A Listening Skull: Livingry

“…let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come.”

-Hamlet, Act V, Scene 1


I like this as a pet word: “maquillage.” This collection is so full of violet-eyeshadow words that I had to keep my dictionary on hand. Maybe that’s why Gracie Leavitt’s Livingry feels like the right collection for right now, a mode of rescue from the brackish flood of ultra-plain English instructions for living in and surviving through a time of botched pandemic response and political misadventure. In “A Viable Maquillage” the syntax twists and twists and effectively lashes together a life-raft tongue.

While even our wistful
ideas of solitude
away from us
are getting, lonely
as everything, in this mess
if emphasis the problem,
make your mark
portable as caffeinated
time is dedicated

There’s no good place to stop quoting a poem with such lengthy syntactical arrangements. Some others of Leavitt’s poems break themselves on purpose, which is just as hard to quote partially, which is just as well. Let me quote a whole one here so you too can admire the wordplay and the storytelling embedded in language knots in the poem titled “Balmer”:

Midsyllable is
a bad but
understandable time
for bona fide
to end. A crash
course in spring
and what comes
ne– Some things
stay curved, delicate
as heartbreak
but do only flowers
dry so much
and lookalike? He was
love and he was
leading up to love.

Mischievously, the poem foreshadows a mid-syllable break but instead delivers a monosyllabic word cleaved abruptly at the start of a line. It’s this mischief that strikes me, and also recalls something Jorie Graham lists in a poetic statement about her approach: “admission of the sensation of defeat into the thinking process.” Ne-xt, I’m always intrigued by titles, homophones, and made up words, and Leavitt does this fascinatingly well. “Balmer” sets the whole thing at risk. Balm, bomb. 

I like the collection’s title, but what could Livingry mean? If poet-ry is what poets do, then living-ry is what living does. But “living,” even as a gerund, isn’t as noun-ish as one would need for that definition to translate exactly. I thought something like “forestry” might make a better parallel. As in livingry: the science or practice of planting, managing and caring for living. But when so much in the world is quite made up (dis/information, advertising, glut of entertainment, poems), then what’s to say that a science of living isn’t also made up: a ruse to keep us moving just enough to pass some minimum, arbitrarily set standard, also made up?

Made up: make-believe

Made up: cosmetically enhanced

Made up: after a fight

Made up: the bed

Made up: when it rhymes in your mind with paid up, laid up, stayed up and trade up, wade upriver and get away from here. In the poem “Dazzleship,” Leavitt observes as a vine says “be wilder than / bewilderness,” and that feels about right. Is it just about finding a word/friend you can trust? Luckily, “Amygdala Madrigal” invokes a friend in the mind:

Brilliant little sister friend
of faeries and of devils, slay
me and be my best
self under a humble salad
of sky and air where time is
panic’s opposite and

Luckily, living with this kind of a mind doesn’t let us fall out of our skulls too often. Still, I was intrigued by a few poems with nods to overflow, like “Prairie Rehab” with its opening, “It’s easy to hide / when one looks peeled / already...” to the rising action of this midpoint:

some flicker
readmits chatty
as the crickets against
cracked brackets
thick with estival
arousal—Quick! Poison
to death we still
might be…

The poem on the next page in the collection is titled “Nonce Hex for Nurse Log” and travels “outside space / and time” searching “the whole panicky / earth” while “so many people, / deciduous, stained / together” thicken the speaker’s attention. But that’s only one way to encounter this poem. There’s a sleep-through-the-night-nurse’s-rounds sense underneath the surface. Also a moss-and-tree sense of living-cooperation. Leavitt describes Earth’s environs and our human minds tangled together in such a way that one could never tease them apart. It’s about time. As Leavitt says in concluding “Prairie Rehab,”

…when I
eat a vegetable,
I want to feel
its fifty gifts
to my obstacle heart
on a vine there is
no finish in.

I agree, that would be a pretty good measurement in a science lab dedicated to the study of living. 

“Fire the Fallow, Farm the Mirage” is one of the longest poems in the collection, and it showcases many of Leavitt’s tactics and themes, besides just letting us in for the music made of things overheard from the poet’s life.

lichen-laced is delicious against
antique we lust; the mechanism

copes, pushes dirt toward
copse, road, till stars relent
new salt. Parched in field
office in fescue is perfect

venue for listening to Lou
Reed, Leonard Cohen,
chimeral kiss, milky tincture
of which equals archive

surviving fealty through
nakedhood, that is, friendship…

A wish for sweet dreams like this unfolds unselfishly and long. In the middle of another long poem, titled “Catena,” Leavitt seems to explain her own instincts and mode of investigation. 

Deeper counting in a soil very
impossible to me, suspects
history, its sheer face. I want
to be talking strawberries

all of the time nipple-red with
language. Madness has many
uses not to be frozen, whole
list rushed to the head so you don’t

sound like anybody over and
over: I was just being happy,
startling into relation things
one does not love…

A potent antidote to the ruinous maquillage of our times perhaps. I’ve discussed here several of the poems that struck me with their language play and syntax, but some didn’t work as well on me. Still, I felt grateful that I did not need to work on understanding them, given this current moment in late 2020 and all of its challenges, a time when many of us are trying to understand things that seem impossible to comprehend. I could just say to myself, A poet is speaking this language, and feel grateful for it. I was reminded of a list of gratitudes by Jorie Graham for the courageous poems she most loves: “the audible braiding of that bravery, that essential empty-handedness, and that willingness to be taken by surprise, all in one voice. It is what makes the ‘human’ sound to me.” Maybe “livingry” is a way of listening hungry and not a science at all.




A. Anupama’s writing has appeared in Waxwing, Numéro Cinq, and elsewhere. She leads writers at Ramapo College, Writopia Lab, and in the literary community she co-founded, River River Writers Circle (RiverRiver.org). Her chapbook, Saffron Threaded, is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press. Anupama lives with her family in Nyack, New York.