(REVIEW) Seven Leaf Sermons by Peter Larkin
Maria Sledmere takes a brisk walk through Peter Larkin’s Seven Leaf Sermons (Guillemot Press, 2020), exploring what scansion occurs with a leaf, what sound, what growth and whir and fall.
> Texts, Peter Larkin tells Edmund Hardy in 2007, ‘are layered by more than sheer textuality: they are seductive or magical and eke out their own substance from the reader’s body’. What better publisher to exemplify this than Guillemot Press, whose editions make tangible worlds of their texts. Worlds to gladly enter. Past the pale, speckled threshold of its cover, I open the landscaped terrain of Larkin’s new pamphlet, Seven Leaf Sermons, with artwork by Rupert Loydell, to find myself keenly entering a space of drift, a scansion of leaf. As if to be leaf in reading, leafing the page and leafleafleaf I want to say, drawn into my nonsense abyss of let a leaf fall and write the review. I like when poems think they can coax a substance from me. Is it sap, or something of a fleshier species; a waxen coat or a droplet of water? Let’s open up to find out...
> Seven Leaf Sermons. Seven orations on leaf, by leaf; seven leaf scripts or lectures. Larkin provides us with a nifty kind of equation to explain his process. The first poem in the book is
in the form of poems of 15 10-word lines, dividing intro groups of 10 and 5. I have varied the divisions but kept to the 10 words per line. This can make for some protuberant or lumpy effects but let’s hope for some apt sermonising.
I like that he gets us into the mulch here. Numbers and fixed forms are something I struggle with, but since variation is involved, everyone’s happy. Something like, if you were to enter the forest and surround yourself in leaf - which is a quality of there being many leaves! - and you’d set to counting them all, knowing you couldn’t. That’s kinda fun right? I think of William Cowper in The Task (1785), where the speaker proclaims ‘This folio of four pages, happy work!’ The fun is in varying the divisions, counting the leaves and letting them go, but keeping the line. Alice Notley argues that
Poetry is primarily the line; a poem tends to think by making quick sound associations forced upon it by the exigency of an approaching white margin. It thinks with music and thinks better—faster, more deeply, with more possibility of unexpectedness—than a work in prose does. (Coming After: Essays on Poetry)
Something about the line in Seven Leaf Sermons is a practice of thought by the quick, twisting turn of a leaf, a phrase, a word. You have a line like: ‘No other niche for the leaf apart from / strict gullible exposure’. I scan this as a dactylic, accordion motion of opening, closing — NO other NICHE for the LEAF. What is that ‘strict gullible exposure’ that falls from the line with its pithy emphasis, that we as trusting readers would find ourselves out in this open? Larkin’s stanzas read like vignettes of micro-relation, occurring in a clearing of space. Keeping the line and doing the leafwork. I think of sprawling vines, occasional knots; a sort of leaf-score sideways, sometimes clipped. Is a leaf a word? And what is a tree? That is the sentence. But what if it falls?
> ‘Lacking leaf a tree is not unhoused, but homeless enough / a leaf at last turns its page’. This is a pamphlet all about gathering, housing and unhousing, dispersing, becoming. The many and the slender. A veritable treehouse of leaves. We are asked to think towards this ‘it’, and the page of the leaf that could turn itself - and to what end? To write this I turn between pages crisp as leaves (Guillemot cut no corners on paper quality). The very first line of the book is ‘Trees won’t be miracle-filled, but can be leaf-willed’, and I’m wondering what it means to be leaf-willed. The reason we turn, fold a page, linger on something particular? Is it something about light? Perhaps to stir and be stirred? This question of leaf-will is a poetics, certainly: in Larkin’s work it is the grace of an even form that can bend and almost snap; that picks up a breezy assonance between lines, but acquires occasional friction: ‘A pitch of leaf is its beseek, not just its / repeat’ ('beseek', a neologism whose autocorrect echo, 'beserk', really dramatises that friction). The formal restraint allows for these ‘protuberent and lumpy effects’, not just in metre but also sound. You get the sense Larkin writes from inside the leaf, sometimes beneath the trees, in the mulch itself (have you heard the new Bright Eyes album, Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was?). From inside process, transformation — seeking, pause, return. Hold these poems in your mouth (you can’t quite!), you’ll find your tongue curled around the play of consonance (‘pellicle’/‘helical’/‘they will’) and becoming a kind of leaf itself. A tongue-leaf! How does it taste? How does it speak?
> And what kinds of sermonising occur here, in these poems, their ‘starry pause-alongs of time’? It’s August, and I write in the midst of one of the heaviest showers I’ve ever seen in Glasgow. Hard to describe rain like this. It’s a sort of whoosh, a rhythmic shush, susurration if you’re lucky to live near leaves, sticky plucking effect as it hits the walls, the cars, gush gush up close and a moodier whirr in the distance - a cloud sound, almost. This pamphlet makes a study of sounding the rain, and you could say a sermon maybe was an attempt to declare it. Phenomenologically? Perhaps it is as I do in language, twirl a leaf. ‘Greenery is not directly shower-pounded, other filters were intended’.
