Blood, Sparrows and Sparrows by Eugenia Leigh

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When trauma forms part of the poet’s life, we sometimes have to spend a book working through its reverberations, approaching it again and again from different angles. This is the narrator’s task in the very personal Blood, Sparrows, and Sparrows—which alternates between orbiting up high for the big view and flying in close to immerse, back and forth.

Leigh is masterful in finding many ways to do this without repeating herself, which maintains freshness throughout the book. On one hand, many of the poems in Blood, Sparrows, and Sparrows maintain a similar affect — a contemplative voice that oscillates between varying degrees of sadness, grief, and devastation (except “Psalm 107,” which transforms the suffering into praise: “Thank you / for the bones you stacked in me”). On the other hand, over the course of the book this voice also evolves from a child’s not-knowing to an adult’s coming to terms with and perhaps even forgiveness of — her parents, and her own stumbles in life.

Recently, while reflecting on the passing of Galway Kinnell, Natalie Diaz mused “We have been taught a thing is ugly or beautiful, empty or full, but I am learning what Kinnell’s poetry has been saying to me, a thing is always both ugly and beautiful, always empty and full.” If we’re lucky, a poet can find beauty in the midst of suffering, not to negate the pain, but to complicate it. In doing so, she offers the reader the gift of her humanity.

Leigh’s collection finds this beauty in the religious beliefs of the narrator’s mother, and in the narrator’s own faith. One gets the impression of the latter not being blind faith, but a hard-won resting place, sometimes full of questions and doubts. Leigh’s poems are not either/or narratives, people (even deities) are complex, not just all good or bad.

In “Pretty Universe,” the conventionally all-knowing God instead becomes a hot and cold friend who can’t always fix things, occasionally pretends to look the other way, and sometimes doesn’t like their own perfection. There’s beauty in the imperfection of this deity, of its humanity.

Blood, Sparrows, and Sparrows also finds beauty in the father, who, although abusive, is at different points painfully aware of his own failings, and tries in his own way to find a different path.

For me, one of the most powerful and formally inventive poems in the book is “Wire Hangers,” which uses a series of if-then questions to trace cause and effect in a meandering, non-linear landscape:

_______________Will you hold the small boy version
___________of my father and hide him
______in the trash can? Will you hold his father
back and put his knife
______down? And when you put my grandfather’s knife
___________down, will you pull my father’s knife
from my pregnant mother’s chest? Will you hold her
______until she sings again?

Eugenia LeighThis wandering series of enjambed inquiries begins as a kind of anaphora, but for me it does much more. It echoes something fundamental about the mind, traveling this way and that, stuttering, searching for a place to land. The mind looks for causes, wants to understand, finds reasons, partially accepts or rejects them. Much of Blood, Sparrows, and Sparrows seems to echo this way-seeking journey.

The book also reaches out in other directions, at times narrowing the gap with the political and structural, as in “On the Anniversary of the War on Terror” or the simple, heartbreaking knowledge in “Monsters” that the father would have preferred a son:

I should have said, I asked my dad to take me.
I should have said, I promised him
I could be a boy for as long as he needed.

The collection ends on a tense, if hopeful note (“A hammer sits / quietly in my bag. Next to the last nail. / For now we sing.”), which is perhaps appropriate to the collection’s title. It implies this narrator’s journey isn’t over, that there’s still time and space for more life, whatever it brings.

It’s certain all of us will find both pain and beauty throughout our lives. But when we want to contemplate the configuration of their entwinement, and connect with our common humanity—that’s when we can turn to poetry collections like Eugenia Leigh’s Blood, Sparrows, and Sparrows.

Kenji C. Liu is author of Monsters I Have Been (Alice James Books, 2019) and Map of an Onion, national winner of the 2015 Hillary Gravendyk Poetry Prize (Inlandia Institute). His poetry is in numerous journals, anthologies, magazines, and two chapbooks, Craters: A Field Guide (2017) and You Left Without Your Shoes (2009). An alumnus of Kundiman, VONA/Voices, the Djerassi Resident Artist Program, and the Community of Writers, he lives in Los Ángeles where he is a lecturer at UCLA and Occidental College. More from this author →