Leslie Ullman is professor emerita of creative writing at the University of Texas–El Paso (UTEP), where she established and directed the Bilingual MFA Program. She currently teaches at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Ullman is the author of three poetry collections: Natural Histories (winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award), Dreams by No One’s Daughter, and Slow Work Through Sand (co-winner of the 1997 Iowa Poetry Prize). Her poems and essays have been published in a number of magazines and literary journals.
Maryfrances Wagner’s books include Salvatore’s Daughter, Red Silk (winner of the Thorpe Menn Book Award), Light Subtracts Itself, and Dioramas. Her chapbook Pouf is forthcoming next month from Finishing Line Press. Her poems have appeared in literary magazines, anthologies and textbooks including Unsettling America: An Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry (Penguin Books) and The Dream Book: An Anthology of Writings by Italian American Women (winner of the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation). She is co-editor of The I-70 Review and the Whirlybird Anthology of Greater Kansas City Writers.
Progress on the Subject of Immensity
Poems by Leslie Ullman
University of New Mexico Press 2013, 68 pages
Reviewed by Maryfrances Wagner
Leslie Ullman’s latest book of poems, Progress on the Subject of Immensity is a remarkably thoughtful work. The poems have a strong sense of place, whether leaning in a doorway “against,/an arch of silvered wood,” bare feet pressing in sand and crushed shells or in the austere southwest of sage, aspens, coyotes, horses, seed pods, and strips of wind, but that sense of place keeps the reader grounded for the metaphysical and philosophical leaps Ullman takes in this daring and well crafted book.
In “Ice Apples,” Ullman says, “we drift in and out of memory that is less event/than atmosphere,” and that atmospheric sense of place permeates and defines her book. Hers is a world of umber and burnished gold and what “could be coming next/keeps undoing the seams between grey spirit and gravity.” This is the way of the poems; some grounded, some of the spirit, some meditations, some surreal: “we’ll all sprout gills, drifting/in a sleep beyond memory, beyond the residual lung, beyond the spent coals/of desire.”
Her poem “The Guises of the Mind” sets up for what is to come, eight poems exploring the mind: “Mind Outside,” “Mind Undressed,” “Mind Paces the Edge of a Flat World,” etc. “Mind Undressed” is willing to let go of perfume, gowns, money and even the borrowed river stones. Long ago the guises of the mind relinquished “their faux fur/and studded shoes, their tattoos and lacquers.” They are “Decals easy to peel from the heart of those/who’ve tried to love them,” but they can’t “be traced nor followed.”
Ullman’s poems open in layers as in “Night Opens the Foothills” begins with a walk through a house, someone turning off lights in each room, and then “scents of onion/or lemon oil [settling] into paper, into cloth,” to morning of coffee and “sun [inching] toward plums/in a white bowl,” to how the plums could be resting stones later shaped into bone needles:
pulled at long seams of broadcloth as the nuns’ way of listening to their God and bread broken and passed around, breaking a fast that once sharpened, as it sharpens still, the colors and contours of faith, and savored as though nothing at the moment could be more desired.
Poem after poem is both physical and metaphysical, grounded and ethereal as the mind contemplates. Even when the poems leap into the spiritual, the surreal, or big questions of existence, Ullman pulls the reader back into the real world by her stunning imagery. In “Conviction,” she says:
Sometimes we remember what it felt like when it passed through us, quick and warm, the wipers smearing leaves over the windshield. . . . We saw horses running in a line, for the joy of it, in their emerald field of a home.
Her details make the reader part of the experience: “late-ripened apples locked in ice,” “I could look into others’ windows by/ looking into my own cupped hands,” “Skin that bakes to leather,/of silver that crinkles the hair,/of a body/turning to driftwood in a doorway,” and “a row of bulbs sealing themselves/against crisp nights for the months/of their own sleep.”
The poems have so many well honed lines that to pick some is to leave so many other possibilities out: “The mind is a small city/whose street signs show me/what I already know,” or “. . . how does one lay waste to absence?” or
I dream myself harmless as the crane or butterfly that travels thousands of miles to follow the changing position of the sun, irrefutable as the salmon that swim upriver to spawn and die, their journeys blurring even the fortified borders.
The dazzling moments of these poems are subtle in their internal and near rhythms, gentle rhythms, keen imagery, and sharp precision. In this book Ullman offers wisdom and craft that come from an accomplished and observant poet who studies life. Like her title, these poems are immense. If readers thirst for a deeper drink, this book will deliver and is worth coming back to again and again. Nothing proves it better than her own words:
I realize the first sound I heard was wind blowing in a front. The machinery of real weather. And I am simply in its path like any creature, not wrongly placed, though the day, like a boat in hard seas, churns so fiercely beneath me.