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“What did you expect? Some vertiginous theory
of essence? Or a black claw
stained bright red from tearing apart the gold bird of Form?”
These lines close the first and longest section of Tony Leuzzi’s latest collection, and he would appear to be reminding the reader of the limitations of poetry. But far from “tearing apart,” Leuzzi employs—one might say relishes in—a variety of forms: couplets; free verse; prose poems; and a cadae series (a strict form based on pi). And regardless of the container, Leuzzi’s images at once startle and ring true; his use of language adroit and “precise as a needle” (“Edge”).
The title The Burning Door has a mythical connotation (see, e.g., “burning bush,” Exod. 3:2) though, to my knowledge, there is no such extant myth. And that’s part of the work of this collection: myth-making. The first section of the book (“Prelude to Elsewhere”) is especially preoccupied with creation, with myth and dream. Poem titles include “Before the Curse,” “After the Fall,” and “Post Creation Story.”
Doors appear throughout this first section, perhaps because to get “elsewhere” one must cross a threshold: the titular burning doors (of dawn); Rapunzel’s door to freedom; a carved door on a donkey’s back; suburban doors with their suburban dogs; doors “everywhere…like flugelhorns/on verandas.”
“Interchanges,” Part II of the collection, is a series of brief, poignant 3rd person narrative-driven encounters. Some go inside the figures’ minds; some observe, or record conversations. There are leavings and disagreements; memory and longing. I discuss one of these poems at length below.
“Autumn Leaves” (Part III) is a short series of brief prose narratives. Here, Leuzzi utilizes the prose poem for some of the collection’s most personal work. Or perhaps I have that backwards: maybe (as is often the case) the form enabled the poet to voice what other forms had not.
The cadae series that closes the book begs the question: Is poetry always and already (as they like to say in academia) self-conscious? And is that part of its enduring appeal? The cadae (I had to look it up) is a poetry form based on pi, and a note toward the end of The Burning Door explains the particulars. While the form certainly calls attention to itself, Leuzzi employs it in skillful, pleasing ways, so the poems are what we focus on, not the cleverness of the poet. Leuzzi has said, regarding these cadae: “I was deliberately working on a minor scale. The pleasures of these are subtle and understated.”
There’s plenty in The Burning Door for any reader to appreciate; a few poems, however, will be of particular interest to writers because of the questions posed, the stances taken. In “Adrift,” the third poem of the collection, Leuzzi considers how words are and are not what they say, how they change when lingered upon, how the act of writing can create a “reality” more real than that which it mimics: “The story of the raft is more raft-like than the raft.”
And in “Writ Large,” one of the more conversational poems in the book, what starts as a domestic scene (games inside during a rainstorm) ends in an attempt to make sense of what it is that writers are, and do. They are
seekers of sentiment, too impatient
to be wise, though sometimes
if not sensible, alive to sense
and prone to elegy.
I close with one such elegy, itself “alive to sense” and therefore one of the most affecting pieces in this collection. “Before” is placed midway in the book’s second part, “Interchanges.” The stillness and tension in its two six-line stanzas create a poem as dense and fraught as the longing described therein. In its entirety:
I miss trees—the soldier sighed—
soaring swallows, darting deer. And I—the other
sighed in turn—a dragonfly on silent water.
Each felt his longing as condensed, a bead
of sweat on the ridge of his brow:
how could it therefore be ignored?
What followed rolled like desert sand.
Then, in that instant when
thirst follows thirst, they swore to never speak of it—
as when a grey fox parts tall grass
and passes through and disappears
and the grass springs upright, as before.
With his use of spare lines (what is left out—in the verse; in that stanza break), Leuzzi here makes myth from the mundane. The figures could be ancient warriors or Desert Storm marines. Disclaimer: I’m a romantic; for me, this poem is where Leuzzi’s imagination, imagery, and control come together most satisfyingly. Or, to borrow the poet’s own words, though in a slightly different context (see above footnote), even in this free verse poem, Leuzzi achieves “maximum expression in a compressed amount of space.”
The Burning Door
By Tony Leuzzi
Tiger Bark Press
Paperback, 9780986044526, 96 pp.