Love, Love, Love: On Keith Leonard’s Ramshackle Ode (2016)
Sometimes it’s easy to just sink into your bed and hope for some magical turn to un-wrench all the bolts in your heart. Maybe eat a slice of leftover pizza and say, “I’ll clean up the crumbs later.” Maybe talk to the subsequent ants. As if English would be their language of choice. What Ramshackle Ode by Keith Leonard does is find hope within desolation. In the beat-up rafters we sometimes like to hide in, he has committed to finding life, some sort of “dumb love / lifting the night to its feet.”
And at the core of this book is that love, the succulence of the Earth, the kind of love that shimmies and is, sometimes, a little corny. And unabashedly so. The kind of thing I laugh and groan at and want all the same. The kind of hooray that “inspired Ashley / to say that Ashley was her favorite word / in the whole goddamn language.” As Leonard suggests, I am just another boy in America, and perhaps “they beat / this word / into the dungeon / of [me], too.” Over and over in this collection, Leonard finds gratitude for the world. In cow udders and grocery store managers. In bank tellers and skunk breath. In his loves—the people who fill his holes, the odes to the ramshack[le].
This collection makes me want to talk about love—how we find it and what it looks like—what we talk about when we talk about love. Love and love and love. Say it again and again until I stop moping around. But love is hard to hang onto. And, probably, it’s perfectly okay to be sad. In one of the first poems, “Becoming the Boy,” Leonard asks us to shift our lens from the cautionary tale of Icarus. He says, “The boy fell. He did. / But what about the blooming hurt / gnawing at his shoulders as he rose?” Like marathon runners who collapse if even briefly before the end, the pain begins a long time before that. Like Icarus, “There must have been a moment / he could go no further, / and yet, he did.” This perseverance is what drives this speaker and his ability to find love. It’s not simply about being optimistic, no. It takes a special kind of privilege to dumb this book down into one about optimism or about finding the good in the world.
It’s about endurance and struggle. Fighting off the weeds and the childhood fears. And to combat it with kindness, a gentle knock on the door overrun with honeysuckle and silence. For me, though, this collection was strongest when it couldn’t find a way out of the sorrow. As is the case in “Ode to Dreaming the Dead,” where he says, “if you’re waiting / for the moment / this poem pivots / into joy, I’m sorry, / it’s not coming this time.” I find it’s incredibly important to acknowledge that even love has its limits. That death is a picky eater. Sometimes I wished the book would engage a little more with his set of privileges. It would have rounded out the self-reflective nature of these poems and provided another level of depth and disrepair.
And as such, it’s the more desolate poems that I can relate to most. They’re the propeller spinning behind this boat of poems. And being able to stick my face into the blades helped me appreciate the love song. This debut [full] collection of poems sets a grand stage for Keith Leonard. This kind of love requires a lot of work to maintain, but this is a voice full of life. It holds the reader in its lettered arms. It’s the kind of thing you’ll want to plant in your garden. And we’ll stand watch over it, “trying to understand / why [we] haven’t noticed [it] before.”