Curtis LeBlanc's Birding in the Glass Age of Isolation
Reviewed by Aaron Schneider
It is one of those
common bodies that felt it could not exist without loving,
but has in fact gone on and on without love.
Common bodies. And common poems. Personal poems that reach out in complex ways from the cages of their lucid individuality to touch the reader. This epigraph also introduces the collection’s central theme: loneliness. This is a book that ranges widely, from childhood to adolescence and adulthood, from Paris to Quebec, Alberta and a restaurant in California, but that never strays far from the essential solitude at the heart of modern masculinity.
Consider the title poem, and the hungover friends who trudge through it on a hunt for grouse. It begins:
Whoever said kill to a young boy
first is probably to blame
for this shotgun settled on my shoulder
Invoking the basic and perennial injunction to violence that is bound up with boyhood and carried into manhood, the poem dwells on the differences between the men. The speaker carries that shotgun on his shoulder but doesn’t fire it. One of his friends carries a camera. Another has a .22 with which he shoots at and misses a squirrel. And it is very much a poem about missing. It is about the men being together, bodies in the same space and time, but missing the emotional connections between each other. The speaker experiences “a fugue,” but then thinks, “I feel it’s best I shut my mouth / rather than explain this.” And it is, most of all, a poem about missing the connections that are themselves missed. It ends,
I want to lie down
on hard ground, rest my medicated head
on lichen-cuffed roots and list
all the times I allowed myself to want
without trying. I want to try.
Which is a resolution that ramifies the speaker’s essential isolation: “want[ing] to try” drives home the urgency of the need while simultaneously holding off the possibility of satisfying it.
This is a poem about a very specific kind of loneliness that is experienced when in the presence of others, and, if there is a recurring emotional situation that structures the collection, it is this. It is also a poem that ends with the desire to list, and the book mines the connection between lists and alienation. By extracting events, moments, objects, etc. from the flow of narrative, the structure of a list isolates its contents, and further intensifies that isolation by depending for its coherence on the divisions between its elements. Lists are collections of items that are at once united and separate, together and alone.
Lists occur throughout the poems, and some of the poems are themselves exclusively lists. Take, for example, “Design Stage Failure Analysis,” that begins:
A pebble shot straight back
from the last on the left
of eighteen seething tires
into the windshield of an
that carves a perfect cylinder
through ice to fresh pike,
but can’t reseal the wound,
complete the procedure.
A golden barrel cactus
that drinks itself top-heavy
then falls from the clay pot
to the floor. A Pygmalion
sculpture of boyhood hunger.
An engine with no choke.
List poems are relatively common, but it is not common to see them put to this use, or executed with such skill. LeBlanc has a deft hand for managing the rhythm of his lists. He will nest lists within lists, and manipulate the lengths of items to produce often powerful effects. Notice how, at the end of this poem, he progressively shortens the items to end with the single line “An engine with no choke,” echoing in the form the narrowing incompleteness of the content.
There is a great deal of craft in these poems, but LeBlanc’s artfulness is subtle, never showy, and easy to miss if you don’t pay careful attention. Take, for instance, his use of rhyme. There are no conventional rhyming poems in the book, but sound plays delicately across the lines, and there is one recurrent technique that is particularly affecting. LeBlanc tends to create and bury rhymes, ending a line with one rhyme word whose pair is hidden midway through another line, for example. In “Photograph of Pépère After Shooting a Black Bear,” a poem whose title does something similar to what I have described, he writes:
You sit outside your canvas tent
the corpse of a bear cocked up
and animated by flimsy sticks. You stare
“Stare” picks up “bear” from the middle of the preceding line, linking the two lines while refusing the locked-down symmetry of the couplet. In “Pépère’s Lunch,” he does the same thing:
... people whose names and faces
I forget. If you showed me
a clear path home, I’d call bullshit.
I can think of no better sonic analogy for the experience of being lonely together than rhymes that are audible, but refuse symmetry—that, in short, refuse or miss the fullness of connection.
Even when LeBlanc does complete the rhyme in a conventional manner, he does so to highlight the failure or breakdown of connection. The poem “Career Aptitude” ends:
Now you’re sleeping underground
where not even I can make a sound,
and for that I’m sorry.
The couplet offers a tidy resolution that is disrupted by the last, dangling (almost half-) line. Grief, which is itself a kind of separation, a missed connection that cannot be repaired, breaks open the consolation of the couplet, and, in its tonal and formal separation from what precedes it, the final line captures some of the isolation at the heart of loss.
Much of the book is like the last line of “Career Aptitude”—direct, plain, conversational and often understated in its effect—but this gives the writing an intimacy and tenderness that will stay with the reader long after they put it down. The closing poem, “Pépère’s Punch,” ends:
There are miles of young
mountains and highways frozen
between us. It’s been a short life
so far and I already know too much.
The last sentence is a simple, direct, unadorned statement whose weight is earned by the care and craft of what comes before it. It is a lonely ending to a lonely book, but, in the honesty with which it reaches out to touch the reader, it is also a quietly hopeful one.
Aaron Schneider teaches in the Department of English and Writing Studies at Western University, where he also runs the Creative Writers Speakers Series. His stories have appeared in The Danforth Review, filling station, The Puritan, Hamilton Arts and Letters, untethered, and The Chattahoochee Review. His first book, Grass-Fed, is available from Quattro Books. Visit his website here.