A Review of Kathleen Peirce’s Lion’s Paw

Review by Laurie Saurborn

The sky is always blue:

A Review of Kathleen Peirce’s Lion’s Paw

Sweeping yellow and brown maple leaves from the deck, I find evidence of a past summer in bloom: small domed nasturtium seeds, dried into their peculiar, brain-like shape. These I gather and place in a saucer for planting next year, a reminder of how even in the immediacy of beauty, part of growth is planning ahead. Sometimes this includes enacting patience, especially when the call to action so loudly rings. This review was due before those seeds sprouted. Graduating from a nurse practitioner program and starting work in psychiatric care at nursing home facilities over-filled each day and took away the time and space required to read, process, and reflect on the creative words and thinking of another writer. But no matter how hard you are taken—by a job, by love, by a new direction—the parts of yourself put on hold are still held. Are holding steady.

And so I carve a time here to investigate my connection with the work of Kathleen Peirce, an endeavor that requires shifting my mind from the low, steel-gray Midwestern winter and down to the wide-angle, mineral-tinged skies of central Texas. It was there that I first encountered her work when I bought The Ardors at the Poetry at Round Top Literary Festival. Immediately, I was deeply struck by the force and direct transfer of Kathleen’s words as they floated, tunneled, effervesced over the pages. And this energy persists in the poems within her sixth collection, Lion’s Paw, released this year by Miami University Press. Falling into this book is to become gently tangled in lines that gracefully capture the lightest elements of our world—color, emotion, warp and weft. At her command, what has no concrete form and can be translated into a bodily experience, a vision, a touch:

There’s a knife
in the word precision. I would cut
it out. I would cut across it as a squall line
coming to the limit of how long a dry sky can be listened to,
falling in with suddenness itself
while also happening in increments as all things are,
at once close by and far away like sleep, like a sad dream getting ready
the next day’s tears, the creek about to be so opulent,
verbose after that thunderstorm
after that year of dust . . . .

In “Bluish,” time ranges out along the lines and just as forcefully hitches itself back to the left margin. Measures of time occur within time. Whether increments, day, or year, they are next, about to be, and after. Time is time, but it has choices. Via wish enactment (I would) and imagery (like a sad dream), a space is created and in that space may exist bodichitta, the space of sadness, of what cannot be eased or changed. This is the place I think of as where we go in death. Where others we have known continue when they are no longer with us here. In “Bluish” the limitless and the concrete are mixed. The title is not quite blue, not quite blush, not quite bruise. Under this umbrella, the poem opens on the line of a knife and the work of its blade. The color scheme is that of Texas—the burnt-bleached scrub of summer, the green of early spring and the second blooming in fall when the sun eases back. In that environment, the days can pass in a seemingly endless tumble and it is up to the living mind to create sense of it, to press time against it, to draw narrative down into the hands where it is molded along a new timeline.

When you take your tears to the creek, when you bring your eyes above the surface, you know the body’s water is the earth’s water. You can feel it: the creek is about to speak, is about to become something to be listened to. The experience of living in an environment so drought-prone, that has suffered the loss of life because of extreme heat and unpredictable rains, is to witness a devastation that may pause but does not recede. What is happening now is the result of what was put in place before, as in “Ovation”:

Returning to the moment of the leaf: it always was too late
to say don’t fall. Our subject still is love. The leaf’s ending
had occurred because beginning had begun, some forms held on,
and someone’s eye has added grandeur there,
grandeur of finish we know as host to the sublime
which now involves these orbs, one left one right
of the primary vein

What is the “moment of the leaf”? Is it the leaf’s existence? The leaf’s presence in time? The at-times cryptic narrative spills down like a lyric passed from generation to generation, a fable unraveled in celebration of time’s continual drive. The hands spin words as the mind works the fibers to pull a line of understanding from nothing. Eyes are now orbs, round-ish creations of wondrous scientific mechanism which allow wonder to enter the mind, to take root, to act. Some forms held on: we do not know which, or how, or why. But as Vision says to Ultron in Avengers: Age of Ultron: “a thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts.”

