I’ve found a guide and companion for this season and country in the poet Leslie Ullman and her new collection of poems, Progress on the Subject of Immensity. I have been enthralled with a book of poetry that by its title alone seemed to promise a journey of intensity and possibility, of questions both philosophical and spiritual, and of movement toward insight and understanding. The book delivers on those promises — more than one could imagine setting out. —Summar West
Iam writing from the edge of winter, from a landscape where the weather has refused release despite the seconds ticking toward spring. The cold and the expanses of snow in Vermont have set me pondering questions that arise when a person repeatedly confronts forms of vastness. I’ve found a guide and companion for this season and country in the poet Leslie Ullman and her new collection of poems, Progress on the Subject of Immensity. I have been enthralled with a book of poetry that by its title alone seemed to promise a journey of intensity and possibility, of questions both philosophical and spiritual, and of movement toward insight and understanding. The book delivers on those promises — more than one could imagine setting out.
Ullman explains her subject of immensity in some detail on her website; the poems began during a leave-of-absence from teaching, and she says they
…found themselves questioning, lightly at first, the efficacy of the human mind…this spirit of inquiry nudged subsequent poems into larger questions—an exploration of spaces inside us as well as outside us: the rhythms of seasons, the earth suspended in its matrix of space, the life of the body, the limitations of conventional Western religion, the nature of desire, and the pleasure—often the sensuous pleasures—of inquiry itself.
We should not be surprised by the ambitious nature of this subject matter, the level of skilled craftsmanship and the depth of feeling in the individual poems; this collection marks the fourth book (previous collections include Slow Work through Sand, Dreams by No One’s Daughter, and Natural Histories) by this poet, teacher, and artist whose writing career spans over thirty years. Ullman has much to say, and to those poets, writers, readers, and daydreamers—anyone who goes out to the edge—we would do well to take heed to a directive in one of the poems at the heart of this book:
at dawn, a telegraphy that fills the morning
too full for one pair of ears—
one might as well listen with the whole body.
Progress begins with the poem, “Abrupt at Dawn,” where the speaker is awakened by a sound.
I was sure the sound
of engines came from
inside me, thrum of labors
that had driven me
in and out of sleep.
And then coyotes, scores
of them, sent out
ribbons of sound strangely
close to the house—something
the high, shrill gears
adding to whatever the sun
was using to ratchet itself up.
Later, we hear this sound of the machinery of the mind in “the cogs and wheels of dreams” in the poem “Night Opens the Foothills,” and in the poem “The Guises of the Mind” the relentless mind that “pounds and pounds…running on fumes.” But in these short, rhythm-pumping lines above, the words sonically wrap around us (a technique used in many of the poems where the poet relies on short-syllable lines and the pleasing sound devices of alliteration, euphony and sibilance; this is notable in the poem “A Visible Life” that begins, “The mind is a small city / whose street signs show me / what I already know” and in the poem “Mudra” where we hear “How was I like the pinecone / that outlived me? / Shingled, yes, with / aspects of a singular life— / certain wounds and the impulse / to cover them, a preference / for winter…”); the sound the speaker hears and questions is both external and internal.
This type of juxtaposition is seen throughout the book in poems where we go in and out of our speakers’ bodies and minds, the past and the present, silence and noise, realities and dreamscapes. In “Zone by Zone,” for example, we experience noise as light in the technological and the natural, where “coffeepots blinked on, small eyes, / as each day arranged itself into blocks” and where “…the new leaf / on a begonia cutting unfolded visibly / in a cubicle window…”; one of the most compelling examples of Ullman’s use of juxtaposition and doubling of meaning is in the poem “Ice Apples” where the apples that are “locked in ice” remind the speaker of her own memories of love, both the falling in and out of it as seen in these haunting lines: “…We drift in and out / of memory that is less event / than atmosphere—the alertness, / a pastel wash with bold strokes / of umber when love first arrives, / and the greater alertness—burnished / gold behind the eyes, dark grooves / celebrating the texture—when it leaves / yet again, innocence and experience.”
One of the recurring images that Ullman uses to achieve movement through these spaces is the wind. In the last stanza of this first poem, the speaker tells us:
Now, winter sage outside my window
trembles, bends and springs back
and bends again, and I realize
the first sound I heard was wind
blowing in a front. The machinery
of real weather. And I am simply
in its path like any creature,
not wrongly placed,
though the day, like a boat
in hard sea, churns
so fiercely beneath me.
