‘The Sensual World Re-emerges’ by Eleanor Lerman

2011 Lambda Literary Award Finalist

In spite of what the title–The Sensual World Re-emerges (Sarabande Books)–may suggest, I do not go to Eleanor Lerman’s latest collection for gratifying imagery or for a structurally wrought poetic world. I go to this collection for Lerman’s signature one-liners, wry humor, and steadfast yearning in a spirit world gone rogue.

I go to Lerman’s fifth book of poetry for a closing stanza like this one (from the title poem):

Call me. I have left my number
everywhere. I want to know
how this story turns out

I also go to this book for terse questions like: “So, what?” and “How much more can you stand?” Over the course of the collection’s 78 pages, over 70 questions are asked. The questions in this book achieve three noteworthy effects: 1) You, the reader, are doggedly implicated in the speaker’s cosmic questing. In “Women in the Air,” for example, after ruminating on the colossal question, “What is out there?” the speaker prods, “And what else?” 2) The speaker’s experience of reality is frequently upended, pleasurably rattling the reader’s orientation in these poems. For example, in “Small Talk” the speaker stops herself to ask, “What am I describing?” before changing course:

If there is
sunlight, it enters through the
kitchen window and spreads
itself, thin as a napkin, beside
the coffee cup, pie on a plate

What am I describing?
I am describing a dream
in which nobody has died

3) Resolution has no merit in the universe of The Sensual World Re-emerges. Every poem returns to the unfinished business of living, however routine–the business of surviving the past, present, and future in no particular order. Resolution is also thwarted by an absence of punctuation; poems in this collection end either by emptying into the ether without the finite halt of a period, or poems close without closing on a question mark.

Though a statement on the book jacket makes the curious promise that Lerman’s fifth collection of poetry “circles back to themes that began her career at age twenty-one with the publication of Armed Love”— I disagree. If the themes in Lerman’s new work resonate with those in her early work from the 1970’s, then to say she is circling back makes her trajectory sound much too tidy and, frankly, limiting in scope.  Instead of a circle, if you must, picture a spiral and then a spiraling in Lerman’s work that has over the last 40 years gradually and continuously widened its curve, just as the thematic obsessions and anxieties in LGBT writing have since the 1970’s widened their curves.

In Lerman’s early work, more often than not, a tension manifests between two bodies, the speaker’s and her lover’s. By contrast, in Lerman’s late work, every thing no matter how abstract has a presence, or can slip into a body. Thus, when the speaker goes forth to question or negotiate death, time, desire, estrangement, nostalgia, treachery, identity, uncertainty, the thing that stands between the individual and her desires is often something intangible turned real.  Case in point, in the poem, “Yours Alone” when this thing becomes real unexpectedly, “With its chattering teeth, / its anxiety that death leads to nothing,” the speaker surrenders,  “yes, it has moved in with you and it / weeps all day.” She continues, “Strangely, it is / attractive to you…What can that / possibly mean?”

If you plan to read or reread Lerman’s early work, Armed Love (1973) and Come the Sweet By and By (1975), (And I recommend that you should – isn’t a good, strong dose of lesbian poetry from back then a necessary reminder of how to live, love, and write just as bravely now?), then you will encounter an incredible archive of raw, irreverent love poems. In these early poems by Lerman, expect to find the same old quipster with her penchant for seductive one-liners, but also expect to discover an intimate and often troubled tension between two people: an “I” and a “you,” an “I” and a “she”, or an “I” and [insert proper noun – Frances, Angelica, Sweetie, Whiskey Girl, etc]. Here are a few representative moments from her early poems:

glass bottles baby
are going to get strewn in your path
and we’re going to be spending a lot of time
in empty apartments
sleeping in illegal positions

from “The Cooking Utensils Can, I Think, Be Left at Home” (1975)

O remove my mouth gently from your wrist
I have no mathematics to equal the science of your despair

from “Nuns, Geometry, and Grief” (1975)

In Lerman’s most recent book, you will not experience this kind of direct tension between a first person speaker and her lover(s). You also will not encounter poems that negotiate sexual perversion (a term that now sounds dated), secrecy, madness, shame, exile, or isolation due to love. To my mind, these specific themes have a distinctly historical inflection, especially, if you consider the fact that Armed Love was published the same year that the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental illness.

There is still a relentless engagement between an “I” and “you” in Lerman’s recent work, but in The Sensual World Re-emerges, the third (often personified) presence or dimension mediates this potential intimacy. Many ethereal beings ghost through this book revealing life’s funny and tragic paradoxes. Let me clarify what I mean by “beings” with a few examples: The sensual world is a jackal-headed creature, a modern day Zep Tepi, who stalks away angry when it’s been embraced. The seven souls are mundane spirits who will follow you around the supermarket, sickly, tired, and vicious. The Master of Suicide may join you on your vacation. A god feels his age. The Principle of Invisibility shows up for work in a great costume. The city is berobed in blue.

Lerman’s late work is just as passionately charged as her early work, but less privately engaged. Many of the poems in The Sensual World Re-emerges address not so much a specific lover, as a readership, whether that audience constitutes an entire generation (“So, brothers and sisters, who do you think we are?”) or an anonymous stranger (“Did I leave out that I miss you, whoever you are?”).  This is what I mean when I say that Lerman’s work circa 2010 has spiraled. The notion of a “you” has expanded. All our late anxieties, feelings, and grievances have acquired fierce forms. And whatever shape our yearning takes, the speaker refuses to shy away:

I stop at street corners and
search my life, which always
growls when I touch it. If I
knew where, if I knew when
I would search yours, too

By Eleanor Lerman
Sarabande Books
Paperback, 9781932511819, 88pp
April 2010