> Sometimes you are faced with an insistent tone like that, and sense the clue is less in the poem than its accompanying artwork: in this case, Loydell’s viridian-coloured print of something like sycamore (alas I am no expert on leaves, I lack the app). There’s this layering, brush over, trace retaining — I can see numbers beneath stipples of dark green, turquoise, teal and naples yellow paint. The leaf has a splash kind of shadow, like it was always just landing there, never quite settled. And the silver ghost trace of its texture, is that the webbed poetics of Larkin’s intricate sermons?
> The lyric surfeit of surface address? I have always enjoyed Larkin’s poems for a sense of the densely sensual expressed in cool, directive lines. It’s just this cellular dance that’s kind of scored, kind of not. Like when you watch a leaf swirl in the distance, forget breath, think you’re in a film say; then your eyes adjust, you realise it’s a plastic bag and there’s rain now splashing the back of your neck. The poems kind of make me feel turgid: by which I mean, they’re pretty liquid, for all their rattle and sway. A sigh in your cells resolving. The poems want you to measure what a scale between dry and wet would be: ‘but not for this / harmony did leaves measure the distance between wet and dry’. And you sense there’s this secret multiplicity. For all you sermonise on the leaves, what are they really up to?
> There’s a residue: ‘The rain-swirl is what leaves didn’t filter’. Another exposure? If leafwork is a tracery, a kind of writing or ghostliness of photographic process, there’s some remnant of gesture that doesn’t get caught here. In the artworks also: the odd smears and smudges of colour feel like something your aura left on a wall. The play of contrasts alongside warm and cool colour moods makes for a sense of iteration, shimmer, blur. Nothing is utterly stable within its form. A leaf is always trembling, as is a stream of light, or one of Larkin’s lines. If these are sermons then they are cast to the wind, which might make a swerve of it. Or perhaps a camera’s snap in process: ‘They will spark a slender trust insurrectional to glaze’. There’s a vastness, a generosity to this too: ‘Assailable patience at a leaf’s projection, already assimilates to a / branch bewilderment with its own pre-precarity’. These poems are the leaf and really going over the leaf; the leaf and its residue, resistance, clearance, defence... The problem of the poem-leaf and the real-leaf, the leaf first to last encountered.
> For all a sermon implies some kind of directive, these poems demonstrate how a leaf really can’t be pinned down. Pre-precarity would be a kind of shiver, like knowing the coming wind (lyric = air) is a condition to speak. Anna Tsing describes precarity as ‘Life without the promise of stability’ and the pre- in Larkin’s sermons is poetry’s trembling choreography of what is described, the beforehand attempted taxonomy of the sensed, and what is to come, to exist, or nothing: ‘The leaf-life spindle of time’, a ‘nakedness of light’, ‘a skeleton tree’, ‘an alphabet of shelter’.
> In his 2007 interview with Hardy, Larkin talks about how ‘“absence” isn't simply a matter of negation but can be a path of attentiveness for some writers’. In Seven Leaf Sermons, Larkin is one of those writers. These intricate lines weave a special filigree of absence, as though poetics (sound and sense) were a ‘scar’ tissue of everything done to the leaves, and the doing. ‘Solar panel, a leaf’s eyeless lash burnt directional or gazing / out sunrise’. This kind of linguistic play (is it the leaf that lashes, or blinks out behind lashes, but how is this possible if a leaf is ‘eyeless’ and is the eyeless also a self-reference to the poetry’s lack of an ‘I’ here, another lyric deferral of presence?) is a solar economy of heat, energy and the greenness of senses estranged. As Frank O'Hara says, 'leaves: those lashes of our / thinking and dreaming and drinking sight' ('Ann Arbor Variations').
> There is a murmuring humour too, as the language of labour seeps into that of the leaf: ‘A tree incites these intemperate repeats, will not / suffer a less than complete ravage without its annual apprenticeship’. That somehow a tree must commit to lessons, hard wages (the marks on its bark a history of all that was done to it) is an ecological hardship, but also poetry’s labour. To work in arboreal form, thinking about branching lines, one must retain the wind’s potential: there’s this (intemperate) tension between blowing a gale, throwing up lumps of debris and trying to hold your count-per-line. The thrill here is one of attentiveness, which is also an ethics: placing the reader at the point of metonymic sweep, where we decide if we can see the forest for the trees, or the leaf for the tree, the word or clause from the line, the poem. It’s all branching and growing, dwindling, falling, blown asunder. There are such kinds of ‘gullible exposure’ as are required of reading: a sermon asks you to close your eyes and feel into it, open yourself to its teachings. There is such care in Larkin’s ‘Leafdom’ that I am inclined to submit to this ‘green machine’, its chlorophyllic economy of ‘tree-pith’, ‘heavens’, ‘healing’, ‘foliage’ of words. Reading as transpiration. Health.
Seven Leaf Sermons is out now and available to order via Guillemot Press.
Text and illustration: Maria Sledmere Published: 25/9/20