In Their Own Words
Eugenia Leigh on "Psalm 107"
Introduction by Christopher Soto
Eugenia Leigh's debut collection of poems Blood, Sparrows and Sparrows whisks the reader away into a dream world—a world filled with surreal imagery, romantic fallout, and familial pain (domestic violence). Leigh writes "One day, the sky will open / like a mouth. It will pour forth / a thousand calling sparrows / and I will be ready. / I will answer every one." Leigh is a poet of wild imagination and of immense candidness. Her debut collection of poems Blood, Sparrows and Sparrows is a must-read, for both its inventive sight and its brave heart.
Praise you for that blanket.
Praise you for the stranger
who draped it over my mother,
a naked girl perched,
pregnant, in the snow. Praise you
for my father
who said he'd kill her
if she ran. And for my mother,
who didn't run. Like a mannequin
or a stupid dog.
Praise you for her skin
the color of cold
jellyfish, her psalms
careening from her throat
to her belly, where your fingers—
praise your fingers—forged
my unformed body. Praise you
for my bloodline. For the savages
and the idiots, whom you love
the same. Thank you
for the bones you stacked in me
to brave this unsettling.
Eugenia Leigh on "Psalm 107"
Once after a poetry reading, someone from the audience asked whether I am a person of faith. "Judging by your poems," he said, "you either hate God or you love God."
As far as I know, the narrative in this poem is true. I imagine it happened not long after my parents' shotgun wedding. He stripped her naked. She was pregnant with me. He forced her to stand (kneel?) in the Chicago snow. I've come to learn that "Why?" is the wrong question.
What is the tone of this poem? I have read this poem out loud on numerous occasions, and I have read it ironically. All snark, irreverence. I've also read it earnestly. Eyes closed, arms outstretched. Does the speaker hate God or does she love God?
My life has taught me it is possible to hold both rage and tenderness in a single moment.
Each day, we are vulnerable to new disasters. The hells (and joys) of my life collect the way the stanzas in this strophic poem collect: one, then two, then three, four, five, six lines/ knives/ impossible stories of my mother's forced abortions. But when the battles have passed, and I am alone, who am I? I want to believe what Nietzsche said—that what doesn't murder us will strengthen us.
Just before Blood, Sparrows and Sparrows was released, I moved back to Chicago for the first time since childhood. I hadn't anticipated my unconscious aversion toward the city and its ghosts. I couldn't stand the snow. And not for conventional reasons.
It's true: a stranger put a blanket around my mother's naked body. In the first draft of this poem, the speaker was livid with the stranger for offering a blanket instead of calling the police. In a Kundiman workshop, a poet and friend, Carolyn Ho, called out the speaker. "I don't believe her," she said. "Why is she angry with the stranger? Why isn't she angry with her father for abusing her mother? Why isn't she angry with her mother for just standing there?"
There are days when I loathe God. There are days when I don't consider God at all. Then there are days when, for better or for worse, I see God everywhere. I am thinking of C.S. Lewis's The Magician's Nephew. The scene in which the boy asks the lion for a cure for his dying mother:
"Up until then he had been looking at the Lion's great feet and the huge claws on them; now, in his despair, he looked up at its face. What he saw surprised him as much as anything in his whole life. For the tawny face was bent down near his own and (wonder of wonders) great shining tears stood in the Lion's eyes. They were such big, bright tears compared with Digory's own that for a moment he felt as if the Lion must really be sorrier about his Mother than he was himself."