Rodney Terich Leonard brings to us poetry steeped in a rich melodic tradition. This debut collection, Sweetgum & Lightning, pulls from musical roots. Herein, lines of jazz, the blues, real soulful music, reach out to grab the reader. Leonard takes ownership of the language and bends sound and sense into a chorus of nouns stacks on top of each other. What you have here is a sort of gospel where song and testimony join hands to tell us the ordeals of this world. Here we find truth in a wild collision of sound. The collection is divided into three sections. Each of which is offset with song lyrics.
The very first poem “Language beside the language” sucks you straight into the sound of place and sets the tone for the entire collection:
In da first place—
I come from baghetti & banounce
baze & baff whutta
from chullen, pitiation & clair fo god
from coosa county yall, dem & nem
This poem lulls you into the familiar. It takes you home. It celebrates the everyday. But more than that, the collection centers itself in what it’s like growing up in the rural South. It leads the reader through a first-hand experience of navigating the tension of identity as it relates to family, place, self, and social order.
In these pages we see Leonard come toe-to-toe with his birthplace, Nixburg, Alabama—a town so small its current population comprises just over 300 people. We follow him through the aftermath of his Air Force service during the Gulf War, and sit with him through moments where he navigates a dating life in the big city as a gay Black man.
This collection bears witness. It does not shy away from realness, from violence, from the hard truths of growing up queer and Black in a world that isn’t welcoming up these identities independently, let alone together. But the collection knows its own voice and where it comes from. It traces family history across generations through the eyes of relatives. We see this in poems such as “The Late Mrs. Clarence Jackson, Sr. Speaks to Her Grandson in a Dream on a Ferry from Dover to Calais,” and “Fastened to Roots, Love & Story: Mother Recalls a Ten-Pound Storm.”
One of my favorites from this collection though is “Bumble o’ Names” which murmurs through a catalogue of endearments and nicknames:
Sugar-Man, San-Nan, Popeye
Pokie, Scooter, Missy, Rell
Reesie, Haircut, Uptown, Hess
Baldy, Bad-Shape, Mr. Square
Sweetie, Shawty, Badfoot, Oont
This poem eludes the system of legal-naming by instead opting to name through affection. What is a name? Where does it come from? And who among us hasn’t flinched to hear our full legal-name? Proper names are for trouble. They’re for documents, and legal matters, and fights. Those who truly know us never call us by our name. This song-naming snapshots an entire community and links them together on the page through sound in a way that represents how they are linked by love and locale in real life.
The speaker lets us in to their community through these familial introductions and naming of names. It tells us who is who and what sort of lives we’re sitting with in the moments we share with these poems. And all of this sets us up for the most difficult questions. If people and place become so much of our identity, then what do we do with desire?
These poems take us to the raw human edge of want. We see this in lines like these from “Norphenia’s Lament,”
Oh, to plate potatoes & pot roast
for a trunk-armed man of pine—
pecs & dangle
seek dawn & terrain;
the planet they find is pecan
underneath orange & aqua cotton.
Winter nightgown draws the heat.
Do we know desire? Not until you feel the hunger of things you cannot have. Desire takes us beyond the realm of the familiar. And Leonard takes us directly into the thick of things with poems like “Carnal in a Time of PrEP” which navigates the intimate details of satiating desire in a time of HIV. We get a hard glimpse of sexual abuse in the military with “Military Sexual Trauma: (MST) Per the Department of Veterans Affairs.” Here the speaker is told, “Let’s live through this, young man” as the trauma is swept under the rug and the speaker dreams of revenge. More, more. In these pages there’s always a want for more.
This collection scaffolds on hunger, want, and desire and finds a sort of fulfillment in food. Oh, the food. From the whole daggum “Lunch Menu: Summer 1977” which details “side-of-the-road picked plums / knife-sliced fried potatoes / boiled peanuts,” to “fried fish / with hot grease, hot sauce / & French’s mustard” (27) “Sunday’s sweet potato” (84) and much more, these poems are strung together with the elements of sustenance. Every Southerner knows the call of soul-food and how it sustains the body. It is survival in and of itself. And we see it woven into these poems the same way one expects to find air and breathing in their day-to-day.
So much of Sweetgum & Lightning is familiar while at the same time presenting a world to us entirely unexperienced. You’ll find comfort in these pages in the lullaby of sounds and depictions of home. But, at the same time, you’ll encounter the grit of uncomfortable moments as we come face-to-face with the grim humanity in us all.
H. M. Cotton is a writer and teacher from Birmingham, Alabama.