By Amanda Mead
Sometimes we overlook the wonders of this world. At times we forget the marvels of nature. Amy Leach illuminates these forgotten splendors in Things That Are, a collection of short essays attributed to the natural world around us and above us. Fascinated with the smallest and largest things in the world, Leach divides her attention between tiny dust granules and the light of the sun. Depicting the rich and enchanting lives of the flora, fauna, and firmament without any direct reference to the man-made, this collection outlines poetically vivid images while enriching the core of our imagination.
Things That Are is Leach’s debut book and it comes as no surprise that her literary praises precede her: a Whiting award, a Rona Jaffe award, a Best American Essays selection, and a Pushcart Prize. Her work has appeared in A Public Space, Tin House, Orion Magazine, and the Los Angeles Review. A graduate of the MFA program in creative non-fiction from the University of Iowa, Leach currently teaches literature at the University of St. Francis in Joliet, Illinois. An accomplished bluegrass musician, Leach infuses essays like “God” and “Memorandum to the Animals” with audio renditions available through the Milkweed Press website. This soundtrack offers the reader the added pleasure of hearing Leach’s weighted tones and patterned syntax as she recites her own words over well fitted drum kicks and banjo twangs.
Leach anticipates a predisposition to the natural world and encourages readers to extend their imagination beyond the man-made. Capturing the long awaited transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly in “You are Going to Fly” and the rotation of the moon, earth, and sun in “Sail on, My Little Honeybee,” her approach to these grade school science lessons mirrors a 19th century poet, taking inspiration from John Dunn’s “metaphors from science” and Chaucer. Delightfully silly in its Lewis Carroll invention, the book is most successful as a descriptive field: “jellyfishes’ curly gauzy watercolor streamers” and “when trees dream of being trees.” Instead of falling down a rabbit hole into Wonderland, Leach falls up a staircase to heaven, “my ascent has acquired the helpless nature of a descent: I am Alice ascending.”
The collection is broken into two segments entitled “Things of Earth” and “Things of Heaven” with essays ranging in length depending on tone and subject. Shorter pieces like “Trappists” suffice with one page, whereas “Love” divulges the reader in eight pages of flora associated by name: love-in-idleness, love-lies-bleeding, love-blind. Essays are appropriately titled with the exception of “God” and “Comfortless,” both of which appear to be miscataloged. A subjective narrative placed under the section “Things of Earth,” the essay “God” suggests the ambivalence of a Higher Power: “The word refers to someone no one has ever seen. Perhaps that is why people say it over and over, as if the repetition of a word can make up for the absence of its referent.” In “Comfortless,” Leach uses a tear in her great-aunt’s comforter as a metaphor for life slipping through her fingers as she searches to fill the comforters’ seams. The subject and perspective in “Comfortless” is inconsistent with the rest of the collection and it is difficult to say whether or not the essay has much of a place in the book at all. Leach’s first person voice is transparent and the essay takes on an man-made, tangible affect – that of a comforter, if nothing else.
With seemingly made up language reminiscent of Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange – albeit more floral and innocent sounding – Leach creates prose for plants and animals with words that seem unreal. Her language proves oddly satisfying and seemingly convoluted, but for those of us needing a supplementary explanation, the glossary abets any ecological and linguistic ignorance. Many of these terms are archaic and mythological: “Muspelheim,” derived from Norse mythology’s ‘realm of fire’ used to describe a cosmological effect, or “argle-bargle,” a term first used in 1872 to describe a wrangling argument. Who knew a “mouldywarp” was a mole?
Leach enlivens the page with verbal delights such as this address to the moon: “you are not an idea; you make the Earth’s heavy blue waters heave up and down!” But these swift dedications are contrasted by more philosophical observations, “some memories are so fragile they bury themselves,” phrases that connect the tangible to the ethereal in what is already an evident theme running throughout the book.
Things That Are is a collection for anyone seeking a delicate and honeyed perspective on the natural world. Leach carves out an ingenuous mysticism with playful language and antiquated terms supporting the worth of the slightest things. A genre bending collection of poetry-prose, Leach beguiles her readers from the eyes of jellyfish to the core of the moon, from the life of pea tendrils to notions of God.
Amanda Mead is a freelance writer based in Chicago. She is an active contributor to Sixty Inches from Center, an online archive of the Chicago art scene. She graduated from Beloit College with a joint degree in Creative Writing and Art History.