This ephemeral grace is brought up from below what we can easily see. A recent Netflix documentary on mushrooms underscored that there is a world humming along beneath earth, of the Earth: mushrooms appearing overnight are but minor evidences of the broader network of mycelium that exists mainly underground. I cannot help but think of Kathleen’s title poem, how it interweaves genus and species, ocean and sex, genesis and existence:

                                         . . . . Say lion’s paw
and a foreleg lifts in the general mind,
the fore always before the hind. In one life, how many
ever do come toward, and if mine is a seashell, light and dark,
orange-banded and rippling, wet or not, a bright handspan, love itself,
if it would not, if it will not touch me, some take their being from nothing,
and some say all things do.

The paw, a vehicle of touch, might make contact but this action is not inevitable. So what meaning is made when the paw makes no movement forward nor retracts altogether? Lion’s paw is also a type of seashell, what is collected, normally the sides, split apart. The imperative—Say—is offered as an option. The question of “how many/ever do come toward” asked but not seeking answer from beyond the poem, finding the answer within as the lines continue, locating an answer in no answer. Syntax is the canyon surrounding the rush of the river; the body funneling the breath, in and out; the mind making sense of what is held in the spaces between. There is no striving for consensus. Poems of smoothed precision are ragged in their hard-won knowledge. There is the undeniable sex of it all: the seashell, touch, how we do appear from fusion and also from nothing.

In my thinking about Peirce’s work, do I draw too many connections? Perhaps, I may find grace in the words of E. M. Forster: Only connect! A recent exhibit at the Columbus Museum of Art featured a survey of the work of artist Aminah Robinson, who made use of a multiplicity of materials in an act of process and documentation of past and present and how histories overlap, inform, confuse and expand. One striking element of her process was the range of materials she made her art with, and upon: a deer skin, folded up and sent through the mail; cloth with edges fraying; quilted mixed-media pieces that seem to be breathing beneath glass. What grows is also what we lay out on the earth—energy, intention, seed. What grows is also what words we put down in our experience of this world. Fierce but not strident, the poems are created and gathered with the quiet care of a collector’s eye. As the reader I watch the writer’s eye move along the lines as it might over forms on a canvas. In “What is That Crying?,” it is as if Icarus is speaking, afterwards:

When I said I fell into the sea, sea said
one falls against one’s shore. Everybody’s water,
everything’s flesh a little wind can lift.
A wave and a collar
have to curve. With succor,
as with a little forehead kiss,
two borders absorb. Unfasten the chain
behind your head. What is it not to see?
What was your mother’s name?

Body and water, within and without. Never clashing, boundaries blur amid sonic echoes, the physics of waves, intimacy (succor and little forehead kiss) and power (collar and chain). All to end with the speaker directly addressing the reader, presenting an invitation to consider and to recall. A desire to repurpose and reconfigure what might happen hovers at the cusp of potential action in a possible future: Years later, Icarus has hauled himself to shore.

While I was trying to find pieces of myself I had shelved while stepping into a new work role, a succession of invitations from the world around me—hay bales drying in a field under rolling clouds; patients welcoming me into their living spaces—drew me back to poetry and to Peirce’s work, the lion’s paw tapping me on the shoulder. Because in order to process the world as it is around me, I need to step into the world as others see it and make it breathe. The world is material, and materials. It is some forms. It is language, text, sound, and meaning blended as medium and message. As Peirce writes in “Two Horses in a Field with Daffodils”: the sky is always blue/when said so by two people across a world-wide gap. And it is through color, sound, sensuality, sex, body, and opacity that Peirce creates precise cuts, paring away what is superfluous to allow growth to flourish and bound across the divides.

Laurie Saurborn is the author of Industry of Brief Distraction, Carnavoria, and Patriot. She serves as Book Reviews Editor for The Night Heron Barks. Currently, she lives in Columbus, Ohio, and works as a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner in long-term care. 

Kathleen Peirce grew up in Rock Island, Illinois. Her work has received the Iowa Prize, the William Carlos Williams Award, The Whiting Award and fellowships from the NEA and The Guggenheim Foundation. She teaches poetry in the MFA Program at Texas State University. 

Lion’s Paw at Bookshop