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Brazen Hope: Ramshackle Ode by Keith Leonard

“Never mind / the last exhale. Think / about the first. And the second.” These lines which grace the ending of Ramshakle Ode distill the intention of this collection: to know intimately the erasures of death, and yet choose to turn towards the brilliant wonder of new life, of fertility, perseverance, and growth. Keith Leonard’s poems in Ramshackle Ode are steeped in a hard-won joy; reading this book is to widen your vision, and accept the “brazen pulse” of your own “dumb” heart.

Fork and Page Book Review of Ramshackle Ode by Keith Leonard Review by Anita Olivia Koester

Leonard works to write poems that exist in the everyday, poems that through their lyric pulse turn the ordinary, extraordinary. Leonard’s gift is his almost meditative attention to detail, detail that isn’t necessarily within the poems, but there in the outcome of the thought which is the poem. The features of a single strawberry can lead into a deeper meditation on personality types:

Good for the strawberry

for wearing all its seeds on its skin—

too few things say here’s all of me

like that—not the apple

and its wooden center stones

not the peach’s chipped tooth pit,

not me in my muddy work shirts…

What becomes particularly remarkable is the way Leonard’s poems can move from a metaphor about strawberries, to coming home exhausted from work, and end up at a meditation on how Icarus is remembered for the wrong reasons, only for the fall, not for his resilience up until the fall: “There must have been a moment / he could go no further, / and yet, he did.”

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The ode’s impulse is always to praise or honor, and yet Leonard shows us the depths inherent in honoring, and how easily an ode can slip into an elegy, and an elegy become an ode. In “Ode to Dreaming the Dead” Leonard finds himself unable to pivot towards joy, as he does in some of the poems, and writes instead:

All I want is to hear

them hum a tune—

my dead which populate

the dream like a mute

chorus of horses,

for which I unlatch

the barn gate

and point to the open

field, and click

my tongue, but which

only stand there

staring at the grass.

This ode dismantles into longing, longing to hear the voice of the dead again, but it is the immobility of the horses that is particularly haunting. And yet the ode is not written to them but to the “dreaming of the dead,” and so, though the speaker of the poem longs to release the dead from his dreams, the poet chooses to honor their continual remembrance, even though the act of honoring itself is difficult.

Fork and Page Poetry Book Review of Ramshackle Ode by Keith Leonard

Whenever someone asks me what I find most difficult to write about, I say—joy. In fact, I find it difficult to experience joy, let alone write about it. Grief, depression, heartache—these are my comfort zones, and so the moments within Ramshackle Ode that locate the light, that actively reach towards joy, gratitude, or radical tenderness are the moments I most admire. Joy is elusive and fleeting, and therefore precious and worth recognizing. In poems like “The Doubling,” the act of conceiving a child and bringing it into the world is the impetus for this joy:’s a genius I rarely think of,

this world swelling, the hay field

rising, and I was not ready

for my love to be suddenly

amplified by the ultrasound,

but it was, the little heart drummed

over the speakers, and the room

swelled, and it hurt the good hurt,

and though the June bugs

beat against the night, the sound

is not a heart, but like the heart

it is dumb in its brazen pulse

and smack-the-screen joy…

The nine odes that are peppered throughout Ramshackle Ode set the tone for this collection; life—even with all its difficulties: loss, regret, sickness, tedium, foreclosure, failure—is what is ultimately being celebrated. In the epigraph Louise Bogan is quoted, “—O remember, / In your narrowing dark hours / That more things move / than blood in your heart.” Keith Leonard writes to uncover those things in the current that keep us living: love, friendship, wonder. By the end of the book, I found myself feeling gratitude; gratitude for being shown a new vocabulary for joy, made up of words that sound like compassion and survival.

Keith Leonard

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Paperback $17.95

ISBN: 978-0-544-64967-5

Fork and Page Book Review Blog Poetry and Brunch

Brunch: Today I had some dried lavender and thought to try making some toast with butter, honey, rosemary and lavender, which was rather delicious. And I served it with a spring mix salad with radishes, grapefruit, plums, walnuts, and fresh parmesan. Served with some lemon ginger tea.

*All Fork and Page reviews are by Anita Olivia Koester


Hello! Reading, writing and cooking are my passions, so I decided to start Fork & Page as a brunching with books blog.

Besides being a blogger, I am also a poet, photographer, editor, and author of four chapbooks.

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Happy Reading!


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