The More Extravagant FeastPoetry
Reviewed By Sara Rauch
- Graywolf Press (2020)
- 80 pages
You don’t have to be a pregnant woman or a mother to fall in love with Leah Naomi Green’s The More Extravagant Feast, but if you are or have been either, her rich, lyrical poems will resonate all the more. In this precise, tender collection, Green examines pregnancy, birth, familial bonds, and love as if under a microscope, bringing to these matters—typically considered domestic—a certain scientific observation. Consider the opening lines of “Narration, Transubstantiation,” which also swirl God into the mix:
The peony, which was not open this morning, has opened,
falling over its edges
like the circumference of God, still clasped
at the center:
my two-month-old daughter’s hand
in Palmar reflex, having endured
from the apes: ontogeny
recapitulating phylogeny, clutching for fur.
Green pulls off this kind of alchemy over and over again in The More Extravagant Feast, with each poem opening (like that peony) to encompass a circumference that is everywhere. There is a very Zen sensibility to Green’s work, something that is reflected in both her subject matter and her style—the poems themselves appear almost wispy, with lots of couplets and tercets, but their leanness belies an astonishing depth and understanding.
Green’s ability to envision all aspects of the cycles of birth and rebirth are on full display in the series of poems (spread throughout the book) that focus on pregnancy. The poems are numbered by weeks, as pregnancy calendars typically go—though the weeks here are laid out nonsequentially, which lends a fine sense of being outside time, evocative of pregnancy itself. In them, Green finds communion with mundane moments, which in turn open themselves to larger moments, or vice versa.
There is “Week Ten: Plum,” which centers around centers, the lives inside lives reminiscent of a Russian doll. It opens: “My body, which has never died, / has two hearts again today, / and how many / inside the second?” The fetus is “the size of a plum, unbecome, // her own seed already in her. / This body, which is two bodies / and a thousand more in either / direction of time—.” Green inhabits lineage and inheritance with nimble hands, showing us how the cycle of human life mirrors all of life: “The field adores the seed, affords/the farmer, who frets, a task.”
And then there’s “Week Thirty-Four: Atomic” which considers the atom bomb, the hurry and haphazardness of its original making, mentioning a scientist, who when asked “how he’d built a particular tube,/described bending aluminum/around a Coke bottle.” Green then jumps from this deadly mission to:
. . . pregnant women
of course in Virginia
and Nagasaki, who did not know
how to build what they built,
like rinds around the soft
seeds of their flesh . . .
Green is a careful student of human strength and frailty, aware of the dichotomies always at play in the life cycle, and in the clash of the natural world with technology. For all that humans create, death is our uneasy cohort, an inescapable inevitability.
Though pregnancy and childbearing play a large role in The More Extravagant Feast, these topics are by no means the exclusive focus of the collection. Green is far too attuned to the natural world to fall prey to navel-gazing or sentimentality. Her husband might carry a stone each week, growing larger as time passes, to match the fetus in Green’s gestation (“Week Five: Measure”) but he and Green are also death-dealers, as in “Venison” where the young family who have a hit a deer are “glad for our headlights,/glad for our rifle.” There is an exquisite balance at play in Green’s poetry, and if there is beauty, then there is also pain. The title poem, also about a deer, closes the book; here is her daughter, woken:
this morning when the rifle fired outside.
I lifted her to see the sunrise
and her father, kneeling above the buck’s body
in the middle distance. She asked if they would be cold.
Green juxtaposes that cold with the deer’s steaming liver, gloves, and warm water; she revels in the balancing of opposites, and closes the poem with:
of bodies, formed whole like fruits,
skins unruptured and
containing the world.
Death might ever be close by, but Green continues to make room for romantic encounters and connection. As in her other subject matter, she steers clear of the saccharine, delving right into the earth for the beauty she seeks to shine a light on. In “Almanac,” she places a sensual moment smack in the center of harvest:
The garlic we pulled up when it went limp,
finally at the neck, was papered, fragile and whole,
cloves formed entire to themselves in the dark,
and I wanted to kiss the corner of your eye
where your skin folds from having folded there
with laughter; habit being also how thoughts crease.
Green is a master of these seductive, unusual pairings, where food is sensual and love is nourishment. “What is work but food? What food is this,/in the same place as our bodies?” she asks, before returning to the soil, where potatoes grow, and onions, which—like the garlic—fall at the nape, as if from a lover’s touch, when ready.
Green works with a disarmingly simple lyricism throughout The More Extravagant Feast, and her words carry a meditative, cyclical quality, like breath, like seasons, as in “Hashem”:
They collected the corn
and I saw the land
for the first time, saw it
breathe without weight, rising
and falling, rising: skin
to skin with sunlight.
This measured cadence is an integral part of Green’s poems, and she uses this steady, clarifying approach to connect the reader to the earth and to the body—a dynamic interrelation reveling in its profound interdependence. As industry and globalization threaten to de-wild the planet, Green continues to find strength and wonder in the natural world.
Don’t let the familiar, or familial, subject matter fool you; in Green’s capable hands, the world, and us in it, are new once more. The More Extravagant Feast demands to be gobbled up, and it also deserves to be savored.
Sara Rauch is the author of What Shines from It: Stories. Her writing has also appeared in Paper Darts, Hobart, Split Lip, So to Speak, Bitch Media, Bustle, Tupelo Quarterly, and more. She lives with her family in Massachusetts. Find more at www.sararauch.com