Finishing Line Press
I often lament that I have never lived anywhere else.Â Sure, I’ve moved like a roulette wheel ticking around to different suburbs, but that center, the crumbling metropolis of Scranton, has always been within reach.Â Â And I won’t lie, my husband and I have had many fantasies about picking up our children and moving wherever we want, settling where we think they will have a better life.Â Â After reading Dawn Leas’ I know When to Keep Quiet, I must admit, this seems like a horrible idea.
The topography of I Know When to Keep Quiet is as vast as the Texas landscape where the speaker and her family eventually end up.Â The poems begin in New Jersey, where the speaker is surrounded by family.Â Most notably a grandmother whose backyard is “A stone-walled map of green and red peppers”.Â There is a strong sense of unity in this family from New Jersey.Â They go to mass together, they eat dinner at one another’s houses, and most importantly, they seem to simply surround one another.
But all is not as it seems.Â In Ashes, Leas paints a terrifying portrait of an abusive, alcoholic father.Â The poem is fraught with tension as she describes her father’s violent behavior:
My father was a volcano
spewing lava that night,
tables became timber–
curtains fell, walls crumbled.
While I have read my share of childhood abuse poems, there is something distinct in Ashes.Â Leas doesn’t stop at the visual, she captures the visceral:
In the morning, we tiptoed over rocky
landscape, washed our hands in ashes.
It’s that last line.Â The waiting.Â That really illuminates the rest of this collection with a sense of foreboding.Â This family is going somewhere.Â And you can believe it will indeed be a rocky landscape.
I Know When to Keep Quiet then becomes a story about the chase. Â The chase for her father’s sobriety, his chase for a sense of normalcy. Â The family picks up everything and moves through several different states, all of which Leas manages to capture the essence of with subtle and distinct images, all while letting us in on her reluctance to call these foreign places home.Â In Assimilation, a poem from the family’s stop in New Orleans, she learns to eat crab from an aunt and uncle:
On the tabletop, covered
with soggy newspapers,
a collage of broken carcasses,
cracked claws, half-empty pony bottles
takes shape.Â I study it, a transplanted
niece left behind, a culture not my own.
The family then flees New Orleans and heads for “the next exit, the new hometown, the cacti-sprinkled flatlands and prairies [of Texas].”Â It is here that Leas learns to drive, comes of age, so to speak, and meets Miss Jean, whose drawl teaches “me how to be a Texan, a lady.”
Finally, just when we feel a sense of settling in on the part of the speaker, the family is uprooted once more and heads for their final destination: Pennsylvania.Â Â Â Leas spends a lot of time in this section of the book showing us the struggles of belonging.Â In Another School, 1982:
The teacher introduces us, asks
polite questions about Texas.
We answer with hybrid accents.
The boys stare, the girls smirk,
heads turning to whisper.
Suddenly, the reader is pulled from the comfortable chair in our living room to the uncomfortable task of standing in front of a classroom full of high school students.Â Our heart aches for these sisters, our speaker and her twin. Â Â We have followed her journey, we have watched her grow and overcome so much change and turmoil, and we want to know she will be okay.
And she is.Â In the last, and in my opinion the strongest, poem in the collection, Slipping, Leas captures the raw tenderness of adolescence:
Back on the dock, words pause
in the air above us.Â Hands glide
over skin smooth as the lake’s
And then, in the poem’s final verse, the poets grasp of the figurative becomes apparent:
This is the way I fall back,
yes, dark water rolling the dock, yes
the weight of drowning on my chest.
We are left knowing that while Pennsylvania has become home for the speaker, she will never forget where she has been, a deep tide always rolling her back to the rocky landscape over which she has traversed. Â Â And the reader is left thankful for such a beautiful collection, and for the fact that Dawn Leas doesn’t know when to keep quiet. Â As for me, I will be staying put.Â Allowing the roots under my small Pennsylvania house to grow deep and envelop my girls with a sense of permanence.