Most people I know don’t read poetry. My girlfriend, my mother, my workmates: they say they don’t ‘get’ poetry. They say it excludes them, it doesn’t mean anything to them. Even some of my writer friends are leery of poetry; they enjoy reading it, but always feel that something is eluding them. Perhaps the problem is that they have been reading poetry like Michele Leggott’s Milk & Honey.
I do like poetry. I read it, I appreciate it, and I understand it (mostly). But I just couldn’t find my way into these poems. I should have known better, really; the blurb on the back of the book reads: “Milk & Honey is a dance to the music of that future time–It is a pattern of doors opening. It counts and it listens.” I don’t know about you, PANKsters, but I don’t know what that means. But then, Michele Leggott is an Associate Professor of English, and I am not; she undoubtedly knows more about poetry than I do. All I know is that I pointed my eyes at every single word of Milk & Honey, and it taught me nothing.
This is not to say that Milk & Honey is bad. There are literally thousands of things in this world that I do not understand — the plays of Samuel Beckett, the system of proportional representation, Magic: The Gathering — and these things are all perfectly good. But this is a review, and reviews are subjective. There would be no use in me writing 600 words on these poems when I have no idea what they are about.
After spending several pages frowning and stuttering, I tried a different approach to the poems: sitting back and letting the words wash over me, rather than constantly searching for meaning. This was slightly more enlightening. The poems did come together to create an overarching tone or ‘feel’; at times I could almost smell the incense and hear the river ambling past. Rather than a sense of clear meaning or story I would feel vague emotions and senses. The poems made me feel like there was something sharp behind my back teeth, or like sun was glinting in the corners of my eyes. I almost started to enjoy myself with ‘tonight I am sad’:
Oh Oh Oh
three peacock feathers
in the letterbox
green and gold and black
I particularly like its final three lines: “O bird / O bee / O spandex butterfly heart”.
But still I kept getting lost in the different types of flowers and birds, words in Latin, and disconnected images. As soon as I grasped at some logical progression of words I’d lose it again in stanzas like:
veils tied to a balcony railing
fructus ventris fructus sanctus
white laburnum on the river path
warble on a bike
who will enter the shadows
under the bridge at noon?
I was particularly confused by stanza 13 of ‘festival junction’, which I can’t quote because it consists of sketches of women’s shoes. Maybe there’s another way to read poetry, a method or a shift in thinking that will allow me to get something from Milk & Honey. I’d love to be able to unlock the secret to these poems, because as it is they just make me feel confused, irritated, and excluded. If poetry causes this emotional reaction, no wonder so many people are reluctant to give it a try.
Perhaps you disagree with the things I am saying in this review. Perhaps you think I am stupid and don’t know anything about poetry (you may well be right about this). Perhaps you think I am wrong about the very nature of language. That is good. I am glad. I suggest that you read some of Michele Leggott’s poetry, and then tell me all about why I am wrong. I look forward to learning.
Milk & Honey is available from Salt Publishing.