Sweetgum & Lightning lets us into an extraordinary poetic universe, shaped by a vernacular rooted in the language of self, one’s origins, and music. In poems that are deeply sensual in nature, Rodney Terich Leonard considers gender and sexuality, art, poverty, and community. Imagery expands through unexpected lexical associations and rumination on the function of language; words take on new meaning and specificity, and the music of language becomes tantamount to the denotations of words themselves. Through extensive webs of connotation, Leonard’s narratives achieve a sense of accuracy and intimacy. The nuanced lens of these poems is indicative of the honesty of expression at work in the collection—one that affirms the essentiality of perception to living and memory.
“Lunch Menu: Summer 1977”
popcorn & hot sauce
cucumbers & dill pickles
side-of-the-road picked plums
knife-sliced fried potatoes
mayonnaise & ketchup sandwiches
white rice w/ salt, pepper & butter
Vienna Sausage & Saltine crackers
frozen sugar-sweetened white milk
baked store-stolen yams
With the vernacular of Zora Neale Hurston and the music of Leontyne Price, Rodney Terich Leonard honors the past while addressing the present moment in Sweetgum & Lightning. Take your time taking these poems in; they’re meant to be sung aloud. As you listen, what you’ll hear is what happens when the spirit is captured on the page. When the news of the day is too much to bear and we can’t find the words, be grateful for this poet, who arrives when, ‘We need somebody to sing us, at least, a song.’
Rodney Leonard’s Sweetgum & Lightning is a cascade of image and song, charged by a voice that can pivot from reverence to gleeful vulgarity inside a single line. In these elegies, flashbacks, odes, indictments, riffs, and adorations we find a self engaged in constant revision yet remaining steady: ‘I just wanna be jumpseat & aero in my own // historical zoom.’ As much as this book looks to the past, there’s no coasting on nostalgia here. ‘The past / creeps wild / in my eyes,’ and memory ‘lurks & it forgives,’ but Leonard is no lurker; even when he seems to be observing from somewhere off to the side, he’s at the center of the action. He stacks his lines with the accoutrements of queer desire, a gesture of both affirmation and subversion—in other words, a show of strength. Sweetgum & Lightning isn’t just good poetry, it’s good company too.