Not Yet the End of Grief: Review of Dianne LeBlanc’s The Feast Delayed

by Jayne Marek

Diane LeBlanc, The Feast Delayed. Terrapin Books, 2021. $16.00

Diane LeBlanc’s first full-length poetry collection delivers complex personal truths through deft imagery and spare language. Weather and seasons, parent-child anxieties, and the impermanence of physical existence propel the fifty poems in this book. LeBlanc’s principal themes derive from the abrasive truths that can underlie “peaceful” surfaces. Obscuring some aspects of her subjects—all details of events are not specified—allows LeBlanc to startle and intrigue readers throughout these pages.

The introductory poem presents LeBlanc’s elliptical approach. After a snowfall, a pristine rural landscape, washed in pale light, is marked by trails and hoofprints that the speaker follows. LeBlanc’s language sketches the outlines of the “drifts” that “obscure divisions” in the fields, tempting the speaker to “believe” in this clean world—until a snowplow passes, apparently scraping over a rabbit whose carcass is eagerly torn apart by crows. “If hunger is the call,” the poem concludes, “response is this feast delayed.”

Readers must ponder what such a “feast” entails. Which aspects of life’s ravages can ultimately nourish one’s spirit? LeBlanc’s poetry judiciously probes how the paradoxes of experience shape one’s awareness and transform “the mistake[s] of memory.”

An early piece, “Craving,” deftly combines an eye disorder with deeper questions of perception. At an ophthalmologist’s office, the speaker notes “an orange sphere burns against a dark sky. / I think it’s Mars and say how beautiful….” Yet the image proves to be evidence of glaucoma. “So then I doubt the red berries that hang on winter’s early darkness… I doubt but can’t stop looking.” The speaker then reflects on a former impulse to learn how to illuminate manuscript books with “vermillion” and “gold leaf,” but now, with failing vision, she must settle for “simpler” satisfaction: “to welcome a red-feathered wren in March / and believe in diminished light’s return.”

The settings create a strong sense of the North American climate and modern context in most of the poems. “Burning Like Notre Dame” and “Nineteen Years After Matthew Shepard’s Murder” use specific events to prompt self-awareness in the personae. In the former, LeBlanc writes,

Sanctuaries crumble, and still
we unpack our sad picnic of need.

Someday, someone will say burning like Notre Dame
to make a point about loss of control.

But until the spire tumbles, we don’t let ourselves
imagine the city without the cathedral.

In the latter poem, LeBlanc is again “lonely for [a] town I knew,” in this case Laramie, Wyoming, but with horrified hindsight about the violence in human nature:

so far from Laramie,
I don’t know if before ever existed
or if hate always carried ropes and knives,
drove an open pickup and pistol whipped…
if hate always insisted nothing
that night was about Matt.

A few poems range further in place or time: one speaker imagines herself as “a store window mannequin in Helsinki,” whereas “Isis Speaks to Osiris” gestures toward ancient mythology. Other poems center on a hunter, kitchen spices, destructive fires, a gruesome Halloween yard decoration. These are musings from a curious mind—the poem “Striations” explicitly mentions a string of topics that attracted the speaker’s attention: “pigs… mushrooms… comet dust…winter fish,” which lead to a suggestion of a lover’s death, seemingly diminished as just one of the world’s many “stories.”

Childhood miseries balance with adult realizations that pain is ever-present in life. With restraint, LeBlanc sketches a scene in “Damage Control” of a child being scrubbed to treat her psoriasis while her sister is thrust into agonizing leg braces to “correct” her gait. A more mellow reflection occurs in “Quiet Things” where the speaker and her sister play with dolls in the morning before their mother wakes up:

with one hand feeling for each stair
[we] climbed to the landing and settled
into our private plot, whispering
through the stitched lips of those dolls

what could not wait for light…

not speaking at breakfast of that untended hour,
becoming once more adrift in time when
we didn’t belong to each other alone.

This important sibling relationship becomes more poignant when readers encounter lines that signal the sister’s death. Seeing a deceased snake, the speaker in “Of Almost Believing” muses,

Talk of resurrection
and I almost believe
a breeze could lift the dead

but this snake on the sidewalk…
doesn’t respond to my boot’s nudging…

no dance
left in the skin. Still, in a moment

like this, of almost believing,
I watched my sister’s eyelids, her lips
for reanimation…

to prove
bodies don’t end like this.

Deaths weave throughout the text: animals, her sister, her father, a friend, a partner. Some poems step back to muse about the effects of loss in general. “The End of Grief” imagines that emotion as a large, noisy migratory bird that annoys the neighbors and “demands space” in the speaker’s backyard until its own demise, dreaming of its “lost offspring.” The emblematic poem “The Kite” takes a different approach, abstracting the way loss proceeds over time, with a “butterfly kite,” stuck in a tree, that weathers until it simply disappears.

LeBlanc’s carefully honed syntax provide surprises that are distinctly imagined, with occasional surrealistic juxtapositions (as in “Blue Parrot Wound” and “Notes from Paradise”). She can be oblique, as with poems suggesting intimacy through the paradoxes of dissociated phrases. Occasionally the poems add a wry note, as in the line “I fear Forever stamps will outlive this country,” or another poem that humorously but pointedly muses about a French teacher’s excessive use of lipstick.

With deft vocabulary choices and masterful line control, LeBlanc has written a book that offers a kind of spiritual peacemaking with a harsh yet absorbing world. The consistent sense of stoicism is well balanced by this poet’s recognition of grace.

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Jayne Marek is author of Women Editing Modernism: “Little” Magazines and Literary History and several poetry books, including The Tree Surgeon Dreams of Bowling (2018) and In and Out of Rough Water (2017). Her writings and art photographs appear in Spillway, Rattle, One, The Cortland Review, QWERTY, Notre Dame Review, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Gulf Stream, Bombay Gin, and elsewhere.

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