At the center of Eugenia Leigh’s Bianca (Four Way Books, 2023) is a prose work titled “The Part of Stories One Never Quite Believes.” Meditative and urgent, this prose structure builds a framework onto which Leigh engineers a collection that perpetuates kindness as a conscious and necessary act of survival. For the duration of ten pages, every person is kind, and the repetition of kindness is both miraculous and feasible. In the context of the collection, it’s a bold effort to explicate the difficult work of self-definition. Leigh states:
It was the year I most hated myself, but also the year my loose ideas of karma broke down and became with that of grace, a terrible concept if I think too hard about it—the idea that the worst and most undeserving of us might also receive love.
Hers is a discourse that understands how the likelihood of these repeated acts of kindness (men in uniforms offering assistance, friends providing housing, strangers offering care) makes them harder to grasp collectively. Bianca engages a kind of potential energy, measuring the distance between the lived and the likely, and Leigh invites the reader’s participation as both a witness and capacitor for such energy. Leigh’s essay begins “The year I hid in a convent, I met zero nuns,” and as the opening suggests, Leigh’s prose collects the devotion not of the indoctrinated but of the of the unlikely—”young AmeriCorps service members,” “a tattoo artist in San Jose,” “a golf cart—van?—full of men,” “Craigslist strangers,” “a taxi on Thanksgiving eve”—each a necessary agent of grace.
It’s after this expansive expression of care that we’re introduced to Bianca, a name for the impulsive aspects of the speaker’s bipolar II disorder. In “Bipolar II Disorder: Second Evaluation (Zuihitsu for Bianca),” the speaker is in conversation with the past tense, developing and altering the record as she confronts it:
I comb through my chaotic stockpile of journals and notes—ebullient convictions delusions about the Universe, its Magic. Glittery pronouncements about every Godincidence coincidence on numerous short-lived blogs
The speaker’s neurodivergence engages a polyvocality of her own desires, a text that retracts the unsustainable but preserves the palimpsest. Bianca is not the speaker for these poems; we revisit her in the archive, a collective memory of a metaphor (“We all called her Bianca.”). To speak about Bianca in the present tense would oversimplify years of experience and, perhaps, years of love where “every now and then, a friend” recalls Bianca as a distinct extension of Eugenia:
And I kept thinking, too bad Eugenia’s not around, she would totally bring out the Bianca and have her bitch-slap him for me. Then I missed your face.
I’m interested in how this zuihitsu ends with the direct address because of how the gesture unifies the speaker’s self-image. The friend misses her face. Distinct from the diagnostic practice of naming is the body itself, the ongoing experience of who we have been. While Leigh’s collection invokes the DSM-V, it’s less interested in the diagnostic process than in the human capacity for surprise. By engaging with prose structures—the essay, the zuihitsu—Leigh grounds the disclosure of trauma in the past tense, not to lessen these actions but to create a speaker capable of constructing a new kind of self-gaze. The poems that follow explore permutations of the self that are informed but not beholden to Bianca’s history and the self-preservation that engendered her construction. The narrative Leigh builds allows for a speaker who is more fully grounded in her adult, present moment. Unlike Bianca, this is a speaker who must still plan a way into the future.
In a time of natural and political disaster, Leigh’s collection conveys confidence in communal investment toward the future, one that takes action even in the quotidian—to “stick it out for another week”—because what we want is that close. The poem is a space of concentric, kissing narratives:
and when Moses asks when,
I am Pharaoh saying, Tomorrow.
God, I love the frogs.
God, make the plague stop.
My baby motions for a song
about speckled frogs
So much work in poetry is done by juxtaposition. In Leigh’s work this is also true, but juxtaposition might be better called proximity. The speaker may ask for peace and destruction and keep her loved ones close. Within Bianca, the speaker must choose the life she has over and over again, as a way forward—not as a stoic rendition of the eternal return of the same, but as desire. Repetition becomes a moment of choice, a structured analysis that allows for the speaker’s own agency. What she writes, what she shares, becomes her most legible self.
Leigh’s work engages the reader with this curation, in what she chooses to keep. In “To the Self Who, Twelve Years Ago, Wrote a Letter to Me,” Leigh acknowledges:
how deft you are at saving your life: here I am
nesting on the other side.
The couplet become a formal mirror, able to angle toward the speaker’s past and present faces as the poem assimilates a younger self into a future portrait: an entire family “gathered around / a cake with my name on it.” Though the family is not yet hers, they are eating a feast in her name. More transubstantiation than sacrifice, Leigh asks “let us keep the feast.” I’m interested in how Leigh invokes the lexicon of the New Testament while accommodating a desire for ocular proof. Hers is an imagery that marries skepticism and a desire for belief. These are poems in the confessional tradition of Anne Sexton but also in conversation with the Gospel of Mark alongside music theory and theoretical physics. In her poem “The Cruelty,” Leigh engages with the science of time and perception, how the routine and structure we strive for in order to create safe childhoods for our children is also what makes our children’s childhoods so hard to remember. The ability to return again and again to “apple bread and beastie stories and opulent peonies in June, even Christmases that look and smell like Christmas” is what condenses the time we most relish into “one damn day.” Kindness isn’t simple or without loss. It’s the factual kindness of Leigh’s work that complicates it
Toward the end of the collection, in “My Whole Life I Was Trained to Deny Myself,” Leigh offers a mediation on the version of the self who lacks for nothing, one who has “lost that appetite for discarding myself,” and instead accumulates:
I let each one sleep when she needed to sleep.
And in time, I thanked them.
I came to recognize their service.
And in time, they let me love them
Leigh’s collection sustains an imperfect and idealized self—plural and human and no less miraculous.
It is human to want to examine the holy object, be that through story or through artifact. In the printing of her collection, Leigh offers each of us the reliquary, so to speak. We’re given the note from the cab driver whose kindness is central to “The Part of Stories One Never Quite Believes,” a literal artifact of what Leigh defines as grace. After Leigh’s acknowledgments, the note becomes an acknowledgment of the reader. If we accept the premise that we are each more likely to survive knowing that we will not be punished for every failure, that we can grow from another’s belief in us, the note becomes a kindness we can share. As ocular proof, the object invokes a manifold potential of a human life, that we might experience ourselves differently through the grace of our own survival.