The poems in Leslie Ullman’s first collection, Natural Histories, are re-creations, experiences which tell themselves; they are small dramas, “sombre biographies” seen through opera glasses, understood more clearly at a distance. The tension that charges and holds this volume is paradox: the reconciliation of opposites, the basis for all harmony. Ullman’s vision is the ultimate paradox: what we see is always more than what we see. Her motifs are often ones of movement: travel by car or train, characters walking through rooms or doorways, going up and down stairs, going to work, coming home. Figures stare into mirrors, out of windows, or across water, while the poet’s second self notes the distortions caused by light—both artificial and natural—upon physical and tonal surfaces.
Consistency of viewpoint is a logical habit not found in Ullman’s work. A number of difficulties may arise from this. The reader is tested; his ability to rest easy with uncertainty is tried. Yet he will become a better reader as a result. Ullman’s poetry is poetry of reduction and abstraction; the real and the known is exerpted, and an atmosphere of pure feeling without specific origin clings to the lines. Part I of this volume contains twenty poems, Part II has seventeen. All the poems deal, with various modifications, with the theme of contradiction: the strange is familiar; distance and separation bring us closer; there is more intimacy in absence than in presence. Ullman reconciles the puzzling attraction of confinement and release, of restriction and freedom.
In “Last Night They Heard the Woman Upstairs,” the moans of a lumbering, moon-faced woman become the focus of marital disaffection and ennui. The listening wife becomes the woman momentarily; she and her husband feel exposed and vulnerable by knowing the woman’s private world too well; they feel themselves known from a distance, better than they know each other: “she must make love slowly, the way/she climbs the stairs.”
Again, “In Barcelona You Tried to Scream” presents another version of the theme of absence, showing how being removed from external, immediate reality is the way to perception. After having spent the day in an art museum, the poet sees a group of crippled children on an outing. She is fatigued, and her defenses are down; she is too aware of reality—the physical imperfections of the world, the too-green grass, the lawn dappled with shadows—and she must distance herself. When she drives from Barcelona to Paris, however, her physical distancing from the incident only accentuates the pain of the recollected scene. Suddenly the speaker understands that the visible world is more trustworthy than artistic vision because it can be left temporarily in order to gain the sharp edges of clarity.
“Why There Are Children” tries to break the spell of the enchantment cast upon us by the past by moving freely in time, by telling the story backwards. The speaker establishes identity with better times and with people who have gone before, as well as with herself in others. We beget children as we create poems: to carry on the memories of the best we were. People share an urge to remember, to pass on, to conceive, to create a second self. “Fur” focuses on a moment at dusk when a boy, distancing himself from his parents by hiding in the branches of a tree, hears his mother call his name and remembers her in an acute new way. Back in the house, he remembers the eerie eyes that peered at him, and he feels fear in retrospect. He hears his parents’ deep sleep sounds, recalling his own name as he hears the “slight movement of wings,” the person he was elsewhere, now only a memory against the backdrop of the house and his awareness of the night’s presence. We are not where we are, but where we were. Experience becomes us only afterward. At the moment of happening, we are walking away.
Ullman tries to know herself and her characters from many angles, both...
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