The wind here is not pretty nor delicate nor is this just another nature poem. When the wind and other elements occur, as they do so throughout the book, they are always as forces that command attention. In a poem like “And My Life Wandered On,” “a strong wind has found / its way into these woods, where it / rarely goes,” and transports the speaker into a memory of another life and landscape in Bolivia; equally important, the wind as seen in the concluding lines of the poem “Hole in the Mind Filling with the Present” is the essential element that moves through us all as we’re told, “…Your body, now / clothed thinly / in skin, filling with / holes—only something / porous like this can feel / what has always been wind.”
Feel the way light enters in the poem “Equinox”:
Water, black water
has turned to ice and lulled
the long valley into a doze—soon
we’ll all sprout gills, drifting
in a sleep beyond memory,
beyond the residual lung,
beyond the spent coals.
of desire. But that first
drop of juice—so
light in a throat from which
song has nearly faded—
could it guide me back
to shore? An orange, small sun
dawning from the inside
to resurrect the mammal body
Light as sacrament, as resurrection—Ullman’s metaphors are big, and in her small lines they startle us into awareness of how and where they live inside us.
As an important footnote to the book, this poem begins with the question,
Who will buy me an orange
to console me now?
The lines are from a translation of José Garostiza’s poem “Who Will Buy Me an Orange?” and Ullman borrows these and other lines from several Latin American poets, giving us still further spaces of entrance in the collection.
We also go inside the subject of the mind in Progress in a series of poems scattered throughout the three sections. The poet excels in her use of personification with these poems and uses it to question the mind’s constructs, limitations, patterns, quirks and eccentricities, and experiences both harrowing and profound. My favorite poem of the mind series falls into this latter category. Listen to these heart-wrenching lines in the last stanza from “Guises of the Mind”:
How they clomp through the wild flowers and thick
grasses of August—they might as well be crossing
hot asphalt against traffic. They can’t remain
still enough to feel the slow ripening that could
be theirs—the nectar turning, beneath a thickened
rind, its stored sugars to the late October sun.
They’ve never let grief spear them and have its way
before moving on; every one of them pounds
and pounds at the door of the one house
that won’t accept them, the one heart, the one
indifferent ear—willful, running on fumes,
they throw themselves against that hardness.
While we may leave that poem feeling powerfully slammed against the pavement or door, we have the contrast of a poem like “Water Music” where a more pleasurable and surprising form of movement emerges. The poem begins with the speaker telling us,
I have fashioned a miniature fountain
from scraps of dream…
Those two lines alone could be enough to carry the rest of a poem that might simply describe the dream or the fountain or both in an aesthetically pleasing way, but as with so many other poems in the collection, it turns toward something larger; we go to the past through
that makes me long to be touched by upheaval. History
bearing me somewhere I haven’t been.
In second stanza, we’ve made it to the realm of a perceived separation and barrier between the sexes, a realm where the speaker tells us
Yet when I read the great
poems written by men who lived
before me, I find myself peering through
museum glass, waiting to be allowed
inside. Then outside. Against the rigors
that might forge and pound into shape
a significant life, there is something else
I crave—maybe grace, a sense of my feet
caressing the ground…
By the third stanza, the speaker who began by looking at her fountain made “from scraps of dream” imagines men and women joining to dance in a form where the weight of the past has been let go, where the body gives way to music, and we’re left with this question:
when their hips give in to the music
and I can see in their faces the world’s business
has loosened its hold, how can I not love them,
how can I think my minor note
In this poem where the speaker has imagined, speculated, and dreamed her way to this question-as-conclusion, we arrive at a place of love and gratitude; whatever the method of movement—and prepare yourself for a multitude of forms—in Progress, that is often the place of arrival though it is not the only one.
With a book of this scope, it seems reasonable to ask where we arrive by the end, what answers Ullman ultimately gives to her questions. Here’s a hint: the final poem involves subjects as large as absence and the sky, what we lose and what we find. This poem, like so many in the collection, turns in a way that is both surprising and down right breathtaking. I urge you to take the journey with this book; maybe you’ll start with that last poem and find your way to what the poet as companion and guide has been telling us to do all along, “Consider Desire.”
Summar West was born and raised in East Tennessee. Her poems have been published in a variety of journals, including Tar River Poetry, Ellipsis, Appalachian Heritage, and Appalachian Journal. She currently resides in Montpelier, Vermont.