(Human) nature: Sarah de Leeuw’s Outside, America

An aura of threat hovers over the poems in Outside, America, the new collection by author and academic Sarah de Leeuw.

“Found. Behind.” is a catalogue of detritus discarded at various locations in and around de Leeuw’s home town of Prince George; a broken baby pacifier and a child’s sock segue into the description of an undeniably ominous artifact: “Underpants. Spiderman motif. Left leg ripped to waistband. On sidewalk near beer-bottle cap.” The poem resembles a police blotter; the lack of context and matter-of-fact tone exacerbate the eeriness of the material. The final item listed is a paperback novel with a missing cover and pages displaying several legible words and phrases: “terrorist”; “spies”; “weapons of mass destruction.” Here we are given a conflation of the individual and the general: the physical object itself is in pieces, “[s]wollen and soaked with rain,” while the visible words testify to societal discord and violence.

The manufactured aspect of the junk is also germane to de Leeuw’s agenda throughout the collection – the poet interrogates humanity’s relationship with the natural world and the havoc human beings can wreak when the two come into contact. The poem “Force of Nature” features an image of “coyotes and foxes adapting to anonymous / garbage foraging under streetlights” – another instance of disposable manufactured waste exerting an uncomfortable influence on the environment it pollutes. While searching for Raymond Carver’s grave, the speaker in “Edge of Port Angeles” mistakes a deer for a garden gnome, only recognizing the mistake when the animal moves. The deer has a broken leg; whether human, animal, or inanimate object, most everything in de Leeuw’s collection is subject to decay and breakage.

Whales form a kind of leitmotif, cropping up in various poems as avatars of nature’s majesty, often in contrast to humanity’s depredations and hubris. In one instance, a drone shoots video of beluga whales that resemble “white punctuations on an old / elementary school blackboard.” “J-16, 8501” juxtaposes the birth of the first female orca in decades among a Puget Sound population nearing extinction with the 2014 crash of AirAsia 8501.

Nor is this the only poem in the collection to deal with airplane disasters: “Seven-F” references Germanwings flight 9525, which went down in 2015 after its suicidal co-pilot barricaded himself in the cockpit and flew the plane into the side of a mountain in the Alps. “The ocean floor is like outer space, I hear,” says the speaker of “You Re-entered the Atmosphere,” which counterpoints the YouTube video of Chris Hadfield playing David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” while floating in zero gravity and the conviction of Captain Karl Lilgert for criminal negligence causing death in the 2006 capsizing of the B.C. ferry Queen of the North.

De Leeuw’s presentation of life on Earth is corrosive and confrontational – many poems feature nature returning fire via typhoons, earthquakes, wildfires, and hurricanes – and outer space is presented as a kind of idyllic respite from the havoc and loss down below.

The language in the poems is straightforward and unadorned and possessed of a pleasing musicality, though there is frequently an over-reliance on alliteration and assonance: “those // massive migrating mammals we want to see, / hoping some will be friendlies, breachers or bubble / netters, the stench of their baleen breath, fishy // and flint.” And not all the wordplay entirely sticks the landing: “your mother dyes // her hair deep brown, almost black, // until her dying day.”

Outside, America shuttles between intimate, personal situations and poems with a larger scope. The collection is broken into two, roughly equal sections – the first bounces around locations in western Canada, the second traverses the troubled nation to our south. The vision of America in the latter part of the book is largely captured in the erasure poem “In the Rogue Blood: American Novel Redux, August 2014,” which finds its genesis in a work of fiction by the Mexican-American writer James Carlos Blake.

That poem tilts in the direction of an American myth forged in violence, echoes of which can be heard in the closing lines of “Oklahoma III,” which also encapsulate the spirit of de Leeuw’s collection as a whole: “of caves // where Belle Starr lived and fell, a steady / fascination with things beyond reach.”

(Human) nature: Sarah de Leeuw’s Outside, America
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