20 years ago I went back to my alma mater, Scripps College (Claremont, CA), and there I met Leslie Lasher Monsour, class of ’69 (I was the class of ’67). She was just beginning her amazing career as a formalist poet, and we really hit it off.
This weekend, I was lucky enough to share my apartment (and a bottle of Macallan single malt: it seems we share a Scottish heritage) with her — and I hope we can do it again before the next 20 years expire! She was on her way to a workshop in Connecticut where she was giving a workshop (or two or three), and will be there till next Sunday. She has come a long way in her success, although her talent was there from the get-go. Sweat equity makes up a great poem: she does not produce them over night!
Here are words of wisdom from the Mistress herself:
The Education of a Poet
Her pencil posed, she’s ready to create,
Then listens to her mind’s perverse debate
On whether what she does serves any use;
And that is al she needs for an excuse
To spend all afternoon and half the night
Enjoying poems other people write.
(Yes, we’ve all been there!)
But then, unlike the rest of us, she comes up with a jewel like this:
While women sip their daiquiries by the pool,
and men blow smoke into the jacarandas,
the radio plays “Fly Me to the Moon.”
A child nearby, on finding a dead bee,
conducts its funeral in petunia beds,
as ants are trying to amputate a wing.
But even though the bee seems dead, it stings
her fiercely on the palm, and dies again.
She studies her small hand in disbelief,
Some fathers offer ice cubes from their highballs,
the station plays “Volare,” and the bee
swings up to heaven on its single wing.
Or (literally) on a more sober note:
The truth must dazzle gradually
— Emily Dickinson
Unsquandered, sure and quiet as a root,
She stayed at home all dressed in pleated white,
And accurately weighed the brain of God,
The sum of acts not carried out. Unwed,
That she not be divided, she stayed whole,
And heard the sound the tooth makes in the soul.
A little knife that cuts through at a slant,
Her voice, ungendered like a child’s, not meant
To chant “Our Fathers” under Sunday trees,
Unlocked a phoenix from the frozen seas.
“Called back,” she wrote, the mourners treading so,
That from her gypsy face a light broke through.
She died in May, and one thing struck them all:
The coffin was astonishingly small.
Here’s one more jewel, from her childhood in Mexico, a perfect Diego Riviera painting in a poem:
The Mayans plant their lilies in the corn,
And in the clay along the streams and marshes.
The women march to market under long
And sturdy stems that look like gathered guns.
Their feet are bare on paths of mud, their daughters
Keep step behind them, shouldering the flowers
Like land-bound saints with blossom wings and pollen
Halos sifting down obsidian braids.
Their pilgrim rhythm whispers in the leaves
That blaze, full-blooded green, like shields and banners.
The lamb-white lilies openly reveal
A thrust of yolk-bright weapons, aimed and loaded,
So earth will not forget to make more flowers.
Her “slim volume,” entitled The Alarming Beauty of the Sky, contains these and many more faultless diamond-clear stories in rhyme that often cuts to the bone. Honest — often to a fault — these rhymed stories tell me about myself (ouch!) and the world I live in. I strongly recommend it! I’ve had 20 years of pleasure re-reading it (most often in the bathroom, where I can read any poem I happen upon and then carry it with me for a few hours more).
She has a wild sense of humor, as well: the book makes a great companion when you can’t directly access Leslie herself back in California.