painting inert, “a bunch of paint piled on a canvas .” “One of the saddest afternoons,” writes Gontarek.
It seems almost inevitable that the surreal might figure in here. Given that Gontarek is such a keen and careful observer, it’s almost as if his intense seeing moves right on through to some other side of sight: “a fly lands on the heart. Evening follows” he writes in one poem, for example, or “A wheelbarrow flares with death. Crabapple smeared with death,” in another.
It occurs to me that perhaps some of what is missing in so many new books of poetry is pleasure. Gontarek’s poems are deeply pleasurable. He is utterly awake to leaves and cemeteries and streets in these poems of human and spiritual solace. “The songs are right, we have to get through,” he writes. With his poems we do much more than get through. When he writes, “The gift is layered. A bounty, a/ remarkable, annotated myth,” we realize that with Gontarek’s poems, we partake.