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The Alarming Beauty of the Sky

The Education of a Poet


Her pencil poised, she's ready to create,
Then listens to her mind's perverse debate
On whether what she does serves any use;
And that is all she needs for an excuse
To spend all afternoon and half the night
Enjoying poems other people write.



“The Alarming Beauty of the Sky” is an apt title for Leslie Monsour’s first full-length book. The celestial, often spiritually charged, is everywhere in her poems... She gives us sun-scorched days, moon-saturated nights and especially alluring dusks, but she never settles into coziness. Something uncanny is always afoot.”

–Jennifer Goodrich, The Dark Horse

Leslie Monsour’s elegant poems combine two qualities rarely found together: a lush, accurate evocation of startling details of the natural world, and a sense of underlying elegy and loss. The resulting combination is both distinctive and beautiful, and is all her own.
-- Dick Davis.

What Leslie Monsour calls “the open-heartedness of colors” bathes her new collection in the generous light of her native California. But what these sunny tints illuminate, among lemons, marigolds, and pelicans, is often change, diminution, and loss -- all captured and fixed with briskly unsentimental poetic technique. As sensuous and unsettling as its title, this is a distinctive and memorable book.
-- Rachel Hadas

The astonishingly high level of performance throughout this collection of poems would take almost any reader by surprise. Yet scattered among them are individual poems of such perfected skill (I’ve found a generous baker’s dozen at least) such vivacity, wit and intelligence -- exhibiting Dickinson’s cunning, Bishop’s carefulness -- that a reader is filled brim-full of gratitude.
--Anthony Hecht

With this first full collection, Leslie Monsour confirms her place among the foremost poets of our day who still keep faith in meter and rhyme. Her strategy is often to take a meaningful moment from everyday life and polish it to diamond clarity. From the opening poem, the superb sonnet, “Travel Plans,” to the remarkable upside-down sonnet, “Parking Lot,” that ends the book, there isn’t a drab page. It’s a rare and lucky year for American poetry that has such a debut in it.
-- X.J. Kennedy

The mistress of her forms, Leslie Monsour writes with wonderful warmth and fluency. Her work often explores lives and landscapes in Southern California, but she is no more limited by her locales than Thomas Hardy was by his. The images and feelings she renders so memorably are those that virtually all readers can appreciate. In their accessibility and craftsmanship, these are some of the finest poems in contemporary literature.
--Timothy Steele

There is often an amorous situation in Leslie Monsour’s poems, but their most constant appeal is their observation, their eager looking, as when the water of a swimming pool is seen as “Clear to the blurry floor.” Such a poem as “The Snail in the Marigold” might put one in mind of that attentive gardener, Emily Dickinson. And in another key entirely, “Illusion of Loss” handles a traditional theme and figure with telling simplicity.
-- Richard Wilbur

from The Alarming Beauty of the Sky:

Illusion of Loss

Departing ships grow small and melt away
From those on shore who weep and watch them go;
But ships loom large as life beyond the bay,
As those on board who make the voyage know.

The Snail in the Marigold

I watched, when planting marigolds,
Their colors all afire,
A gorged snail suck amid the folds,
Unfurling with desire--

Its slick and gleaming trail of pleasure
Oozing out behind;
Its rapturous head in worldly leisure,
Oblivious, petal-blind.

The broken bud looked jubilant,
Enravished, vibrant, real,
Infusing animal and plant
With sybaritic zeal.

This seeming drive to be consumed
As wood lit in a stove,
Must be the lavishest, most doomed,
And pure of earthly love.

Come, celebrate the appetite
No science can control,
The wild, ingenious, slippery blight
That incarnates the soul.

Travel Plans

The pepper tree spilled round us from its source,
and took a lumpish this-way, that-way course,
while dangling hopeful sprays of cinnabar.
You couldn’t rest against the grizzled trunk;
its bulby hump, its knurled and craggy scar,
forced you to lean your weight on me instead.
The two of us were just a little drunk,
and sipped the sun-warmed wine to make us bold.

“I’d like to go to Mexico,” you said,
“with you, someday, before we’re too damn old,”
while in the sky an airplane’s vapor trail
politely licked its seal across the sun.
We watched the growing, tantalizing tail,
until it matter-of-factly came undone.

Middle Age

The morning paper slaps the driveway's face
And brings the wincing blush of dawn. A brace

Of shrewd and ink-stained, unsubjective crows
Are measuring and editing our street,
While I review the paleness of my feet
And curl an edge of carpet with my toes.

An oily dimness floods the hand-loomed floor.
It comprehends the corners, knows the hall
The way a shadow understands a wall.
I mark the rhythm of your muffled snore

And almost envy how you navigate
Your dark and shuddering forehead through a dream.
The ebbing night and swelling morning seem
To touch each other as they hesitate,

And light invades the room -- the sun is strong,
The fractures in the ceiling, wide and long.

Desert Prayer
        Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view. –Emerson

A gleaming granite ocean, bold as light
and strewn with bright, coarse stuff -- a million suns,
the shells of ancient seas and modern guns --
the grand Mojave disappears at night,

its long and open syllable of air,
the breath of all that lives and dies out there.

Surrounded by the silent sprawl of sage,
I see the stark indifference of its grace,
the glare of stillness on its living face;
I feel the hope-free weight of rockbound age,

and for an instant, heaven-reaching joy,
at poppies pushing through the wind-cracked clay.

The sudden dive when hawk and eagle soar,
is sky’s collaboration with the land.
Here, eye-like burrows, socketed in sand,
surrender truth from earth’s consenting floor;

here, timorous hearts keep time in fur and bone.
I know the count; their thumping is my own.

The Peach Tree

It's hot, and we have more than we can eat.
But Mother, in her unlit room, her feet
All dry and bed-chapped, doesn't want a bit
Of food. She only likes to have me sit
Beside her and squeeze Jergens on her toes,
Then rub until her eyes begin to close.

The peach tree, open-armed and in its prime,
Is much too full of ripened fruit to climb.
We give each other boosts to squeeze the skins
And bite into the soft ones, bathe our chins
With bright, warm juice. (That strong and healthy tree
Was like a universe of hope for me).

At night we go inside. We can't do more
Than softly say goodnight and close her door,
And watch "The Twilight Zone" in black and white.
The heavens turn, I see the burning light,
And hear the stars that drop and die up there
Like peaches falling in hot summer air.

Looking for Alligators near Kennedy Space Center

The air is still until a catfish clangs
The swampy surface like a dirty bell

And breaks the spell between the elements.
At well-considered distances, the heron

And ibis wade, unrushing, noiseless, keen.
Abruptly, near our feet, a flat-shelled turtle

Dives under, while an osprey's liquid cry
Intensifies the mangroves, and behind us

The armadillos occupy the reeds.
The alligator's been there all along,

A horizontal bargain with the shore:
The famous smile, the lifted, level head--

A ledge with teeth. Its open eye blinks once.
A statue of itself, a resolute

And stationary universe, it watches,
Holding fast, resisting evolution.

Again, a long, slow blink, and we, like moons,
Revolve with sunhats and binoculars.


This is the green of kissing on the lawn,
Dichondra stains and promises at dawn,

Of ivy, mint and fern, profuse oxalis--
This green is not of mal-de-mer or malice

Or wolf-is-at-the-door-and-wants-a-date,
But yearling nibbling clover at my gate;

Nasturtium leaves and take me to the fair,
This green is how he breathes into my hair,

And how his lashes sweetly droop in sleep
Like mossy glens where willow shadows creep.

This green is pepper trees and hide-and-seek;
This green has asked to marry me next week.

I'll have this green--I'll have it now, and fast.
It's full of life--it isn't going to last.

Nimis Compos Mentis

The paper table cloth was tastefully bleak,
The misty morning light shone on his cheek,
And made him look alone and masculine.

He talked of Seneca and bad translations,
Of modern critics’ lightweight observations;
A bread crumb rested sweetly on his chin.

Behind him, through the glass, the ocean’s heave
Uncurled against the sand, beside his sleeve,
As Eros aimed his toxic javelin.

I ducked out of the way to no avail;
It glanced my flesh, injecting quite a cocktail
That blurred my sight and gave my head a spin --

Never mind the coffee we were drinking,
Whatever I said was not what I was thinking:
I wanted to become his mandolin,

And lie across his lap, a dainty lute,
And sing to him and feed him ripened fruit,
While light upon the sea turned opaline.

Instead, this conversation about art
And formal education -- God, he’s smart!
Such rationality should be a sin.

The hour was up, he had to run, of course;
A handshake and a peck of shy remorse --
Outside, the sea was gray and dull as tin;
It ruled the shore with tedious discipline.

On Hearing Gwendolyn Brooks
        [Columbus Day, 1990]

Her voice contains a zoo of purrs and growls,
Of croons and grunts and hisses, yawps and howls.

Or maybe, it's the sound of human being--
A truth volcano, patient, hearing, seeing;
Above all, elemental, like a speaking

Lava, abrasive, fluent, hotly creaking,
That rolls relentless toward a blue-eyed ocean.

The darkened soil, swept up in locomotion,
Enlarges narrow, pallid shores--its call,
A black and boiling, comprehending drawl.

Thus she, by just a whisper, or perhaps
A gasp, can smolder landscapes, widen maps.

The Old Capitalist

It’s come to this: Who once ran industries
And revelled in the factory’s macho din,
Preferred oak-panelled smoking rooms to trees,
Liked Spanish olives with his English gin,
Now labors with his walker through the park.
The homeless bums ignore the hierarch,

And he, in turn, pretends they don’t exist.
He finds a bench not serving as a bed,
And sits there like a practiced hedonist.
Cicadas ring from branches overhead.
He listens, smiles, and calmly murmurs twice,
Not minding who will hear him, “This is nice.”

The desert air’s so pure, he can count seven
Layers of mountains, backed by peaks, backed by
The dreamy blue of an unending sky,
As if there were no obstacle to heaven,
Whose shares he basks in to his bones’ content,
Like an inheritance he never spent.

Parking Lot

It's true that billboard silhouettes and power
Pylons rebuke dusk's fair and fragile fire,
As those who go on living have to prowl
And watch for someone leaving down each aisle.
While this takes place, a tender moon dips toward
The peach and blood horizon, pale, ignored.

I try to memorize impermanence:
The strange, alarming beauty of the sky,
The white moon's path, the twilight's deep, blue eye.
I want to stay till everything makes sense.
But oily-footed pigeons flap and chase--
A red Camaro, flushing them apart,
Pulls up behind me, waiting for my space:
It glistens, mean and earthly, like a heart.